Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

We have public libraries. Why not public broadcasting?

Last night's reception at the library.

Last night’s reception at the library.

Last night I was pleased to attend a reception unveiling the remodeled portions of Richland Library, which also served in a way as a celebration of the fact that the library was recently named one of the nation’s best.

The library is indeed something that we have to be proud of in this community, even though some of us (ahem!) aren’t allowed to check books out because we sleep across the river. Seriously, though, it’s awesome. (At this point I must note that ADCO did the library’s rebrand awhile back, and my daughter-in-law works there.)

Anyway, this came back to mind this morning when I was reading George Will’s Sunday column harrumphing about funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (“Public broadcasting’s immortality defies reason.”)

He trotted out all the usual libertarian, market-oriented objections, such as:

  1. It might have been all well and good in the 1960s, when it was started as part of LBJ’s Great Society (about which, as you’d expect, Will has snotty things to say). Back then, it increased most people’s TV choices by 33 percent. But if it were gone today, it would reduce folk’s choices from, say, 500 channels to 499.
  2. The elite snobs who like it are generally affluent enough to pay for their chosen recreation and edification themselves, without forcing Joe Sixpack to cough up taxes for it.
  3. If Big Bird et al. have value (and Will is willing to stipulate that they do, in a market sense, which to him is what counts), advertisers and broadcasters would line up to eagerly purchase them and take over would CPB cease to be.

Here’s how I answer those:

  1. That’s like saying we don’t need libraries because there are (or used to be) bookstores, and Amazon. Well, yes, those things are fine enough for those who can afford them, but they have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator — reality TV and other garbage. Occasionally, commercial TV has started to do what CPB does — remember how A&E and Bravo started out, before sliding into what Will would term inanition — but the market has yet to produce anything that regularly airs such material as “King Charles III” or “The Civil War” (just to name a couple of personal faves; you may have others.)
  2. Sorry, but even if everyone doesn’t want it, public amenities — from parks to libraries to public schools — are there to better our communities in ways that the market will not. And Joe Sixpack has the same ability to vote for what he wants our tax money to be spent on that I do. Not everyone will agree with every expenditure, but these are the little trade-offs involved in living in communities rather than as hermits. The government (in this country) is not some separate thing out there doing things to us. It is us, and every one of us has the right and the obligation to express what we want it to do — which I am doing at this moment. (Oh, and not all elite snobs are made of money, just as an aside in response to an assertion that is neither here nor there.)
  3. Yes, they may, and then we’d have to watch commercials every 10 seconds. And eventually, all that we would get would be the content that maximized profits, and we’d lose other things that might make a little money but not enough, things that very well be the best of the lot. The marketplace gives us all sorts of wonderful things, from iPads to, um, iPhones (if I had more time, I’d surely think of something else), but I think an important function of the public sphere is to give us good things that the market will not. And if you wonder what sorts of things those might be, go watch some PBS or listen to NPR.

Finally, Will makes a point that in the abstract is devastating and unassailable, especially if you’re a journalist:

America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?

Well, no, of course not. But then, we’ve long made a distinction between the press and the use of the public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine and so forth.

Still, it’s a powerful argument: Government-run news, globally, is the mark of the totalitarian, repressive state.

But then we have the actual fact, right in front of us, of PBS and NPR news programming. And to any objective observer (especially a professional one), they are of such such vastly higher quality than commercial broadcast news that it’s stunning. They are every bit as fair and impartial if not more so, and the depth and quality puts everything (except the better print outlets) in the shade.

It shouldn’t be so. But in reality, it is.

I’m reminded of something The New Republic published a few years back: “Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.” (Of course, some of my friends will object that the magazine said so in support of the Iraq invasion, so there’s that — but it was still a very true observation, a warning against overgeneralization.)

Government-backed media is a scary thing. Except PBS news is so very good. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that — as an informed observer of news — I’d be sorry to lose that source. (Also, consider — this is news that gets a subsidy from government. As disturbing as that sounds, it’s a far cry from government-run news, which is something I do take an absolute, Actonesque stand against.)

And ultimately, that’s what I have to say about public broadcasting overall. At our house, except for maybe the weekly cold open on SNL, PBS is the only broadcast TV we watch at my house. We use our TV for that, and Netflix and Amazon. That’s it. And the reason why is that the rest of the broadcast universe offers nothing else as good.

And whatever the abstract arguments presented pro and con, I don’t want to lose that. So, to the extent I get a vote, I say let’s keep it.

Library 1

‘Trump the Thucydidean’ — OK, yeah; I hear it…

Occasionally, I get a little glimpse into what Trump voters object to when they behold the folk they see as out-of-touch elites — particularly those whom their spiritual godfather George Wallace called “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

An interesting discussion came on “On Point” this morning, just as I was arriving at the office. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to listen to the whole thing. One of the guests was Graham Allison titled “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” It’s about what may be the inevitable coming clash between these two behemoths, and you can hardly find a topic more important than that. Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 magazine article in which the author set out the concept:

When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.

Thucydides

Thucydides

And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged….

