Donald Trump

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The recent Presidential election revealed that U.S. citizens either have a terrible understanding of economics or they’re willing to surrender their security in the name of identity politics. Both are likely true to a significant extent.

Immigrants were blamed for the downgrading of the American worker on the trail while automation was never discussed, and Michigan voters swung to Trump, largely because Washington had supposedly forgotten about them, after the Obama Administration wagered $79 billion on bailing out the Detroit auto industry. Not too long after that salvage job by the federal branch, the state’s populace voted in an anti-union governor in Rick Snyder. The locals may have forgotten about themselves more than D.C. ever did.

Another vital topic of discussion that was never broached during the campaign was the role that contracted work has played in shrinking middle class. For several decades, American companies have been outsourcing mail-room work, maintenance, security and other “non-core” tasks to subcontractors who would save them some money by lowering salaries and reducing benefits to laborers. This shift created a separate class. Executive pay ballooned while those with more modest pay stubs took the elevator downward, further exacerbating wealth inequality.

I’ve written before about this destabilizing phenomenon. More from Eduardo Porter of the New York Times:

…Mr. Trump is missing a more critical workplace transformation: the vast outsourcing of many tasks — including running the cafeteria, building maintenance and security — to low-margin, low-wage subcontractors within the United States.

This reorganization of employment is playing a big role in keeping a lid on wages — and in driving income inequality — across a much broader swath of the economy than globalization can account for.

David Weil, who headed the Labor Department’s wage and hour division at the end of the Obama administration, calls this process the “fissuring” of the workplace. He traces it to the 1980s, when corporations under pressure to raise quarterly profits started shedding “noncore” tasks.

The trend grew as the spread of information technology made it easier for companies to standardize and monitor the quality of outsourced work. Many employers took to outsourcing to avoid the messy consequences — like unions and workplace regulations — of employing workers directly.

“It’s an incredibly important part of the story that we haven’t paid attention to,” Mr. Weil told me.

“Lead businesses — the firms that continue to directly employ workers who provide the goods and services in the economy recognized by consumers — remain highly profitable and may continue to provide generous pay for their work force,” he noted. “The workers whose jobs have been shed to other, subordinate businesses face far more competitive market conditions.”

The trend is hard to measure, since subcontracting can take many forms. But it is big.•

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Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other evils have been ushered into the mainstream by the opportunists and hatemongers who helped enable Donald Trump into the Oval Office, and it makes no difference that some of them fall into the very groups now being targeted (Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Stephen Miller, namely). 

In the early days of the GOP nomination process, when it seemed done deal that Donald Trump would soon fall from the race after disgracefully gaining attention for his idiotic “brand,” Edward Luce of the Financial Times warned that even if the Mussolini-Lampanelli madman fell from the sky, the dark clouds that had formed would not go away. They would spread, becoming more ominous.

Then the worst of all possible outcomes occurred when Trump won the Electoral College, with the aid of Putin, Comey, neo-Nazis and so-called geniuses like Peter Thiel and David Gelernter. Now we have Indian people shot in Kansas, bigoted domestic terrorists arrested for murderous plots and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. Meanwhile, international scholars are interrogated at airports and undocumented workers flee for the Canadian border, willing to sacrifice fingers and toes to frostbite. That’s the nightmare version of America–the un-America.

So far, citizens, journalists, judges and the Intelligence Community have stood tall against the threat of tyranny, while the opportunists and regressive minds in the legislature have performed as poorly as has been expected. Trump has targeted news organizations with the zeal of Putin and Erdogan because his type of hatred exists like a barnacle on the back of a created enemy and because the truth is not his friend.

From Klaus Brinkbäumer in Spiegel:

In Trump’s America, meanwhile, the press has been declared an “enemy of the people.” “You are fake news,” the president says when he sees a CNN reporter. A colleague at The Washington Post recently shared how the White House no longer answers any of his questions, only to then start blasting insults every time a story is published. It isn’t until that point that the president’s spokesman actually bothers to return his call, but only to say, “Fuck you, asshole. We’re going to make your life hell.” The effect of all of this is that truth and lies are getting blurred, the public is growing disoriented and, exhausted, it is tuning out.

This, in turn, aids the wrong people. Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It’s their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn’t reverent enough to them and is therefore useless. They believe, after all, that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That’s autocratic thinking — and it is how you sustain a dictatorship. 

The idea of freedom of speech first came into being hundreds of years ago. The poet John Milton issued a plea for the “liberty of unlicensed printing” in 1644. “The destruction of a good book ends not in the slaying of an elemental life,” he wrote, “but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself.” The seed had been planted and England moved to eliminate censorship in 1695. In 1776, the state of Virginia in the United States established the freedom of the press in America. The move was bold, enlightened and precious, making it that much more astonishing that some Turks and Americans now allow themselves to be lied to or have simply become too lazy to think critically.•

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The main reason I preferred Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders was simple math. 

In addition to his impossible pledge of America no longer having the highest incarceration rate of Western nations by the end of his first term, Sanders based his extraordinary spending plans on fanciful economic growth numbers (5.3%) that he couldn’t possibly deliver. That promise made Sanders policies seem less debt-heavy than they were, a dishonest way of doing business.

Although Donald Trump is promising a smaller if still out-of-reach 3.0-3.5%, he’s doing something the Vermont Senator would have never done: Ordering the Council of Economic Advisers to backfill all of its projections at his unrealistic rate. That intellectually deceptive gaming, he hopes, will be the smoke and mirrors he needs to cover the exorbitant cost of the tax cuts he plans for the nation’s highest earners. 

From Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post:

Astonishingly, the White House still hasn’t released details for any of the major economic initiatives Trump promised during the campaign (a “terrific” Obamacare replacement, a top-to-bottom tax overhaul, massive infrastructure investment). But thanks to recent leaks about the administration’s economic book-cooking, we at least know that whatever Trump ultimately proposes will be very, very expensive.

After the election, the Trump transition team began the long, arduous process of putting together the presidential budget. As is always the case, it worked with the (non-political) career staffers at the Council of Economic Advisers.

Normally this process starts by asking the CEA staff to estimate baseline economic growth under current policies. These professionals then build on this baseline to forecast how the president’s proposals will affect the overall economy, as well as budget deficits.

The end results are often more optimistic than what independent forecasters predict — the White House is factoring in new policies it believes are pro-growth, after all — but not wildly so. The numbers still need to be credible.

Like I said, that’s how things normally work. Not this time around.

As the Wall Street Journal first reported (and as I’ve independently confirmed through my own sources), the Trump transition team instead ordered CEA staffers to predict sustained economic growth of 3 to 3.5 percent. The staffers were then directed to backfill all the other numbers in their models to produce these growth rates.•

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Another repercussion of having a Constitution-shredding sociopath in the Oval Office is the possibility that a foundation will be laid for a long-term bifurcated government, with the executive branch and the intelligence community constantly angling to undermine one another. 

The concern of a “Deep State” in Washington or worries of the White House operating a shadow National Security Agency speak to the fathomless rift orchestrated by a deeply polarizing President. Intel leaks about the Administration’s involvement in Russia have become a deluge, spies are reportedly withholding information from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for fear they’ll be shared with the Kremlin and Trump has threatened a review of the intelligence community to be spearheaded by one of his billionaire buddies.

Agents anonymously leaking the truth may be the best bet to prevent the end of American democracy, but in the long term (should there be one) the intelligence community being put in a position where it has to go rogue could have serious ramifications. As Karl Rove said: Elections have consequences.

