Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.
There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.
On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.
A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.
(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)
These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:
Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.
It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.
Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.
To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.
From another reader, on the same theme:
Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk. Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.
President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.
The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.
The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.
The maximum in the other pictures is three, for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.
Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.
One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.
The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.
No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.
When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.
This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.
The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him. I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.
While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.
And just about finally for now:
Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.
Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.
And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.
Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:
I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.
There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.
“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.
His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.
More on the flags themselves:
It’s not just the Oval Office. Flags are popping up all over the White House. And our Embassies when The president visits. And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.
I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears. Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.
You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”
They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].
And with a slightly different spin:
Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.
The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.
Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?
But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:
While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.
In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.
This man used his name:
I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people
As did this woman:
Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.
And another woman with this aperçu:
At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.
These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.
The Oval never looked better Ralph.
Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.
Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:
I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.
To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.
I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the things that had gone as expected in the Trump era—namely, the character and conduct of the man himself—plus a roundup of parts of the civic fiber that were responding more healthily than one might have expected, under unusual stress.
Here are few other illustrations of what they call in the aeronautics world “positive dynamic stability”: That is, a system that pushes back against dangerous dislocations after being upset, and tries to return itself to normal.
The Boy Scout Jamboree is a huge event that happens only once every four years. Whoever is president is always invited to speak. After Donald Trump converted this year’s Jamboree into a backdrop for a wholly inappropriate partisan rally (as explained by Yoni Appelbaum), the head of Boy Scouts of America publicly apologized for what had happened and implicitly criticized Trump for what he had done:
I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent.
The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.
This past week a young Eagle Scout named Benjamin Pontz, now a sophomore at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, wrote an eloquent rebuttal in his hometown news site, Lancaster Online. For instance:
I am disappointed in the president for exploiting a captive audience of young people to engage in flagrant self-promotion and to widen the chasm of division that pollutes our politics. I am disappointed in attendees who applauded the president as he demeaned his predecessor Barack Obama (who, incidentally, was involved in scouting), his former opponent Hillary Clinton, and the media.
And I am disappointed in commenters on social media who posted horrifying side-by-side images and comparisons of the Jamboree and Hitler Youth rallies.
Each group—presented with a unique opportunity to celebrate values that should guide our nation—displayed an appalling lack of self-control.
Pontz went on to offer a quite good alternative speech—which by an overwhelming margin visitors to the site said they wish Trump had given instead.
After Trump told an audience of uniformed police officers on Long Island that he wished they would physically rough up suspects in their custody, some members of the immediate audience cheered and laughed. By the next day police units and organizations across the country were formally rebuking the president for what he said. An early, terse, and direct example was a Twitter statement from Ben Tobias, of the Gainesville, Florida, police:
Even the Suffolk County Police Department on Long Island, where Trump had spoken, quickly criticized what he had said.
After Trump decreed, via Twitter, that henceforth transgender people would not be able to serve in the military, the leaders responsible for actually running the military emphasized that normal rules, procedures, and standards would still apply. For instance, the next-day headline in Politico’s story was, “Pentagon takes no steps to enforce transgender ban.” The officers and civilian leaders who were quoted emphasized their adherence to established order for setting and changing policy, and the respect owed to their “brothers and sisters in uniform” who had chosen to serve.
Through Trump’s first six months in office, there were no signs that Republicans in Congress would consider anything he said or did to be a step too far. Many senators and representatives would express “concern”; almost none would back up the concern with votes.
The defeat of the health-repeal bill this past week is obviously a major step in the other direction, led by Republican Senators Collins, Murkowski, and McCain. On their returns home, Collins and Murkowski have apparently been greeted as heroes. (I haven’t seen these accounts regarding McCain, but he has been returning for medical treatment.) For instance, see this report by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald in Maine of Collins’s trip back to the state a few hours after the vote:
Friday morning, as she wearily walked off her plane at Bangor International Airport, Collins stepped out into a terminal gate packed with passengers waiting to board their outbound flight.
She recognized no one. But several of them recognized her and began to applaud.
Within seconds, the whole terminal was clapping, many people rising to their feet as their sleep-deprived senator passed.
Never before, throughout her two decades and 6,300 votes in the Senate, had Collins received such a spontaneous welcome home.