It’s one of those Big Ideas that explain the importance of so many others. It explains why President Obama, and Hillary Clinton before she went all Bernie, rightly saw the Trans-Pacific Partnership as so important — you know, the thing Trump killed without a thought the moment he took office.

Still, knowing all that, when I heard the author mention how “Thucydidean” Trump was being, I thought, “OK, now I hear it. I see what all the anti-intellectuals are on about…”

E.J. Dionne is right: Let’s get this over with…

I wholeheartedly agree with what E.J. Dionne had to say last night. Excerpts:

Trump has caused a catastrophe. Let’s end it quickly.

There is really only one issue in American politics at this moment: Will we accelerate our way to the end of the Trump story, or will our government remain mired in scandal, misdirection and paralysis for many more months — or even years?E.J. Dionne

There is a large irony in the politics behind this question. The Democrats’ narrow interest lies in having President Trump hang around as close to the 2018 midterm elections as possible. Yet they are urging steps that could get this resolved sooner rather than later. Republicans would likely be better off if Trump were pushed off the stage. Yet up to now, they have been dragging their feet.

The reports that Trump asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn may finally be concentrating Republican minds….

Nothing could be worse than slow-walking the Trump inquiries. The evidence is already overwhelming that he is temperamentally and intellectually incapable of doing the job he holds. He is indifferent to acquiring the knowledge the presidency demands and apparently of the belief that he can improvise hour to hour. He will violate norms whenever it suits him and cross ethical lines whenever he feels like it.

He also lies a lot, and has been perfectly happy to burn the credibility of anyone who works for him. White House statements are about as believable as those issued regularly by the Kremlin….

My worry is that to do it right — whether we follow the impeachment route or Ross Douthat’s suggestion of using the 25th Amendment (which has a lot of appeal to me, if doable) — may take time. Not only to dot all the legal i’s, but for a miracle to happen — for Trump’s base, which thus far has been immune to evidence, finally sees the light. Otherwise, we’re just in for more horrific turmoil and division.

But that said, we probably can’t wait for that unlikely eventuality. E.J.’s right. ‘Twere best done quickly

You can sort of tell Bret Stephens is no longer at the WSJ

Sally

Or maybe you can’t. His title was deputy editorial page editor, but I don’t know how editorial decisions are made at that paper, so I can’t say whether he had any influence over board positions, much less a decisive one. There is evidence to indicate his influence didn’t extend far beyond his own columns — even though, for a period last year, the Journal did seem genuinely interested in stopping Trump.

In any case, the paper’s editorial about Lindsey Graham’s hearings on Russian meddling in our election, flippantly headlined “When the Senate Met Sally” (you can read the whole thing here), was rather lacking in deep concern about what Sen. Graham was (from what I’ve read and heard) legitimately focused on — the Russians.

And it ended with a conclusion that was as pure a Republican talking point as you could find — trying to distract from what the Russians did to how we knew about it, or at least how we knew about Michael Flynn’s role:

So far the only crime we know about in this drama is the leak of Mr. Flynn’s name to the press as having been overheard when U.S. intelligence was eavesdropping on the Russian ambassador. Mr. Flynn’s name was leaked in violation of the law after he was “unmasked” by an Obama Administration official and his name was distributed widely across the government.

We don’t know who did the unmasking, but on Monday both Mrs. Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted that while in office they had personally reviewed classified reports about “Mr. Trump, his officials or members of Congress” who had been “unmasked.” Both also admitted that they had shared that information with others in government, though they did deny leaking to the press.

We thought readers might like to know those details in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press. The unmasking of the names of political opponents is a serious concern, and the American people need to know how and why that happened here.

That’s the sort of thing the Trump White House would put out, if it had its act together and was capable of projecting a coherent, consistent message. Which, as we know, it isn’t.

Oh, and by the way… As for that childishly petulant “in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press,” I was fully aware of it before I got to the WSJ. I think I first read of Republicans’ fixation on that point in The Washington Post. Anyway, the Journal knows (or should know) better than to say such things as that. It’s more what you’d expect to see in a Tweet from Trump himself, not serious writing by anyone who knows what he’s about…

graham yates

George Will’s diagnosis of Trump’s ‘dangerous disability’

A lot of readers don’t like George F. Will. They find him haughty, imperious and supercilious, and his writing dense, showy and vague.

But when he takes some of those qualities and packs them into a pointed diagnosis of just what is wrong with Donald J. Trump, he can be a pleasure to read. And edifying to boot.

Take today’s column, “Trump has a dangerous disability,” in which he writes:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence….

Amen to all of that, especially that first sentence. That, after all, is the problem: Not that Trump might have the wrong idea about this or that, but that his brain doesn’t really do ideas, can’t process or express them clearly, and lacks the informational foundation for forming them in the first place.

More:

George WillWhat is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something….

Absolutely. And here’s the big finish:

Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances. So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict.

I share this partly because the piece was a pleasure to read, but also because some of you seem genuinely puzzled that I don’t just accept that Donald Trump is president of the United States, calm down and move on.