From “As Leaks Multiply, Fears of a ‘Deep State’ in America,” by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times:

Though the deep state is sometimes discussed as a shadowy conspiracy, it helps to think of it instead as a political conflict between a nation’s leader and its governing institutions.

That can be deeply destabilizing, leading both sides to wield state powers like the security services or courts against one another, corrupting those institutions in the process.

In Egypt, for instance, the military and security services actively undermined Mohamed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, contributing to the upheaval that culminated in his ouster in a 2013 coup.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has battled the deep state by consolidating power for himself and, after a failed coup attempt last year, conducting vast purges.

Though American democracy is resilient enough to resist such clashes, early hints of a conflict can be tricky to spot because some push and pull between a president and his or her agencies is normal.

In 2009, for instance, military officials used leaks to pressure the White House over what it saw as the minimal number of troops necessary to send to Afghanistan.

Leaks can also be an emergency brake on policies that officials believe could be ill-advised or unlawful, such as George W. Bush-era programs on warrantless wiretapping and the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq.

“You want these people to be fighting like cats and dogs over what the best policy is, airing their views, making their case and then, when it’s over, accepting the decision and implementing it,” said Elizabeth N. Saunders, a George Washington University political scientist. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“Leaking is not new,” she said, “but this level of leaking is pretty unprecedented.”•

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The problem with pointing out that the Trump Administration wants to severely shift focus on Muslims involved in terrorism to the point of ignoring domestic radical right-wing and anti-government groups is that it’s not an oversight.

These are some of the very people, often white nationalists, who most ardently supported Trump’s bigoted campaign, and it’s not likely that the self-avowed tough-on-crime politician will turn on these militias. That will put law enforcement officers, government officials and non-white folks in general in harm’s way. Perhaps an outcry from police groups can bring greater light on what could be a lethal decision?

From an article by Emily Tamkin, Robbie Gramer and Molly O’Toole of Foreign Policy:

Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. There are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.

And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.

“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.

According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.•

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In handicapping what kind of President Trump would be just before he was inaugurated, Brad DeLong did not consider “Russian traitor,” which now might be the most obvious choice.

The economic historian did write these chilling words about the Silvio-style kleptocracy that seemed poised to unfold: “Italy lost a decade of economic growth, I think, because of Berlusconi.” If Trump survives the corrupt and perhaps treasonous morass he’s engulfed in, America could be headed down the same sinkhole, which would be awful for us and wonderful for China and other autocracies.

Already have written that in addition to various high-tech fields, America should invest in creating positions that focus on maintenance of many kinds: health, environment, infrastructure. The demand is certainly evident. In the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu argues the new Administration’s manufacturing fetish is regressive, especially in a society heading deeper into automation, while the “caring industry” is the future.

An excerpt:

The economic nationalism of President Trump and Messrs Navarro and Bannon can be described as Germany-envy. In those manufacturing powers, they see countries that have fought to hold on to the good, manly jobs that validate the status of the native working class. Like so often with machismo, the envy is rooted in insecurity — a feeling of inadequacy compared with the perceived strength sported by these economies. Since export surpluses cannot be enjoyed by all countries (unlike broader gains from trade), manufacturing fetishism leads logically to a zero-sum view of trade policy. It entails an attempt to displace the current surplus of manufacturing producers. Thus, in the context of a Germany-envying inferiority complex, the desire to repatriate global supply chains, limit imports and boost manufacturing makes sense.

But, outside the fetishists’ fantasies, it will not produce the desired effect. First, manufacturing machismo itself is a handicap when it comes to grasping the opportunities for a thriving economy. By far the largest number of jobs to be created in the US over the next decade will be in services, in particular the caring professions. 

Factory fetishists might retort that it is this development they want to oppose by resurrecting factory employment. But this runs headlong into a second obstacle. Regardless of trade, automation is reducing the need for manufacturing jobs everywhere.•

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While the headline of Emily Jane Fox’s Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Jared Kushner Emerges as Trump’s True Believer” is misleading because he always was just that, it goes a good way toward being a corrective for an earlier piece she wrote which perplexingly distanced Ivanka Trump and her spouse from the chaos and bigotry they supported into the White House. 

It may be difficult for some to accept that Kushner, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish background, would be so simpatico with the white nationalists and anti-Semites central to the campaign’s success (and now the Administration), but that’s exactly who Kushner is. He isn’t a mitigator but a co-conspirator, not especially bright and seriously lacking in decency.

An excerpt:

Both Bannon and Kushner have tried to articulate their improbable mutual affection. In explaining the unlikely relationship between himself (an orthodox Jew whose grandparents survived the Holocaust), and Bannon (who ran the alt-right Web site Breitbart News, which has published anti-Semitic comments), Kushner defended his colleague’s character in an interview with Forbes. “What I’ve seen from working together with him was somebody who did not fit the description that people are pushing on him. I choose to judge him based on my experience and seeing the job he’s done, as opposed to what other people are saying about him.” Bannon had a similar take. “If you’re in a foxhole with him, and fighting with him, you’re a brother, and he will defend you nonstop,” Bannon told New York Magazine.

Nevertheless, a perception existed during the campaign and transition that Kushner was a moderating voice to Bannon’s nationalistic agenda. Kushner, after all, came from a major Democratic family. He hosted fundraisers for Corey Booker. He privately reassured his friends and business leaders in his orbit that his father-in-law and Trump’s team would pull back from some of the extreme rhetoric that they peddled on the trail once they got into the West Wing. As one source close to Kushner described to me last month, Kushner was thought of as the “secure line” as a result—someone whom moderates could call in order to be heard by the president and to hear what the president really planned to do behind all that political bombast.

But now, a month into his new job in the West Wing, Kushner appears to have become a true believer in Bannon’s agenda. Several sources told me that Kushner was defensive about the executive order that temporarily barred Muslim immigrants and refugees. The longtime friend said that when he pointed out that refugees had not, in fact, been responsible for any of the terror attacks on U.S. soil, Kushner, he said, answered by saying that that was not true.

The source close to the Trump administration explained that Kushner has “always been far more defensive of Donald and their policies than the general public has believed.•

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It’s appalling that basically sane and intelligent people like James Baker still can’t discern the grave danger American democracy is now facing. Not even the removal of the word “Jewish” from the Holocaust Remembrance Day announcement, an attempt at a Muslim ban and repeated attacks on the judicial branch and press have awakened them to this reality.

In an interview in the international edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung that is required reading, Matthias Kolb questions Yale historian Timothy Snyder about the fascist threat to the U.S. that is the Trump Administration, which doesn’t want only to rule but to also destroy the rule of law. History, decency and liberty are also on the chopping block.

While Snyder’s spirits have been buoyed by the early resistance, he believes we don’t have much time to save the Republic, especially with a non-responsive legislative branch. “What happens in the next few weeks is very important,” he warns.

An excerpt:


When [Steve] Bannon calls the press the main “opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.

Timothy Snyder:

When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.


Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors”. This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.

Timothy Snyder:

That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: “We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“  When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent internet lying and way from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “yes, they are thugs” instead of “it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change. …


On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

Timothy Snyder:

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue.  The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions.  You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.•

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John Cassidy of the New Yorker, who’s been stellar during this dark period in America, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. In one exchange, he asserts that “some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances,” which is certainly true, though it doesn’t nearly add up to 63 million voters. Early in 2016, the Economist debunked the received wisdom of the Trump supporter as the struggling worker ignored by the “elites.” His voters, in the aggregate, had a higher household income than average. Those disrupted by manufacturing’s decline, positioned just so, may have put the GOP candidate over the top, but it was other factors that carried him to the tipping point. 