A story in the Washington Post quoted several Republican senators as saying that if Trump fired their ex-colleague Jeff Sessions from his role as attorney general, or Robert Mueller as special counsel, the GOP might move beyond “concern” to actually doing something. If it comes to that, we’ll see what actions match this talk, but even the changed talk is something.
Signs like these don’t solve the problem of our national government. But it is worth noting them, and encouraging more, as indicators that some parts of our formal and informal civic-society can still function.
* * *
On a less cheering note, four days ago the New York Times’ new columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece called “When the White House Lies About You,” about an unfounded and willfully distorted attack that White House officials had launched against him. Stephens is a conservative who was very tough on Trump before the election and has kept it up afterwards. His complaint was well justified, and it was a good column that addressed a real problem—although I could not help but recall an even nastier and more personal attack that Stephens himself, then a columnist for TheWall Street Journal, had made in early 2013. It was one of a series of criticisms he wrote of Chuck Hagel, a Republican who was then about to become Barack Obama's second-term secretary of defense, and this one claimed that Hagel was disqualified because he reeked of anti-Semitism. (Reeked? “The odor is especially ripe.”)
This was a charge that a prominent rabbi in Omaha called “extremely stupid” and that the former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald argued against in a column titled, “Impressive Omaha Jewish Support for Chuck Hagel.” Hagel’s time in the spotlight has come and gone, and in moving from the WSJ’s editorial page to the NYT’s Stephens is in a new role. I have to think that he would imagine the effects of such a column differently these days.
And as the object of baseless administration-driven criticism himself, he might even sympathize with someone he would usually oppose, the former Bill Clinton administration staffer and long-time Hillary Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal. As I’ve noted before, Sid Blumenthal and his wife Jackie have been personal friends of mine and of my wife for decades. His ongoing biography of Abraham Lincoln the politician, whose second volume has recently appeared (to mostly very favorable reviews), is grippingly and gracefully written, and tells me things I hadn’t known practically on every page.
But Blumenthal’s name has become a shorthand for what people don’t like about “the Clintons” or “crooked Hillary,” and this past week a U.S. senator unfortunately stooped to that game. Charles Grassley, a veteran Republican from Iowa, put out a statement that was a classic of “what-about-ism”—the tactic of answering a criticism of your own side with “well what about [some transgression]?” from your opponents. In this case Grassley reacted to questions about the multiple, undisputed foreign entanglements of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager, by saying: What about Sidney Blumenthal? Why all the hubbub about Manafort’s failure to register as a foreign agent—when Sidney Blumenthal didn’t register either? (If you think I’m exaggerating you can read Grassley’s statement for yourself.) As chance would have it, Fox News picked up the theme, with a story titled “Clinton confidant Blumenthal back under microscope amid Trump scrutiny.”
There are a lot of differences between the cases, but the simplest and most important one is this: Sidney Blumenthal was not a foreign agent. Love him or hate him, no one has produced any documents indicating that at any point he was ever in the pay of any foreign government, which is a clear contrast to Manafort. (Also: Donald Trump is in office and Hillary Clinton is not; Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager and Blumenthal had no official role; etc.)
I asked Sidney Blumenthal whether there was some aspect to this I wasn’t aware of—something that justified Sen. Grassley’s What about ..? pairing of his role with Manafort’s. For the record, this is his reply:
Senator Grassley’s statement is utterly baseless. I have never represented or taken money from any foreign government or foreign political party. To suggest otherwise is a flat-out lie. Senator Grassley has fabricated a completely false story to create a political distraction from the investigation into the intervention of an adversary foreign power in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. If he is relying on his memory it is faulty. If he is relying on his staff they are incompetent. If he is seeking to imitate Donald Trump he should instead think more of his responsibility in pursuing the truth.
After these recent items about the Senate’s failure to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care law—installments #1 (drawing a parallel with 1960s-era Senator Clair Engle), #2 (when McCain voted yes on Tuesday night), and #3 (when he finally voted no)—several follow-ups:
On the Media
Two days ago I spoke with Bob Garfield of On the Media about the varied roles John McCain has played during his long career, leading up to this past week’s votes. As I said in the earlier pieces and on the air, McCain got to cast the “decisive” vote only because Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had been firm in their opposition to the bill, along with the 46 Democrats (some from states Trump had carried) and two independents who voted no. Still, McCain is the only former presidential nominee now in the Senate, with a long and colorful career, so his deliberation deserves its extra examination. I thought this segment was interesting, because of the way OTM produced it with lots of historical sound clips from McCain. See what you think.