I don’t do that because I see clearly that it is my duty to be “insistently communicating to [my] elected representatives” just how unacceptable this state of affairs is. Every citizen who perceives the danger has an obligation “to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.”

Oxymoronic group blasts Pelosi for being tolerant

I noted in passing this morning that Nancy Pelosi was being very sensible and open-minded when she split with her party’s new chair on whether Democrats would be allowed to think for themselves on abortion. An excerpt from the story I read, demonstrating the very human, respectful approach she took:

Pelosi“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”…

Of course, there are always enforcers of political dogma ready to jump down a reasonable person’s throat. The most ironic such rebuke I’ve seen comes from the oxymoronic Catholics for Choice, which can always be relied upon to put a surreal twist on the news:

As Catholics, we are dismayed by Minority Leader Pelosi’s out of touch and self-serving statements that throw women and their right to make their own moral decisions under the bus.

Let’s be clear—unity in diversity of thought is an important value in America and what any political party should seek to nurture. However, a party that claims the mantle on social justice and civil liberties cannot turn its back on women’s moral autonomy and the right to make conscience-based decisions. Women’s rights are human rights and they cannot be traded away based on short-sighted political calculations. Minority Leader Pelosi’s claim that ‘abortion is a fading issue’ is also downright irresponsible when women’s access to abortion services is under attack across America by restrictive legislative proposals and efforts to limit providers, especially for the poorest women….

How do you take a statement like that seriously when it starts, “As Catholics…?” But of course, the purpose of this organization is to convince you to accept that proposition.

I ask you: Did any part of that statement feel “Catholic” to you? In style and voice, did it sound like something, say, Pope Francis would say? No. In tone and word choice, it read as though it had been written by an indignant college sophomore interning at NARAL.

A digression: I may need to borrow someone’s Dictionary of Current Ideology. Set abortion aside. How does an individual person have something called “moral autonomy?” Is not the essence of morality that we are responsible to one another for what we do? (Where do they get this cant?)

Nice try, Nancy, attempting to make your party a little more tolerant and open. This world is full of people who simply will not stand for that sort of thing…

One of the toughest questions in journalism (or advertising)

The split-second in question.

The split-second in question.

This intrigued me, because it poses one of the toughest questions I used to deal with as an editor:

In a self-congratulatory ad marking his first 100 days in office, President Trump labels major television networks “fake news.” So CNN is refusing to sell the president airtime to show the commercial.

“CNN requested that the advertiser remove the false graphic that the mainstream media is ‘fake news,’” the cable channel said in a statement. “The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”…

I’ve been there. But as an editor, rather than as a gatekeeper for ads.

As editorial page editor, a substantial portion of the space I was in charge of was devoted to copy generated by people who didn’t work for me — op-eds, and letters to the editor. We always had a lot of copy to choose from in filling that limited space, and we gave priority to fresh views, and particularly those that disagreed with something we had said.

If we had just criticized someone editorially, and that person asked for some of our space to respond, that response went to the front of the line.

But sometimes, there was a problem. Sometimes in answering us, the writer said things that weren’t true. And we weren’t going to let our limited space be used to say things that weren’t true.

We especially weren’t going to let people use our space to mischaracterize what we had said. We went to a lot of trouble to shape the positions we presented to readers and we agonized over exactly how to present them — we weren’t about to let people claim we’d said something we hadn’t said, and give the lie credence by publishing it on our pages. We wouldn’t let a writer say, “They called me a big, fat idiot” when we had not even implied that the gentleman was big, fat, or any kind of idiot.

Trouble is, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes you write X and someone reads Y, no matter how hard you worked to make your point clear. Still, we weren’t going to let people waste our space arguing with Y when no one had said or even suggested Y. Which quite often they wanted to do.

This led to some pretty intense discussions with the writers, and on occasion to an impasse in which the writer withdrew the piece and went around telling anyone who would listen that those jerks at The State refused to publish a dissenting opinion.

Which of course was another lie. We very much wanted alternative, and especially dissenting, opinions. We just weren’t going to allow alternative facts.

Argue all you want with what we said. But don’t waste everyone’s time (and more to the point, our valuable space) arguing with what we did not say.

Not that facts and opinions are always easy to separate. We had some pretty intense arguments among us editors over that. I’d be reading a proof, and stride into the office of the editor who had allowed the piece onto the page and say, “He can’t say this; it’s not true.” And my colleague would say, “It’s an opinion, not an assertion of fact.” And we’d go ’round and ’round, and I’d generally err on the side of letting the reader have his say. And the next day kick myself when another reader would point out that something false had been said on my page, and that we had a sacred duty not to allow that. And I’d be like, Yeah, but he really thinks it’s true, and he and a lot of other people act and vote on that assumption, and if I’m going to educate all readers as to how such people think so that we can all understand each other, they need to be able to present their arguments… And sometimes I’d convince myself, and sometimes not.

Anyway, these kinds of questions are not easy. Telling truth, and making sure what others say on your medium is true, isn’t easy…

Robert Samuelson reminds us vegetables must be eaten

I wish to call to your attention this piece by Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post Writers Group.