Cassidy also looks at the tinderbox that is U.S.-China relations, which could be the most dangerous international development since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese people are far more nationalistic than most Americans probably realize, and the White House Chief Strategist guaranteeing war in the near future in the South China Sea couldn’t have gone down smoothly. Both sides have a tremendous amount to lose, but that doesn’t ensure restraint. Wars aren’t always rational decisions about money.

A few excerpts follow.


The obvious ludicrousness aside, just how different is this administration from earlier administrations? In what way has the paradigm for administration and governance truly changed?

John Cassidy:

That’s an excellent question, which I haven’t thought about the way you formulated it. I’ve thought quite a bit about how different Trump is from previous presidents, and I don’t there is any doubt that he represents something new. In terms of experience, outlook, and temperament, there has never been a president like him before. In terms of the administration as a whole, it’s a bit different. If you take away Trump and some of the people immediately surrounding him, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, this administration could pass for a normal Republican administration. A very conservative one, certainly–Pence, Price, Pruitt, and DeVos are all right wing even by the standards of today’s GOP. But you also have generals and business leaders playing a big role, which we’ve seen in the past. The question is how the two parallel administrations gets along–or, equivalently, how Trump deals with his cabinet. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.


Does the threat of being called “fake news” ever run through your head while writing an article, or affect the style of writing? And in your opinion, how should the media be handling the President’s war on these, so-called, fake news organizations (like CNN)?

John Cassidy:

Being a columnist, I don’t worry much about fake news. I just write what I think, read it through, and put it out there. If there is a fact I am not sure of, I do try to check it, or, at least, point out its source. Obviously, news organizations have to take the whole fake news thing more seriously, but the main thing is not to let Trump intimidate them. So far, I don’t think they have. To the contrary, probably. Which explains why he seems to be getting more and more irate.


What is the biggest short term risk to global stability? What holds the best chance to improve people’s lives in the short term?

John Cassidy:

I think the two biggest short term risks are China and Trump–or, make that three risks: China, Trump, and China and Trump. The China risk is the same one that has been out there for years: a debt-driven financial blow-up that spills over into other markets. The Trump risk is that he does something that really spooks people and investors. So far, the markets have reacted favorably to his election, because they like tax cuts and deregulation. But I think there’s quite a bit of political risk that isn’t priced in, especially when it comes to the survival of an open trading system. And of course, there’s a danger he could do something nutty, such as spark a military confrontation in the South China Sea. In the interests of maintaining global stability and getting past Trump to another president, the Chinese government might be willing to give a bit of ground. But if Trump backs them into a corner, and brings Chinese nationalism into play, there could be a disaster.


Do you have any thoughts on how to explain to certain groups of voters that Trump, his administration, his policies and executive orders, etc. are opposite of their interests? How do you reach people who have their fingers in their ears?

John Cassidy:

I’m not sure there are many Trump voters reading the New Yorker, but your question is a serious one, especially for the Democratic Party. I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that although many of Trump’s policies–tax cuts for the rich, rollback of financial regulations etc–will hurt working class and middle class people, he did, during the campaign, tap into some legitimate concerns about globalization and trade. I keep going back to the fact that the average hourly wage of non-supervisory workers is lower today, in real terms, than it was in 1973. On top of that, there is now a good deal of empirical evidence that trade with China has taken a pretty heavy toll on manufacturing jobs. So, Trump knew what he was doing when he played the nationalist/protectionist card. The problem, of course, is explaining why his cures won’t work, and may well end up harming the victims. If I could do that, I’d give up journalism and run for office! Just joking. But I think the first step is acknowledging that some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances and trying to speak to them in their language: they aren’t all just racist deplorables.


What would you recommend for individuals to do to improve their knowledge of economics – even for people with degrees in economics? Any advice for people wanting to make a living studying economics/policy?

John Cassidy:

Ah, a bit of respite from Trump and politics! Thanks. When I was a student, I studied history and economics, and as a graduate I specialized in economics, so I read a lot of pretty technical stuff. I do have some interest in economic theory, but the books and articles that really stayed with me were the ones that went beyond individual theories and looked at the big picture. An obvious one is Keynes’s General Theory. On the left, Paul Sweezey’s Theory of Capitalist Development, which was an effort to combine Keynesian short run theory with Marx’s long run analysis, is a tour de force that I still go back to. On the right, Milton’s Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, is seminal and still central. All of these books are pretty old. If you want something newer and more up to date, the best textbook I’ve seen is by my old tutor, David Soskice and his longtime collaborator Wendy Carlin. It’s called Macroeconomics, I think. And if you want a history that covers a lot of ground and also includes the financial crisis and its aftermath, I would immodestly recommend my own book, How Markets Fail. Hope that’s helpful. As for advice, I would just plunge in and take some courses. There are some good online ones now, which are a good way of testing whether you really have a taste for a subject.•

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Funny to see an old McCarthy apologist like Pat Buchannan or recent Putin-puncher like Newt Gingrich embrace the tool of the Kremlin that now occupies the Oval Office. Political expediency can reveal who actually has a moral center and who’s always been playing games.

From early in the campaign, when Trump mocked our POWs and praised Russia’s autocrat, it was clear where he stood. The question is why this behavior wasn’t disqualifying to the nearly 63 million citizens who voted for him. Certainly the pockets of the country still hurting from the financial collapse had an effect as did the machinations of Julian Assange and James Comey, but it seems fairly clear that the barely veiled promise of making America white again activated a lot of racist feelings that had always been there. People are clearly willing to sacrifice an awful lot for a feeling of superiority. 

Over the weekend, when Trump defended Putin by pointing out that the U.S also has a lot of murderers–even saying “You think our country’s so innocent?”–he elided the fact that unlike Putin, American Presidents never kill political adversaries or journalists, let alone do so routinely. If the orange supremacist lasts four years, though, we may become much more like the Russia thugocracy than even the most mouth-foaming McCarthy-ite could have ever imagined.

The opening of “A Poisoning in Moscow” in the Wall Street Journal:

In 2015 a prominent Russian opposition activist named Vladimir Kara-Murza inexplicably suffered multiple organ failure and barely survived after falling into a coma for nearly a week. On Thursday it happened to him again, in much the same way. Since this happened in Moscow, we assume the explanation isn’t innocent.

Mr. Kara-Murza, 35, is a former journalist who worked for a Russian TV station in Washington until he was fired from his job in 2012. That year he testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of the Magnitsky Act, which places financial sanctions and travel bans on corrupt Russian officials. Mr. Kara-Murza described the law as a “pro-Russian bill which provides a much-needed measure of accountability for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.”

That could not have endeared him to the Kremlin. Nor could his close association with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015. Three months later Mr. Kara-Murza became ill after eating lunch at a restaurant. He told CNN that “there is no other possible reason” than politics for his poisoning.•

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“The next four years are the critical inflection point,” writes Robert Kagan in largely dire Brookings report, “The Twilight of the Liberal Order,” offering a contention that should scare the hell out of Americans and allies who depend on us, while cheering the Chinese and Russians. 

Since the piece was published just about a week ago, the new President, an unhinged person whose policy seems mostly the handiwork of his white-supremacist sidekick, issued a hastily written, racist ban on certain immigrants and has made it even more clear he doesn’t care about the plight of any country beyond our borders. (That his governance will also likely have devastating consequences domestically is a parallel concern.)