Abraham Lincoln Brigade
In our interview Bob Garfield brings up some episodes of John McCain’s unconventional comments, including one involving Allahu Akbar. (I’ll let you listen to the tape to see the context.) Robert Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, wrote to say that we missed the big story:
I listened with interest today as you discussed McCain’s somewhat unique persona. But his arguably most “interesting” comments are these—celebrating the Communist Delmer Berg who fought in Spain with the Lincoln Brigade. No possible political calculation of gain could have inspired this piece—unless he knew I would remember it. But then, I did not exist in his world, so I think we must chalk it up to sincerity. How strange.
It turns out that what he is referring to is a NYT op-ed last year by McCain, under the headline “Salute to a Communist.” McCain—as a Republican U.S. senator up at the time up for reelection—wrote of Berg and his comrades who had fought against Franco’s forces in the 1930s with the leftist Abraham Lincoln Brigade:
You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest. And even though men like Mr. Berg would identify with a cause, Communism, that inflicted far more misery than it ever alleviated—and rendered human dignity subservient to the state—I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.
I have felt that way since I was boy of 12, reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in my father’s study. It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, became my favorite literary hero. In the novel, Jordan had begun to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who tried to suborn it.
But in the final scene of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for. And Jordan’s cause wasn’t a clash of ideologies any longer, but a noble sacrifice for love.
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan thinks as he waits to die, “and I hate very much to leave it.” But he did leave it. Willingly.
I mentioned in a dispatch yesterday that if more Republicans had realized John McCain would ultimately vote no and thus, with Collins and Murkowski, doom the bill whatever the rest of them did, they might have saved themselves an awkward yes by joining him on that side too.
That was imprecisely put. The real difference McCain might have made to his soon-up-for-election colleagues, for instance Dean Heller of Nevada or Jeff Flake of Arizona, would be if he had voted no on the “Motion to Proceed” on Tuesday. This would have spared anyone the need to vote up or down on the bill that Lindsey Graham called a “disaster”—just before he, and all the rest of his fellow Republicans except Collins, Murkowski, and McCain went ahead and voted for it anyway.
A law professor in the midwest writes in to clarify the point:
I think Flake and Heller knew how McCain would be voting on the skinny repeal at least an hour, probably several hours, before it took place, and had time to consider the politics of their own votes. My guess is that they felt their own political futures were better served by voting the party line. Since the repeal and replace failed by virtue of the three Republican votes against (and the united 48 Dems), they may have felt their aye votes would not count much against them in the 2018 generals. We will see.
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.
In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, physicians, butchers, and executioners alike hawked the salutary effects of Axungia hominis.
One night in 1731, Cornelia di Bandi burst into flames. When the 62-year-old Italian countess was found the next morning, her head and torso had been reduced to ash and grease.
Only her arms and legs remained intact. After examining what was left of her body, a local physician concluded, in a report cited years later, that the conflagration “was caused in her entrails” by the variety of combustible materials to be found there, including alcohol and fat, “an oily liquid … of an easily combustible nature.” An early instance of what would come to be known as “spontaneous human combustion,” di Bandi’s case was one of many later studied by the French agronomist Pierre-Aimé Lair. If there was a common denominator to these otherwise unexplained phenomena, Lair concluded, it was the fact that most of them involved corpulent older women with a penchant for drink, thus combining fat and alcohol in a literally explosive mix. In addition to the fuel provided by excess body fat, which was rendered even more combustible when “penetrated by alcoholic substances,” surplus fat was said to create higher levels of hydrogen, making the body especially flammable. Lair concluded:
The president has been intervening in the process of producing a border wall, on behalf of a favored firm.
Updated at 10:20 a.m. ET on May 25, 2019.
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
University libraries around the world are seeing precipitous declines in the use of the books on their shelves.
When Yale recently decided to relocate three-quarters of the books in its undergraduate library to create more study space, the students loudly protested. In a passionate op-ed in the Yale Daily News, one student accused the university librarian—who oversees 15 million books in Yale’s extensive library system—of failing to “understand the crucial relationship of books to education.” A sit-in, or rather a “browse-in,” was held in Bass Library to show the administration how college students still value the presence of books. Eventually the number of volumes that would remain was expanded, at the cost of reducing the number of proposed additional seats in a busy central location.