An excerpt:

SamuelsonLet’s be clear: America is an undertaxed society. Our wants and needs from government — the two blur — exceed our willingness to be taxed. This has been true for decades, but it’s especially relevant now because the number of older Americans, who are the largest beneficiaries of federal spending, is rising rapidly. Unless we’re prepared to make sizable spending cuts (and there’s no evidence we are), we need higher taxes.

To the extent that President Trump’s proposed “tax reform” obscures or worsens this inconvenient reality, it is a dangerous distraction. We cannot afford large tax cuts, which are pleasing to propose (“something for nothing”) but involve long-term risks that are not understood by the president or, to be fair, by economists. Piling up massive peacetime deficits is something we haven’t done before. We cannot know the full consequences….

Looks like Samuelson’s bucking to be named patron saint of the Grownup Party, noting matter-of-factly that not only are vegetables good for us, but we must eat them.

By the way that line, “America is an undertaxed society,” goes double — no, triple, nay, 100 times — for South Carolina. I just thought I’d point that out for those still confused, especially the senators who think you can’t raise a tax that badly needs raising — the gas tax — without lowering some other taxes that has nothing to do with it.

Sorry to see Bret Stephens get rough reception at NYT

The last couple of weeks, it occurred to me briefly to wonder why I hadn’t seen any Bret Stephens columns in The Wall Street Journal. I chalked it up to the fact that I don’t look every day, and maybe I wasn’t looking on the right ones.

That wasn’t it.

It seems that Stephens, the WSJ deputy editorial page editor whom I’ve been praising over the past year for his principled criticism of Donald Trump, has left the paper.

He left to write for The New York Times, where readers have not made him welcome, according to a third paper, The Washington Post:

The New York Times thought it was bringing a fresh voice and some ideological diversity to its influential op-ed pages when it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago.

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Bret Stephens

Readers weren’t impressed by Stephens’s debut column, to say the least.

The cancel-my-subscription outrage flowed freely after Stephens challenged the certitude about climate science in his first piece for the newspaper on Friday. While acknowledging that the planet has warmed over the past century and that humans have contributed to it, he wrote, “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.”…

This news prompts three reactions from me:

  • Why did Stephens leave the WSJ for the NYT? Was it merely a better opportunity, or had he been made to feel unwelcome at the Journal? I would hate to think it was the latter, because he had been one of the best reasons to read the Journal, especially over the past year.
  • What caused him — and, to the extent they had involvement, his editors — to choose this topic for his debut column? Was an anti-Trump column considered, but rejected as seeming like pandering to his new audience? Did he deliberately decide to be more in-your-face, to announce his presence as a new voice? Perhaps these questions don’t interest you, but as I’m someone who has spent years thinking about such things — which message to go with and when — they do me.
  • As for all you howling New York Times readers: Get over yourselves. Has your safe space been invaded? Good.

In searching for more info about Stephens’ move, I ran across quite a bit of fulminating against him and his first column, describing the latter as weak and poorly reasoned.

I thought the piece was fine. Its point, for those who claim to have a problem finding it, was this: If you find yourself being 100 percent certain, or close to it, about something, perhaps you should question yourself more.

Seems like a good choice for a first outing, considering the writer and his new venue. It was even prophetic, in the part where he wrote, “By now I can almost hear the heads exploding….”

Sneering at the masses, and how it helped lead to Trump

This guy's off the air now, but I think he did more than anyone to produce the phenomenon under discussion.

This guy’s off the air now, but I think he did more than anyone to produce the phenomenon under discussion.

Bryan, who is off somewhere in foreign parts today (California, I think), brings to my attention this piece from The Atlantic. Its headline is “How Late-Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump,” with the subhed, “Sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug.”

Or at least, they were smug until Nov. 8.

The piece isn’t bad, although it gets sidetracked here and there, and reading it didn’t make me a whole lot smarter than I was after reading the hed and subhed — with which I agreed from the start.

Not that I didn’t learn anything new. For instance, I heard of this Samantha Bee person, and her salacious-sounding show “Full Frontal.” (Remember, folks, I don’t watch TV beyond Netflix, Amazon Prime and PBS.)

When I read the headline, I was picturing Jon Stewart — who, although he’s been replaced by Trevor Noah, still seems the perfect example to illustrate the point.

Here’s probably the best bit in the piece. It comes after the author has established, in fairness, that Donald J. Trump is any comedian’s dream, and richly deserves every bit of mockery aimed at him and more (which is obviously true):

So Trump has it coming, and so do the minions pouring out of his clown car, with their lies and their gleeful disregard for what Nick Carraway called “the fundamental decencies.” But somewhere along the way, the hosts of the late-night shows decided that they had carte blanche to insult not just the people within this administration, but also the ordinary citizens who support Trump, and even those who merely identify as conservatives. In March, Samantha Bee’s show issued a formal apology to a young man who had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference and whom the show had blasted for having “Nazi hair.” As it turned out, the young man was suffering from Stage 4 brain cancer—which a moment’s research on the producers’ part would have revealed: He had tweeted about his frightening diagnosis days before the conference. As part of its apology, the show contributed $1,000 to the GoFundMe campaign that is raising money for his medical expenses, so now we know the price of a cancer joke.