America’s raison d’être as a shelter for refugees, beacon for the world and defender of liberal democracy, has no place in nationalistic Trumplandia, which will lead to other countries filling the power gap. But you can’t build a wall to keep out the future, and Kagan believes that absent America’s guiding hand, a large-scale war becomes much more likely, something Steve Bannon wouldn’t mind, given his stated desire to take military action against China. The Chief Strategist’s bloody dreams combine the worst of the United States’ inclination for adventuring with a newly narrowed self-interest.

It seems as if the Administration believes it can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens, with endless bluster and shakedowns. Whether or not it ends in world war, it will not end well. 

An excerpt:

In recent years, however, the liberal order has begun to weaken and fracture at the core. As a result of many related factors—difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism—there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project tended to elevate universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism; an increasing focus on the “other” in all societies; and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We have been witnessing something like the opposite of the “end of history” but have returned to history with a vengeance, rediscovering all the darker aspects of the human soul. That includes, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of seeming breakdown and incoherence.

This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable. It may indeed have been cyclical, due to inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy, which periodically have been exposed and have raised doubts about both—as happened, for instance, throughout the West in the 1930s. Now, as then, moreover, this crisis of confidence in liberalism coincides with a breakdown of the strategic order. In this case, however, the key variable has not been the United States as the outside power and its willingness, or not, to step in and save or remake an order lost by other powers. Rather it is the United States’ own willingness to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power.

That willingness has been in doubt for some time. Increasingly in the quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, Americans have been wondering why they bear such an unusual and outsized responsibility for preserving global order when their own interests are not always apparently served and when, indeed, the United States seems to be making sacrifices while others benefit. The reasons why the United States took on this abnormal role after the calamitous two world wars of the 20th century have been largely forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing such a role has worn thin. Thus, whereas previous unsuccessful wars, in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and previous economic downturns, such as in the mid- to late 1970s, did not have the effect of turning Americans against global involvement, the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2007–09 have had that effect. President Obama pursued an ambivalent approach to global involvement, but the main thrust of his approach was retrenchment. His actions and statements were a critique of previous American strategy and reinforced a national mood favoring a much less active role in the world and much narrower definition of American interests.

With the election of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans have signaled their unwillingness to continue upholding the world order. Trump was not the only candidate in 2016 to run on a platform suggesting a much narrower definition of American interests and a lessening of the burdens of American global leadership. “America First” is not just an empty phrase but a fairly coherent philosophy with a long lineage and many adherents in the American academy. It calls for viewing American interests through a narrow lens. It suggests no longer supporting an international alliance structure, no longer seeking to deny great powers their spheres of influence and regional hegemony, no longer attempting to uphold liberal norms in the international system, and no longer sacrificing short-term interests—in trade for instance—in the longer-term interest of preserving an open economic order.

Coming as it does at a time of growing great power competition, this new approach in American foreign policy is likely to hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras.•

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As I’ve posted before, China stands poised to gain the most from America’s sharp turn toward anti-science and isolationism. Winning the race in renewables, supercomputers and robotics would make our strongest competitor preeminent financially. Furthermore, soft power follows cold, hard cash, so our withdrawal from globalism will oddly allow China, an autocratic state, to step into the breach and gain influence as the “civilized” leader of the free world. 

Along with reconfiguring the U.S. to teach civics and the Constitution, we should probably also stress basic economics.

From “Trump’s Trade War May Have Already Begun,” by Peter S. Goodman of the New York Times:

LONDON — America’s traditional allies are on the lookout for new friends.

They have heard the mantra “America First” from the new president, divining a Trump doctrine: global cooperation last. Europeans have taken note of Mr. Trump’s denigration of the European Union and his apparent esteem for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. In Asia and Latin America, leaders have absorbed the deepening possibility that Mr. Trump will deliver on threats to impose punitive tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports, provoking a trade war that will damage economic growth and eliminate jobs around the world.

Some allies are shifting focus to other potential partners for new sources of trade and investment, relationships that could influence political, diplomatic and military ties. Many are looking to China, which has adroitly capitalized on a leadership vacuum in world affairs by offering itself — ironies notwithstanding — as a champion for global engagement.

“We’ve always said that America is our best friend,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup — comprising finance ministers from countries sharing the euro currency — said in an interview with The New York Times on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month. “If that’s no longer the case, if that’s what we need to understand from Donald Trump, then of course Europe will look for new friends.”

“China is a very strong candidate for that,” he added.•

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Here’s a question: If the election was held again today, would Donald Trump still win the Electoral College?

Despite the hypothetical nature of the query, it’s actually an all-important one. While a huge number of Americans, likely the majority, refuse the un-American Executive Orders of the new Administration as well as his appointment of a white nationalist as White House Chief Strategist, a large minority approved of promises of such on Election Day? Do they still? 

In Pennsylvania–as well as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin–harsh Rust Belt economics played a role in swinging just enough votes a clearly unqualified, unwell candidate, but it wasn’t just about the money, stupid. There as well as in more affluent parts of the country, Trump’s racism and xenophobia resonated. If these voters get the whiter America they hoped for, would they be okay with a dictator as President?

From Josh Paul’s Newsweek piece about approval for the immigrant ban among citizens in Northeastern PA:

“Our first priority should be the safety of Americans,” says Tino Altavilla, a freshman at King’s College in northeast Pennsylvania. Asked his opinion of the executive order Trump signed Friday afternoon, the physics major said he doesn’t believe every Muslim is a terrorist but that the vetting system needs to be improved before any more people from Middle Eastern countries are allowed into the U.S. “Imagine Syria. There are very few records on some of the people because it’s a war zone.”

Altavilla voted for Trump in November, just like almost 60 percent of voters in Luzerne County, which flipped from supporting Obama by 5 points in 2012 to a 20-point victory for Trump. A third-generation Italian-American, Altavilla tells Newsweek that he thinks Trump should have presented the executive order as a “hold” instead of a “ban,” but that he agrees with Trump’s order. “I’m not sure if his handling was correct, but what he did was correct.”

Most Trump voters from this mountainous county, a two-hour drive west of New York City, were quick to voice their support for the executive order that blocks citizens of seven mostly-Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for at least three months, bans all refugees for four months and bars Syrian refugees indefinitely. They saw the ban as a smart way to protect the country from terrorist attacks, and they dismissed arguments that the order amounted to a religious ban or comparisons between the order and America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.•

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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It seldom ends well for a tyrant, but how about the people?

Rare are there moments of such extreme clarity as the one we’re now experiencing in America. Either you stand against the bigoted madness of a bullying sociopath, or you push the nation into the abyss with it. Millions of citizens are fighting back, trying in their own way to keep us from descending into fascism, from becoming a racist state. Unfortunately–and perhaps unsurprisingly–many elected officials and business leaders have proven feckless and opportunistic. We know where they stand.

In Eliot A. Cohen’s scorching Atlantic essay about new Administration in the wake of a disastrous first week, he writes, “the biggest split will be between those who draw a line and the power-sick.” We’ve already witnessed both sides of the divide, with Washington lifers bolting the State Department en masse to loudly register protest, and with Sean Spicer willing to speak outrageous lies as ordered and Paul Ryan and Mike Pence now supporting a Muslim ban they previously deemed un-American.