Little-noticed in this minor skirmish over the future of the library was a much bigger story about the changing relationship between college students and books. Buried in a slide deck about circulation statistics from Yale’s library was an unsettling fact: There has been a 64 percent decline in the number of books checked out by undergraduates from Bass Library over the past decade.
Jes Kast, a minister in the United Church of Christ, believes the procedure should be fully legal and accessible. Her path to that position has been complicated.
In America, the debate about abortion is often reduced to binary categories. Religious versus secular. Misogynists versus murderers. Even “Christian theocracy” versus, presumably, everyone else.
With abortion once again in the headlines this month, after Alabama and several other states passed near-total bans on the procedure, Jes Kast, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, spoke up as someone who does not fit those categories. She supports abortion rights, and is representative of her denomination on this issue: According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of people in the UCC, a small, progressive denomination with a little less than 1 million members, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Kast also serves on the clergy-advocacy board of Planned Parenthood, which works to “increase public awareness of the theological and moral basis for advocating reproductive health,” according to its website.
The lavish spending of top officials rarely makes headlines anymore, but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.
It would have been easy to miss the stories late last week, what with a trade war in progress, a hot war with Iran threatened, and the president accusing his critics of treason.
But on Thursday, a report from the Government Accountability Office concluded that Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, broke the law in lavishly refurnishing his office. The same day, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency said that former Administrator Scott Pruitt wasted nearly $124,000 of taxpayer money on excessive travel, including first-class airline tickets.
For the first year and a half of his administration, the petty corruption of Donald Trump’s aides was a leading story. During the spring and summer of 2018, there seemed to be nearly daily revelations about abuses at one department or another, from tony travel to soundproof booths. Then the issue sank from the headlines, for a variety of reasons. There were bigger stories, especially as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe began producing more indictments. Pruitt was finally forced to resign, which seemed to tie a bow on the corruption thread. Besides, a certain numbness sets in after so many cases of wasted money.
Regulators should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.
“Our way of taking power and using it would have been inconceivable without the radio and the airplane,” Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels claimed in August 1933.
Such statements are often cited—the head of Disney, Bob Iger, recently said that Adolf Hitler would have loved social media—but frequently misinterpreted. Goebbels was not saying that the Nazis had used both new technologies, the airplane and the radio, to come to power. Rather, the airplane helped the Nazis take power. Radio helped them keep it.
The history of radio, and in particular how it was regulated in interwar Germany, is more relevant than ever: Five years ago, the question was whether we would regulate social media. Now the questions are how and when we will regulate them. As politicians and regulators in places as disparate as Berlin, Singapore, and Washington—even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—consider how best to do so, we should think carefully about the fallout from well-intentioned new rules and avoid the mistakes of the past.
The human brain can’t contend with the vastness of online shopping.
In theory, Amazon is a site meant to serve the needs of humans. The mega-retailer’s boundless inventory gives people easy access to household supplies and other everyday products that are rarely fun to shop for. Most people probably aren’t eager to buy clothes hangers, for instance. They just want to have hangers when they need them.
But when you type hangers into Amazon’s search box, the mega-retailer delivers “over 200,000” options. On the first page of results, half are nearly identical velvet hangers, and most of the rest are nearly identical plastic. They don’t vary much by price, and almost all of the listings in the first few pages of results have hundreds or thousands of reviews that average out to ratings between four and five stars. Even if you have very specific hanger needs and preferences, there’s no obvious choice. There are just choices.
One half of the entertainment duo Penn & Teller explains how performance and discomfort make education come alive.
Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter.
Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks.
The president’s business tells lawmakers it is too difficult to track all its foreign revenue in accordance with constitutional requirements, and it hasn’t asked Congress for a permission slip.
Days before taking office, Donald Trump said his company would donate all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, part of an effort to avoid even the appearance of a conflict with the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Now, however, the Trump Organization is telling Congress that determining exactly how much of its profits come from foreign governments is simply more trouble than it’s worth.
In response to a document request from the House Oversight Committee, Trump’s company sent a copy of an eight-page pamphlet detailing how it plans to track payments it receives from foreign governments at the firm’s many hotels, golf courses, and restaurants across the globe. But while the Trump Organization said it would set aside all money it collects from customers that identify themselves as representing a foreign government, it would not undertake a more intensive effort to determine if a payment would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on public office holders accepting an “emolument” from a foreign state.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.