It was hardly the first time Full Frontal had gone, guns blazing, after the sick or the meek. During the campaign, Bee dispatched a correspondent to go shoot fish in a barrel at something called the Western Conservative Summit, which the reporter described as “an annual Denver gathering popular with hard-right Christian conservatives.” He interviewed an earnest young boy who talked about going to church on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays, and about his hope to start a group called Children for Trump. For this, the boy—who spoke with the unguarded openness of a child who has assumed goodwill on the part of an adult—was described as “Jerry Falwell in blond, larval form.” Trump and Bee are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values, which have now moved to the very center of our national discourse. Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps….

She returns to that incident at the end:

… I’ve also thought a good deal about the boy on Samantha Bee’s program. I thought about the moment her producer approached the child’s mother to sign a release so that the woman’s young son could be humiliated on television. Was it a satisfying moment, or was it accompanied by a small glint of recognition that embarrassing children is a crappy way to make a living? I thought about the boy waiting eagerly to see himself on television, feeling a surge of pride that he’d talked about church and Bible study. And I thought about the moment when he realized that it had all been a trick—that the grown-up who had seemed so nice had only wanted to hurt him.

My God, I thought. What have we become?

Indeed.

But there’s something to her thesis beyond citing pain inflicted upon victims with whom even the most indoctrinated liberals might sympathize. She touches on the broader point when she says “the tone of these shows [is] one imbued with the conviction that they and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.”

And then she wonders whether that tone is largely responsible for Trump supporters’ dismissal of “the media,” by which she means in this context HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC — the very networks that present the comedy shows. The point being that folks who feel so insulted by the late-night comedy tend to associate it with the news programming on the same networks, and dismiss it all.

You say “media” to me, and I think of the news that I consume — from leading print outlets to NPR. Others don’t see it that way, I’ve long been forced to realize. They think of television, and sometimes — perhaps most of the time — they have trouble distinguishing between the “news” presented by celebrities one hour from the entertainment presented by other celebrities in a different time slot.

Which is understandable, if regrettable…

I'd say the King of the Sneerers now is probably this guy.

I’d say the King of the Sneerers now is probably this guy.

David Brooks on the Crisis of Western Civ

The_Parthenon_in_Athens

Before the weekend’s over, I want to call your attention to David Brooks’ excellent piece from Friday, headlined “The Crisis of Western Civ.”

It’s good not because it says anything particularly original, but because it says things I knew (and most of us should know), but which it wouldn’t have occurred to me to come out and explain.

Anyone steeped in the ideas that have shaped our civilization over the centuries knows:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…

But then two things happened.

First, the people who should be the guardians and propagators of these liberal values — academics — ceased to believe in them.

Then, when the barbarians attacked, there was no one ready to stand up and defend the foundations of our civilization:

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el­Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong­un and Donald Trump….

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party­-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous….

He saves his last shot for the feckless guardians of our intellectual traditions, who have abandoned the citadel walls:

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

Probably his best insight is that bit about how formerly liberal states “begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans.” Because they’re run by people for whom the main purpose of power is to do something as staggeringly trivial as, for instance, promote one’s clothing line.

Speaking of mafias, did you ever read The Godfather? The book, I mean. Have you read anything else by Mario Puzo, something not as directly related to the Mafia, such as The Fourth K? If you have, you may have noticed that the theme that obsessed the writer was the conflict between the personal and the core principles of Western civilization, such as the choice of whether to look out for oneself and one’s family at the expense of larger things, such as the rule of law.

That’s what we’re seeing now. And the personal, the petty, the selfish approach is winning. The larger ideas we’ve been developing over the past centuries are being swept away…

One thing should be deader than Trumpcare — the idea that you can (or should try to) run government like a business

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

Maybe Trumpcare — or Ryancare or, more accurately, Don’tcare — is dead. But I know of one thing that should be even deader: The absurd notion, which too many people cling to as an article of faith, that government can and should be “run like a business.”

And even deader than that (if, you know, you can be deader than something that’s deader than dead) should be the laughable idea that the best person to run a government is a businessman with zero experience in government — especially if that businessman is Donald J. Trump.

Remember all the silliness about how Trump was going to be so awesome because he’s such a great deal-maker (just ask him; he’ll tell you — over and over)?

Well, so much for that. The one deal he had to close to meet minimum expectations of the base — repeal that “awful” Obamacare — was so far beyond his abilities, it would be hard to find a better case study of how the skills involved in accumulating a bunch of money in real estate have nothing to do with the skills involved in corralling votes in Congress.

And yet… in spite of all the above… we read this this morning:

Trump taps Kushner to lead a SWAT team to fix government with business ideas

President Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements….

Wow! He’s still spouting that stuff! You’d think that, after it was all proved to be nonsense on Friday, he’d give it a little time before repeating it!