Cohen’s certain those who stand by this unscrupulous monster will be forever tarnished by the association, and while I wish I could agree, even a genuine German Nazi like Wernher von Braun was able to reinvent himself as an American hero. Historical moments can present a clear line, but the long arc of history is a fuzzier thing.

An excerpt:

Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.

The question is, what should Americans do about it? To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.

For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.•

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It would be funny watching Theresa May and and the brokers of Brexit bowing before a U.S. President they clearly disdain, except that as an American I can hardly afford to laugh, not with the Constitution and nuclear codes in the breast pocket of a bigoted, unbalanced ignoramus.

The urge on both sides of the Atlantic to retreat to an earlier age, one before globalization, may be understandable but it’s also self-defeating. There’s no returning. The world is overrun with symbiotic relationships and to deny the Other is to starve yourself. The UK and U.S. will now both learn the hard way that in this age isolation is impossible and closed doors costly.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal brokered by President Obama was an imperfect one, as any pact among numerous nations would be, but it allowed the U.S. an abiding and significant soft power in the region of our fiercest competitor, China, which will now likely benefit from our withdrawal. The ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations, probably illegal, is similarly shortsighted, sacrificing our greatest historical resource–diverse human capital–in a misguided attempt to prevent terrorism, a much smaller threat to Americans than guns or even cars.

Going forward, the United States and United Kingdom won’t be most challenged by connections to other countries but competition from them. Walls and exits will not preserve us.

From a smart Economist analysis written just prior to May’s D.C. visit:

So why is Mrs May hurrying to Washington? Because Brexit compels Britain’s leaders to show that the country has powerful allies. And “my Maggie” (as the president calls Mrs May) is desperate to line up a Britain-America trade deal that can be closed as soon as Brexit takes place, probably in 2019.

Whether this will end happily is uncertain. In trade negotiations, size matters. Larger economies can stipulate terms that suit them. Britain, an economy of 60m people, has much less leverage in trade talks than the EU, a market of 500m, or the United States, one of 300m. Mr Trump may promise an agreement “very quickly” and to show other countries that it is safe to leave the EU by giving Britain generous treatment. But more than anything else he is an America First deal-wrangler who knows he has the upper hand. A rushed agreement could see the National Health Service opened up to American firms and environmental and food standards diluted (think hormone-treated beef). Such concessions could upset British voters, who backed Brexit partly because Leavers said it would help the country’s health-care system. They would also frustrate a trade deal with the EU, a much more important export destination.

The curious thing is that Brexit was supposed to be about “taking back control”: immunising the country from foreign whim and interest, while asserting national dignity and independence. Increasingly that looks like a bad joke. The British elite feels it has no choice but to prostrate itself before an American president it clearly finds odious. To keep businesses from moving elsewhere, Britain may have to shadow EU regulations and pay into EU programmes without the chance to shape either. Its trade deals will be forged with a fraction of the negotiating force that has long promoted its interests. That means more concessions to the tariff and regulatory preferences of foreigners. Its application to become a full member of the World Trade Organisation is yet another opportunity for others to impose conditions and costs.•

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When President Trump occasionally fields follow-up questions, it might be good if someone queries him about automation. It’s possible he’s familiar with the term.

The White House’s capo with nuclear capabilities has skated through the campaign and post-election periods being allowed to pretend we’re living in the 1950s. Presently and going forward, outsourcing will not largely mean jobs moving out of country but out of species. From what I know about the Carrier deal, there’s nothing impeding the company from automating the positions saved and still pocketing the tax incentives. The new Administration’s plans for tax breaks and tariffs, admittedly still vaguely drawn, would go large with that same gaping loophole. 

One unintended consequence, then, of the new abnormal may be large-scale investment in robotics, with a rapid installation of such machinery at every plant and factory possible. That could actually prompt jobs for Americans to disappear faster. If Trump somehow tries to artificially limit positions that can be automated, that will prevent companies in America from competing with their counterparts in China and other nations aiming to win the Digital Age. These are discussions that should have been had on the trail.

President Trump summoned the titans of American business to the White House on Monday for what was billed as a “listening session,” but it was the new president who delivered the loudest message: Bring back domestic manufacturing jobs, or face punishing tariffs and other penalties.

The contrast between Mr. Trump’s talk and the actual behavior of corporate America, however, underscored the tectonic forces he was fighting in trying to put his blue-collar base back to work in a sector that has been shedding jobs for decades.

Many of the chief executives Mr. Trump met with have slashed domestic employment in recent years. What is more, their companies have frequently shut factories in the United States even as they have opened new ones overseas.

Mr. Trump said he would use tax policy, among other means, to deter companies from shifting work abroad. “A company that wants to fire all of its people in the United States and build some factory someplace else, then thinks that product is going to just flow across the border into the United States,” he said, “that’s just not going to happen.” …

During the meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump also made the case that building in the United States would soon become a more cost-effective proposition because of his plans to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 or 20 percent and to reduce regulations.

He pointed to onerous environmental regulations as one area where changes could be on the way, and he insisted that, despite the more lax regulatory environment, protections would improve under his administration.

“There will be advantages to companies that do indeed make their products here,” Mr. Trump said.

Of course, financial considerations like taxes and regulations alone do not guide corporate decision making.•

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If I’m not mistaken, the economist Tyler Cowen guessed post-election that Donald Trump would initially throw some bloody red meat to his base before moderating, which certainly hasn’t been the case. A 70-year-old sociopath simply isn’t going to metamorphosize. The 45th President has instead, in the early days, combined the propaganda of Putin with the paranoia of McCarthy. It’s likely to be the most extreme Administration of our lifetimes.

In a Bloomberg View column, Cowen wisely dissects Trump ordering Sean Spicer and other aides to speak astonishing lies directly into cameras. It’s a loyalty test and also a nihilistic gambit to obscure truth, allowing a radical agenda to be jammed through as soon as possible. With a cabinet full of James G. Watts, folks decidedly unfriendly to science and environment, that will mean many shocks to the system. It would also seem to offer China an amazing opportunity to become the long-term global leader in renewables.

Another BV piece, one by Leonid Bershidsky, draws parallels between Trump and Putin, particularly in image-making, though the writer differentiates between the two personalities, believing the Russian dictator’s cooler head gives him an advantage over the angst-ridden American.

Two excerpts follow.

From Cowen:

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.

These lower-status lies are also a short-run strategy. They represent a belief that a lot can be pushed through fairly quickly, bundled with some obfuscation of the truth, and that long-term credibility does not need to be maintained. Once we get past blaming Trump for various misdeeds, it’s worth taking a moment to admit we should be scared he might be right about that.•

From Bershidsky:

The parallels began in earnest with Trump’s pre-inauguration news conference, when Alexei Kovalev, known for debunking Russian government propaganda, compared the event to Putin’s circus-like annual meetings with the press. The piece resonated with Western journalists, who are not used to being denied questions by the president and also expect that he will be nice to them. It also resonated with their Russian colleagues, who have been dealing with carefully staged press appearances and punitive access restrictions since Putin’s first term in power. 

Over the weekend, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer all but invited comparisons to his Russian counterpart by offering “alternative facts” about the inauguration crowd’s size. With a straight face, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has denied the involvement of Russian troops in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and claimed that a $620,000 watch he wore was a present from his wife, an Olympic figure skater.