But when you live in a fact-free universe, I guess this is how it goes…

Defining the Presidency Down (what would Moynihan say?)

Yes, I realize this is likely to feel like déjà vu — this is about much the same point as this post yesterday.

But I was conversing via email with someone about that, and he shared this, so I’m going to share it with you.

Why return to the same topic? Because it’s an important one, making points that I think a lot of folks still haven’t absorbed.

Ever since Election Day — or maybe even since Trump captured the nomination — I’ve had this conversation over and over with some of you, and with others… Someone will say, “What are you so upset about? Why don’t you wait until Trump does something truly horrible, and react to that?” Which I answer with what seems to me excruciatingly obvious: He’s doing it already, every single day — with every crude lie he Tweets, with every embarrassing moment with a foreign leader, practically with every breath he takes. By being our president, he’s taking the greatest country on Earth and making it smaller, cruder, stupider, tackier — demeaning the treasure that our forebears bequeathed us.

It’s not something I can kick back and regard as normal. In fact, that would be inexcusable.

Anyway, like the one I cited yesterday, this piece captures that pretty well:

is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.

Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.

Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.

Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters….

I like that this one cites Moynihan. I always liked that guy. Not that I ever met him or anything.

In fact, I only saw him once in person. (Warning! Brad’s about to reminisce again!) It was that time in 1998 that I mentioned recently, when I went to Washington to check on Strom Thurmond and see if he was still functioning, and also visited Mike McCurry at the White House. Anyway, as long as I was there, McCurry arranged for me to attend a ceremony in the East Room marking the 50th anniversary of NATO.

That afforded me an extra opportunity to observe Strom, as it happened. After everyone else was seated, President Clinton walked in with Strom beside him holding onto his arm. Bill walked the nation’s senior senator to his front-row seat and got him situated before heading up to the podium to speak. (We Southern boys are brought up to act that way with our elders, and I thought better of Bill for it.)

Anyway, after the event was over and most of the media folks were headed back to the West Wing, I stepped out of the door that opens into the covered portico on the northern side of the House. I stood at the top of the steps for a moment deciding whether to continue to the press room or go back in and chat with folks, and watched as cars picked up the dignitaries, there at my feet.

I nodded to Strom as he came out, and watched him negotiate the steps pretty well. But there was a guy in front of him having all sorts of trouble hobbling down to his car.

It was Moynihan. He was only 69. Strom was 95 at the time.

It’s a shame Moynihan didn’t take better care of himself. If he had lived to be 100 like Strom, he’d still have 10 years to go now, and we’d have the benefit of his perspective as the nation so dramatically defines its self-respect downward…

Kathleen Parker on the Marine nude-photos scandal

Defense.gov_News_Photo_090703-M-6159T-116

Marines in combat in Afghanistan in 2009.

Kathleen Parker, in her reaction to the Marine nude-pictures scandal, takes an iconoclastic approach, as she tends to do in her best work.

Of course she condemns the actions of the Marines, as anyone should, and links it to our tawdry, “narcissistic, show-and-tell-all culture,” to which neither male nor female Marines are immune.

But she also brings to bear a couple of themes of her past work, such as her dim view of sending women into combat, and our society’s recent failure to value males qua males.

You won’t see many leading columnists make such points, especially the male ones; they wouldn’t dare:

Must men be treated as women? That is, should they be trained to be more “sensitive”? If so, Kathleen Parkercan you simultaneously create sensitivity in the desensitizing, killing culture that breaks down an 18-year-old’s humanity and instills in him an instinct for extreme brutality?

Put another way, how stupid are we?

There’s a reason we say in times of great peril, “Send in the Marines,” and it’s not because of the few brave, committed women among them. But try to find someone in today’s military willing to say so….

Then at the end, she quotes a retired Methodist minister who counsels veterans navigating post-traumatic stress disorder:

“Marines embrace the warrior archetype more than other branches. The shadow of this is patriarchy, misogyny and brutality. We are trained to be killing machines, deadening all emotion except anger. We’re told we don’t have the luxury of sensitivity, so we objectify everything, including women.”

Still, he’s optimistic, saying that we need to return to “the embodiment of the hero archetype in the medieval knight. Aggressiveness can be coupled with honor, nobility and compassion.”

Maybe so. But knights typically didn’t joust with women, which may be the most salient inference. That said, chivalry has a place here. An apology to the women who exposed themselves to the few, not the proud, would be appropriate — both as gesture and punishment.

Has the West ceased to believe in itself?

Last week, I read another excellent piece by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. It was headlined “Do We Still Want the West?,” with the subhed, “The best antidote to the politics of Trump or Le Pen is a course in Western Civ.”

Because of that paper’s pay wall, I’m going to push the envelope a mite on Fair Use here so that you get the point fully, and I hope the Journal will forgive me.

The piece begins anecdotally, telling about how the left’s culture warriors chanted Western Civ right out of the curriculum at Stanford in the ’80s, and how a vote to bring it back (a student vote, because grownups no longer dare to make such decisions) failed, 6 to 1.