Trump’s preference for inviting his supporters to potentially tough rooms is shared by Putin as well. Earlier this month, Russian-language social networks throbbed with reports that several people kept reappearing in various meetings between Putin and “ordinary Russians.” One of them, Larisa Sergukhina, was revealed to be a small-business owner working on government contracts. Even if, as Putin loyalists argued, the same people were legitimately invited to several meetings in a particular region, Putin’s travels are carefully staged in a time-honored Russian tradition that dates back — at least — to Prince Grigory Potemkin. No group of people allowed to come close to Russia’s leader is ever random, and you’ll never see anyone heckling or berating Putin on television there. Everybody’s always happy to see him.

The budding resemblance between Trump and Putin is, of course, unsettling to Americans. They are not used to a leader behaving like a czar. But Putin doesn’t do his czar act because he likes it.•

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It was dismaying that so soon after the New Yorker EIC David Remnick rightly implored Americans, especially those in the media, to not normalize the newly elected demagogic President, that Condé Nast’s top editors assembled for an off-the-record meeting with the then-PEOTUS. No, they didn’t make the perp walk to Trump Tower, allowing themselves to be papped like Dapper Dons being ushered into a precinct house, but they still were used to create a business-as-usual climate for a mudslide of a man.

In his latest smart missive about his longtime nemesis for the Vanity Fair “Hive” vertical, Graydon Carter makes clear he wasn’t on board with the gathering with the Juggalo, writing: “The get-together was off the record. (Not my wish. Nor was the meeting itself.).” Have to assume his fellow top-of-the-masthead colleagues concur with that sentiment, though I wish they’d pushed back more forcefully at the powers-that-be. A for-publication summit would have likely only elicited lies, but at least it would have been journalism done correctly.

Carter is a realist in knowing the freshly minted Administration may hurt Americans who can least withstand more body blows (Farewell, Obamacare), but he remains optimistic that the truth will be the inveterate liar’s undoing. 

Perhaps. While Donald Trump may be a sociopath, it takes a village to create a tyrant. He didn’t build it alone. He may have been put over the top by struggling folks in the Rust Belt who think he’s something he’s not, but most of his voters were not conned. Plenty of wealthy peopleChristian conservatives and intellectual frauds supported him knowing exactly what they were getting. They approve.

From Carter:

Trump’s messy birdcage of a mind careens from one random thought to the next. He likes to strut and talk big-league. One of his ongoing observations—in tweets and elsewhere—is that “many people” have been calling him “the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter!” These are presumably people who have never read one of Hemingway’s books. In manner and execution, and in his almost touching desire to be liked, Trump comes across not as larger than life but as one of the smaller people on the world stage. He always had a sort of oafish charisma: as we used to say at Spy, a hustler on his best behavior. In small groups, as many can attest, he has mastered the salesman’s trick of creating faux sincerity and intimacy when answering a question by including the first name of the person who asked it. But no amount of grifter charm can conceal his alarming disregard for facts and truth. It’s this combination of utter ignorance and complete certitude that his detractors find most terrifying. Trump not only doesn’t know the unknowns but appears to have no interest in even knowing the knowns. Fact-checkers can’t keep up. How often does Obama play golf? Who cares—let’s inflate the number by 50 percent. What’s the murder rate in a major American city? What the hell—let’s multiply it by 10. The writer Michael O’Donoghue used to say that the definition of insanity is the length of time it takes for a lie to be uncovered. The shorter the period, the crazier you are. By this standard, our president will be setting a new threshold for that definition.•

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In “Donald Trump’s Chilling Language, and the Fearsome Power of Words,” Michiko Kakutani’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece about the dishonest, nihilistic and potentially lethal lingo of the new President, she characterizes her subject as “part Don Rickles, part George Wallace.” I’ll disagree in that Rickles is a genius employer of English, an Einstein of insult comedy. Trump’s nastiness may have been effective to this point, but comparing him to Rickles is like saying someone who slices off their tongue with a rusty can is just like Harpo Mark. I’ll stick with my Lampanelli-Mussolini comparison.

Kakutani homes in ably on Trump and his team’s mission to render words beyond a baseball cap slogan meaningless, to create chaos so that anything is possible, including unspeakable things. But even if the Administration can continue to convince a sizable minority of the country that language means little, reality will intervene. As Eliot Cohen, a former Dubya State Department official tells her, the radical imprecision of Trump’s utterances “is going to greatly magnify the danger of miscalculation by all kinds of people.”

An excerpt:

The speech itself was divisive and pointedly aimed at Trump’s base, pitting the people against the establishment, the heartland against Washington. It painted a darkly dystopian picture of a United States in decline (“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”) and beset by violence that he promised to fix—a picture that stands in sharp contrast to the reality of a country in which crime is low by historical levels and the economy has been steadily growing, adding jobs for 75 straight months, the longest streak on record. Trump’s candidacy was predicated on breaking rules, and his Inaugural Address was no exception. There was no poetry in the speech—no soaring words, no invocation of the liberty and freedoms granted by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, or the special qualities that have made America, as Ronald Reagan said, quoting John Winthrop, a shining “city upon a hill.”

Instead, Trump used the occasion of the Inaugural—traditionally an opportunity to bring the country together, to lift and inspire, to remind the country of its shared ideals and rededicate it to a common mission—to deliver a lumbering variation on his doom-and-gloom speech from last July’s Republican National Convention. It recalled the polarizing, red-meat stump speeches that he served up to rallies last year; the nihilistic passages in his books in which he describes the world as “a horrible place” where “lions kill for food, but people kill for sport”; and the apocalyptic worldview of Bannon, who has made a series of films depicting Western civilization under threat from foreigners and from rot within.•

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Fascists use shocking words and actions to see how far they can move the line. Mock POWs and the disabled, say you can shoot someone and your poll numbers wouldn’t dip, exclaim that the NRA “could deal with” your political opponent, and if enough people are accepting of your indecency and not enough push back, you know you can go even a little farther the next time. Autocrats also try to erase the line between facts and lies, so that nothing seems certain. Truth, that slippery thing that must be pursued for the sake of a civil society, was a casualty of Donald Trump’s odious, nihilistic, fake-news campaign. These tactics have only continued in the post-election period.

In his inaugural speech, Trump referred to “American carnage,” a ridiculous overstatement. It was a purposeful remark he hopes will later allow him license to commit extreme acts far beyond the norm. On Saturday in a pseudo-presser, Sean Spicer knowingly read lies about the inaugural crowd size, allowing no one to question his illegitimate remarks. The following day, Kellyanne Conway described these very lies as “alternative facts,” aiming to make reality and fantasy appear equally true. It’s clear that an attack on veracity, on consensus, will be a hallmark of this Administration. Because when nothing is sure, everything is possible, even “unspeakable things.” 

That’s why, despite what Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerald Baker thinks, every lie must be called just that, each untruth must receive response, every outrage must be censured. If not, the line will move further, until there’s nowhere safe left to stand. 

From “Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Politics of Memory,” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat of the Atlantic:

President Donald Trump’s journey to the pinnacle of American power has offered the opportunity to study these processes in real time. Although we cannot yet know what kind of president he will be, from his June 2015 declaration of candidacy to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump has undertaken two parallel projects aimed at unsettling the mental habits and moral foundations of American democracy. First, he has cultivated a political persona that inspires adulation and unquestioning loyalty that can be mobilized for action on his behalf. Second, he has initiated Americans into a culture of threat that not only desensitizes them to the effects of bigotry but also raises the possibility of violence without consequence.