Then, he sets out the problem:

The thought comes to mind following Sergei Lavrov’s Orwellian speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, in which the Russian foreign minister called for a “post-West world order.”…

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.

The West? Not so much.

The United States has elected as president a man who has repeatedly voiced his disdain for NATO, the World Trade Organization and other institutions of the Western-led world order. He publicly calls the press “an enemy of the American people” and conjures conspiracy theories about voter fraud whose only purpose is to lend credence to his claim that the system is rigged. He is our first post-rational president, whose approach to questions of fact recalls the deconstructionism of the late Jacques Derrida: There are no truths; reality is negotiable….

He goes on about the crisis of faith in Western ways in Europe, and notes how the non-aligned — who once were so eager to join the Western club — are drifting toward other power centers, such as Russia and China.

In other words, moving toward cultures that still believe in themselves, or at least in their own myths.

Then comes the best part:

There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself—often in freshman Western Civ classes. It understood that its moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence concepts of reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility, whose contradictions it learned to harmonize and harness over time. It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and in the superiority of its political ideals. It was not ashamed of its prosperity. If it was arrogant and sinful, as all civilizations are, it also had a tradition of remorse and doubt to temper its edges and broaden its horizons. It cultivated the virtue of skepticism while avoiding the temptation of cynicism.

And it believed all of this was worth defending — in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields….

Donald Trump was elected by people who for whatever reason just don’t seem to get the fundamental assumptions of the West — they don’t know the history; they don’t embrace the ideals. It’s hard to talk to them about what’s wrong, because they don’t see it. Maybe it’s too late for them, but it’s time we started overtly teaching our children what’s valuable about the West.

But first, of course, we need to decide whether we still believe in it ourselves…

You MUST read David Frum’s brilliant piece in The Atlantic

David Frum on Tavis Smiley's show earlier this week.

David Frum on Tavis Smiley’s show earlier this week.

The other night, as I turned off the Apple TV and paused just before turning off the tube altogether, I saw that Tavis Smiley was interviewing David Frum — former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current senior editor for The Atlantic.

So I stopped myself from turning it off, because Frum usually has smart, interesting things to say.

He immediately said something rather outlandish. He suggested it was highly possible that Donald Trump’s main goal in being president of the United States is to become the richest man in the world. And that as long as his tax returns are not disclosed, he’s likely to achieve it.

I was about to scoff, but paused. That would be a ridiculous goal to me, or to Barack Obama, or to George W. Bush (despite what Bud and others seem to believe about Republicans.) The sheer petty, two-bit cupidity of it is laughable, particularly since in our history, no one who was thus motivated has ever sought such a position, much less attained it.

But I then reflected that lots of people actually are that motivated by money, as Doug keeps insisting to me that everyone is. And if there’s anyone on the planet who might be that acquisitive, it’s Donald J. Trump.

Well, fine. I don’t care if he does become the richest man in the world. Were it in my power, I would write him a check for the full amount he wants if only he’d walk away and stop doing what he’s doing to our country.

I don’t know, but suspect, that Frum would do the same. Because the problem for him, and for me, is the startlingly insidious ways that Trump is undermining our republic, its institutions — particularly the effectiveness of our vaunted checks and balances — and its standing in the world as a beacon of how self-government can work. Whatever Trump’s goal is — money, popularity, power for power’s sake — the really horrible thing is what he’s doing to get there.

During the interview with Smiley, Frum alluded to a piece he’d written in The Atlantic. I finally read it tonight. It is without a doubt the most brilliant, incisive, on-point, and chilling thing I’ve read since this nightmare began.

The title is “How to Build an Autocracy.”

Orwell’s 1984 has been enjoying a surge of popularity in recent weeks, especially it seems since Kellyanne Conway’s remark about “alternative facts.”

Well, the first 878 words of this essay is a bit of speculative fiction imagining the world four years from now, when Trump has just easily won re-election. It’s scarier than 1984 because it’s not a theoretical projection of just how horrible things might get in a place like Stalin’s Russia. It’s chilling because everything it describes, in explaining how Trump becomes a power that can’t be challenged, is completely, immediately believable. It wouldn’t have been before the past year, but it is now. We’re seeing it happen.

The other several thousand words of the piece elaborates on how we get from here to there, and it’s amazing. Frum doesn’t generalize. He explains in detail why it’s highly likely that the checks and balances we rely on — from official ones like Congress to unofficial ones like the press — are being quite effectively neutralized. He sets out beautifully, for instance, how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are motivated to look the other way because they need Trump more than he needs them. It explains so much.

As for the media, well, Trump is redefining the nature of truth itself, or at least the way Americans regard it. An example of how that works:

One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. During November and December, the slow-moving California vote count gradually pushed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote further and further: past 1 million, past 1.5 million, past 2 million, past 2.5 million. Trump’s share of the vote would ultimately clock in below Richard Nixon’s in 1960, Al Gore’s in 2000, John Kerry’s in 2004, Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012—and barely ahead of Michael Dukakis’s in 1988.