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
The risk is that the parameters of thought and action will be nudged to align with those of the leader, easing the retrofitting of history to suit his personalization of the land’s highest office. Trump’s success at this in a country known for individualism, and with no history of living under an authoritarian ruler, shows how susceptible people are to such approaches.

Trump’s bullying charm anchors this culture of threat.

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In assessing what a Trump Presidency means for foreign policy, T.A. Frank of the excellent Vanity Fair vertical “Hive” suggests we apply a one-year test. If we’re not dead or dying by January 2018, if we’re not engaged in a needless and large-scale war or headed into such a conflict, the writer believes we’ll be okay for the term on the doom front. Oh, we’ll still get royally screwed financially and our democracy will be undermined at every turn, but perhaps our descent will be attended more by whimpering than banging, so to speak. 

It’s not that I expect war with China despite all the Shanghai-rattling that’s already begun, but it’s likely that enough about the ideals of the United States, domestically and internationally, will be degraded that we’ll no longer exactly be America, the nation still standing even as it gradually falls.

Unlike many other pundits, Frank raises the “c” word–as in crazy–while analyzing Trump, which is an important term to remember when handicapping the future actions of the new President, who seems bonkers enough to believe he can run the world the way John Gotti ran Queens.

From Frank:

Several people in Trump’s circle seem to be eager to pursue conflict with Iran. That could cost countless American and Iranian lives and wreck his presidency fast. But that possibility is merely scary. Like other conflicts since the Second World War (with the exception of the attacks of 9/11), it would take place far from our shores. If we ramp up tensions enough with China or Russia, however, the war could come to us. That’s what’s truly terrifying about Trump—the possibility, not high (but higher than normal), that life as we know it will end. Trump would never deliberately court such an outcome, but he seems likelier than any president we’ve ever had to blunder into it.

Little fear of Trump’s foreign policy has to do with his overall assessments of the world stage—including the strategic value of joining forces with Russia against ISIS—many of which could be sound, in theory. But everything in foreign affairs is about how others interpret what you’re saying or doing on a deeper level. People still debate whether Saddam Hussein felt he’d gotten a green light to invade Kuwait from ambiguous statements made by U.S. ambassador April Glaspie, but they didn’t help. Similarly, most people agree that the decision by Jimmy Carter to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran for treatment in the United States in 1979 came across to Iranian revolutionaries as proof of conspiracy and led them to invade the U.S. embassy in Tehran and take its staff hostage. Given Trump’s habit of tweeting before thinking, we could get a couple of Glaspies and shahs a day.

Writing in The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests that Trump is already showing overconfidence in his ability to make deals with Russia and carelessness in his talk about nuclear weapons. All of this suggests he’ll “create uncertainty in the capitals of America’s allies and in Moscow about how the United States will respond to Russia’s ambiguous actions along the border,” writes Dougherty, and tempt Putin “to take advantage by offending Trump’s sense of national pride or sense of manhood.” And that’s to say nothing about Trump’s pokes at China over Taiwan. Little does he seem to realize that China’s young people are ferociously nationalistic, far less reluctant to hit the battlefield than their overlords in the capital, and that stirring the pot on Taiwan may set off forces not even Beijing can control. The combination of delicate world arrangements and Trump’s impulsivity could be deadly. The only reason I’m willing to bet a large sum that world war won’t happen is that, if it does, no one will be left to collect.•

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Donald Trump may have been denied a North Korean military-style parade down Pennsylvania Avenue for his inauguration, but Kim Jong-un, even more than Vladimir Putin, remains the current world leader who most matches him in temperament. Vainglorious, vapid and vicious, he’ll purposely (and sometimes accidentally) harm millions of Americans and send the nation ass-backwards into the dark, bankrupting us both financially and spiritually. He’ll project onto the nation all that is awful inside him, an endless pool of bile. Perhaps U.S. democracy will survive the onslaught of Trump and his cabinet of kleptocrats and bigots or perhaps not, but we we’ll be left, at the very least, with blood coming out of our wherever.

The worst unforced error in our modern history was a long time coming, the product of an education system that failed to produce critical thinkers, the Balkanization of news, our need to turn everything into entertainment, unexplored prejudices and many other factors.

All those who aided Trump’s rise are culpable for what comes next, from the opportunistic Chris Christie to the political hacks Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani to a “genius” like Peter Thiel, who was certain there were WMDs in Iraq and is now totally confident that a singularly sociopathic bully is the best person to lead America. 

Several excerpts follow.

The opening of Mehdi Hasan’s blistering New Statesmen piece:

What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective.”
It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.•

From Chauncey DeVega’s Salon article “The Butcher Bill Has Come Due“:

There are many explanations for why a voter would might choose a candidate who is likely to do that person harm. The American electorate, to put it kindly, is not particularly sophisticated. The country’s schools are broken: a high percentage of graduates of either high school and college lack critical thinking and reading skills. They also cannot read and properly evaluate an editorial in a newspaper, ordiscern whether a story is from a reputable source or is “fake news.” Voters also privilege different issues in their calculations. For committed conservatives, winning the “culture war” may be more important than basic pocketbook or bread-and-butter issues.

Social scientists have repeatedly shown the ways that American voters reason backward from their conclusions and ignore inconvenient information. The vast majority of Trump voters received their information from Fox News: Disinformation and lies are taken as truth; the phenomenon of circular and self-limiting knowledge that social scientists call “epistemic closure” creates right-wing political zombies. Racism, authoritarianism, bigotry and ethnocentrism are a toxic (and politically intoxicating) mix. And perhaps the most basic truth is that Trump’s voters simply wanted to elect a human grenade as president. They pulled the pin and then forgot to run away from the explosion, likely because they were fascinated by the spectacle and eager to witness the harm they believed Trump would do to their enemies.

The butcher’s bill is due.

Donald Trump’s proposed policies will not make America great again.

Rural Americans will suffer because of Trump’s environment, trade and agricultural policies. Wealth and income inequality will become more extreme, thus punishing and constricting the life opportunities of the vast majority of Americans of all races and backgrounds. Efforts to roll back and destroy Obamacare will deprive millions of health insurance, and may lead to the hundreds of thousands of deaths. Potential deportations of undocumented immigrants will further damage the economy by raising the cost of food and services while also requiring large expenditures of federal money. The expansion of the “stop and frisk” Terrordome against black and brown communitieswill likely increase the number of people killed and brutalized by police while also draining the public coffers to pay for the prison-industrial complex as well as to settle innumerable lawsuits against police.

From David Randall at Reuters:

When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump criticized United Technologies Corp’s (UTX.N) Carrier unit in November for its plan to move some 800 jobs to Mexico, the parent-company made a swift decision to keep the factory in Indiana.

Yet, the move did not translate into saving jobs. Instead, the company decided it would move toward automation as a way to cut costs.

“We’re going to make up [the] $16 million investment in that factory in Indianapolis to automate, to drive the cost down so that we can continue to be competitive,” chief executive Greg Hayes said on CNBC last month. “What that ultimately means is there will be fewer jobs.” 

Swapping robots and software for human labor has underpinned much of the productivity gains in the United States over the last 25 years. Now, with a greater political push to keep factories at home, investors are betting that automation will gain speed in industries ranging from auto manufacturing to chicken processing to craft beer breweries. …

Republicans are likely to push tax policies that provide incentives to manufacture goods in the United States, regardless how the work is done, analysts say.

The result could be that there are more goods made at home, without a significant reduction in the unemployment rate.•

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Of all the intel contained in the Trump dossier, the piece that may be most surprising (if true) is that Russia was “cultivating and supporting” the Reality TV host for five years in the belief, it would seem, that he had a reasonable chance of becoming President. It’s not likely Trump himself had any idea that his candidacy would last more than a couple of months. If Vladimir Putin really knew the unlikely eventual winner was a solid bet to land in the Oval Office, he should have placed a large wager in Las Vegas two years ago and used the winnings to simply purchase America.

The part that’s least shocking (if true) is that if Trump behaved in any sexually embarrassing or illicit way while in Moscow, the Russians have tape of it. Kremlin kleptocrats rule in good part through intimidation, threatening not only to poison the body but also the name. Once they have dirt on you, you become part of the game, one in which they always make the rules. There have long been rumors of movie actors being secretly filmed in unlawful, compromising positions in Russia–a couple of stars in particular come to mind–so having the goods on a high-profile American businessman and celebrity is something that could come in handy even if he never stepped foot in the White House.

That Putin was directly involved in hacking our elections seems beyond question. The uncertainty is whether there will emerge a smoking gun directly linking the Trump campaign to the Kremlin. It would probably be more surprising if it turns out there was no contact between the two sides.

In a London Review of Books piece, former UK diplomat Arthur Snell doesn’t dismiss the dossier while warning that some parts are sturdier than others. “A small number of the reports appear to contain well-sourced, triangulated intelligence,” he writes. “That does not make them true, but the reader may usefully assume their likelihood while considering wider evidence.”

An excerpt:

The dossier’s most explosive report claims that ‘the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting … TRUMP for at least five years,’ and that ‘the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN.’ The same report makes allegations of Trump’s ‘sexual perversion’ (Trump is supposed to have paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed that had been slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama), which the Russians apparently documented in order to possess useful kompromat (compromising material). It explains that two separate sources have attested to a long-term Russian plan to support Trump. One of those sources is a senior figure in the Russian Foreign Ministry, another is a ‘former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin’. They affirmed the existence of the Russian plan, the report says, while in conversation with ‘a trusted compatriot’. This is an important detail, because it tells us they weren’t speaking to the British author of the report and spinning a line for his benefit, but also because it implies that the chain of information is long, which can easily lead to misunderstandings. A third source, also a Russian official, comments on the Trump operation without demonstrating any specific knowledge about how it was conducted, thereby supplying only limited corroboration. There’s a further allegation that ‘the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents.’ This claim is made by the Foreign Ministry source and confirmed by another source, described as a ‘close associate’ of the President-elect, who organised Trump’s visits to Moscow and accompanied him on them. The Russians might have confected the allegations and fed them to Steele in order to discredit Trump; but that argument can’t account for why one of Trump’s own people repeated them, unless we suppose he had been suborned by the Russians.

The allegations of a Russian campaign to support Trump are examples of strategic intelligence. The claims about Trump’s unusual sexual activities in a Moscow hotel suite, on the other hand, are tactical: the incident either occurred or it didn’t. The report mentions four different sources referring to it. The ‘close associate’ who arranged the Moscow trips is one. It’s also claimed that the incident was ‘confirmed [by another source] … S/he and several of the staff were aware of it at the time and subsequently.’ This source appears to have had some connection with the hotel where the incident took place, and is said to have introduced one of the intelligence company’s team to ‘a female staffer at the hotel … who also confirmed the story’. All the other sources in the dossier have had their gender obscured to make it harder to identify them, so this female staffer, we can assume, was a one-off contact used to verify the hotel story rather than an established source. Finally, the Kremlin-based former intelligence officer mentioned earlier is reported to have said that ‘TRUMP’s unorthodox behaviour in Russia’ gave the authorities sufficient material for blackmail.•

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If Donald Trump fails during his Presidency to undermine U.S. democracy in a meaningful way, it won’t be because of any reconsideration on his part. Sociopaths don’t change at 70. It will have to be saved from him.

Americans of courage and decency are needed in every quarter to defend our institutions and demand truth and facts. Criticism and resistance must be normalized from the start. Democracy is a fragile thing, especially in a system such as ours which grants the President outsize powers, assuming that person will be basically decent and essentially sane. But even citizens shining a light on immoral behavior may not prevent Trump from using the devices of the office to grip and choke liberty.

It’s possible through his own incompetence and avarice he may lose the support of enough of those who voted for him, already a minority, and that the Washington opportunists will decide they’ve had enough. Even though his nihilistic campaign was anything but business as usual, his demise could be one of mundane politics. It could be a relatively quiet fall.

No one should depend on that, however. We must rely on ourselves and each other.

Two excerpts follow about the necessity of bravery in the immediate future.

From “The Threat of Moral Authority,” Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books piece:

New York, January 2017. The very large, very loud American president-elect unleashes a Twitter fury on an older, smaller man who can and does appear vulnerable in public. The man, Congressman John Lewis, has vowed to boycott the president-elect’s inauguration. Donald Trump attacks Lewis as a man of words, not action—and, as some Americans watch in shocked disbelief while others surely applaud, continues to hound Lewis long after Trump’s usual Twitter attention span would have run out.

In his now familiar way, Trump has come across as clueless, as though he doesn’t know who Lewis is, which district he represents, and more important, what history he represents. But his instincts are guiding him into a confrontation that is hardly new: it is a response that has occurred over and over when an autocratic leader is challenged by the voice of moral authority.

Almost invariably, moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body—perhaps because it takes years and decades, and risk and injury, to amass. Yet the words of certainty, spoken softly, pose a threat to power secured through the conventional means of force and title. No voice other than that of John Lewis could have called forth the number of congressmen—fifty-nine at last count—now planning to boycott the inauguration.

Trump has a keen sense of danger, and though he could never put it into words, he understands the threat Lewis represents. Autocratic power requires the degradation of moral authority—not the capture of moral high ground, not the assertion of the right to judge good and evil, but the defeat of moral principles as such.•

From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Hollywood Reporter:

Never before in modern history have we had a president-elect so ill-informed, ill-tempered, irrational and ill-equipped to deal with the major issues that face this country. The counterintuitive election of Donald Trump has left a lot of political pundits from both parties throwing up their hands, saying, “All we can do is hope for the best.” But as Mark Wahlberg’s character in Deepwater Horizon warns the British Petroleum executives ignoring the oil platform’s numerous problems right before it bursts into flames: “Hope is not a strategy.” And based on the political appointments and nominations Trump has recently made, people of color have little reason to be hopeful. That’s why it’s especially important over the next four years that black celebrities step up and take stances to give voice to those in the black community who will not be heard by the incoming administration. Given that the country is in the throes of a civil rights backlash that threatens to undo the progress we’ve fought so hard to attain, we have to be fearless and relentless in speaking up at every opportunity.

Trump’s selection of Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General sends a clear message of where we stand. The guardian of equal justice will be a man who is accused of several acts of racism, including describing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as “un-American.” Worse, though, are Trump’s transparent attempts to appear diverse. A quick look at two of the black faces that Trump parades on television as proof of the diversity of his entourage is actually evidence of his using black shills to distract us from his paternalistic policies to dismantle civil liberties for people of color, women, the LGBT community, Muslims and immigrants. The selection of Ben Carson as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with its $47 billion budget, continues Trump’s wave of choosing completely unqualified people to head important agencies crucial to addressing serious problems such as racial inequity and poverty. It’s like picking Elmer Fudd to run NASA. Carson may be a brilliant surgeon, but he has no understanding of the complexities of government and bureaucracies that make them work.•

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