This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.

It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.

If you sow enough cynicism, you don’t have to murder journalists or imprison opponents. There are subtler ways of achieving autocracy, which have been employed in recent years in places like Hungary, and we Americans are just beginning to learn about them.

He sort of leaves open the idea that Trump is a fascist, and moves beyond it, to tell us that our notions and labels and expectations are behind the times:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead….

But I’m not going to be able to do justice to this piece with excerpts. You need to go read it yourself. If you care, you have to.

I’ll just close with a neat thing Frum did today on Twitter. He set out some of the main points of his essay with a series of 21 Tweets. Here they are:

2) Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).

3) In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk

4) In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions

5) Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters

6) American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …

7) … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress

8) The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection

9) Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …

10) … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.

11) And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look

12) Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.

13) So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.

14) Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.

15) But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle

16) The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to dealmaking as usual.

17) As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …

18) GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president

19) And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not

20) Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.

21) I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself. END.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Putting your heads in the sand is no solution

coalition

I thought this was pretty dumb:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Democratic Coalition Urges People to #BlackoutTrump During Speech Tonight

February 28th, 2017 – Washington, DC – The Democratic Coalition, part of Keep America Great PAC, today called on people to skip watching President Trump’s address to Congress. Using the hashtag #BlackoutTrump, the organization urged Americans to do something that will actually help “Make America Great Again.”

“Donald Trump cares about ratings more than he cares about this country and its people,” said Scott Dworkin, Senior Advisor to the Democratic Coalition. “Let’s send him a message by skipping his speech and instead working to help the people his administration is going to hurt.”

There are lots of ways to use the time that would otherwise be wasted watching the President talk about how terrible our country is. The Democratic Coalition provided a quick list:

-Plan your attendance at a townhall – if GOP members of Congress ever hold them again
-Get organized for campaign volunteer opportunities
-Volunteer to rebuild recently desecrated Jewish cemeteries or clean anti-Semiitc graffiti off houses of worship
-Make calls to raise money for organizations that help refugees
-Dine out at literally any restaurant in the nation (providing work for immigrants)
-Call your member of Congress urging them to keep ACA in place
-Volunteer to improve your local community
-Retweet/Share the hashtag #BlackoutTrump
-Review the Dossier on Trump’s connections with Russia, more of which gets confirmed daily

Jarad Geldner, Senior Advisor of The Democratic Coalition added: “Though it will be closely watched in Russia, this speech doesn’t really mean anything to Americans. The President’s been in office an excruciating 39 days, but he hasn’t really accomplished anything beyond signing executive orders that scare people. We should all focus on ensuring that he cannot enact his agenda which aims to rob America of all its greatness.”

The hashtag was first deployed in late January, by deploying it today, the Super PAC intends to send the message that the American people are stronger and less divided than the White House would have us believe.

About The Democratic Coalition

The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, now The Democratic Coalition, formed in the Spring of 2016, with the main goal of making sure that Donald Trump never became President. The Democratic Coalition now exists to hold the Trump White House accountable, and is directly countering Donald Trump, along with Republican elected officials and candidates who support him, through aggressive digital and traditional advertising, grassroots action, in-depth opposition research, and a nationwide rapid-response team.The organization has chairs in all 50 states, comprised of Democratic elected officials, party chairs, delegates, grassroots leaders and activists.

Really? You’re going to get rid of this guy by hurting his ratings? And you don’t think going in ignorance about the insane things he may say is a bit of a high cost to pay to accomplish that?

You want a hashtag? How about #Vigilance?

Did you notice what the release said in the “about” footer? “The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, now The Democratic Coalition, formed in the Spring of 2016, with the main goal of making sure that Donald Trump never became President.”

Yeah, great job. Evidently, you still have the same strategists running your organization…

The LAST thing we need is more partisanship

The usual partisan nonsense is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

The usual partisan rubbish is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

There’s an argument I keep having with Democrats lately, on social media and elsewhere.

On one such occasion recently,  I went on at some length in writing. And as y’all probably know, I hate to spend time typing something and then not put it on the blog. So I’ll share it with you.

This was on an email thread started by friend of mine who has a long list of people he regularly shares things with. On this occasion, he was sharing this story from The New York Times: “Who Hasn’t Trump Banned? People From Places Where He’s Done Business.”

Well, I couldn’t read the Times piece because I’d exceeded my free reads for the month, and I have no intention of subscribing. But I was able to read this response from another recipient of the email — someone who you can see is obviously a Democrat (and someone I’m not going to name because I have no indication he meant it to be published):

An answer:  do not normalize the Administration in any way whatsoever.

An answer:  daily resistance.

An answer:  reorganize the left-of-center ship—and well, frankly, be organized—and call failed leadership to account.

An answer:  approach 2018 as if the everything is on the line (it is).  It’s time to stop playing backyard croquet campaigns.

An answer:  Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans.  (I can’t even believe I live in a state where that is necessary to type.)

I responded thusly:

I agree with [the gentleman] that Trump must not be normalized, and that he must be resisted daily — which I certainly do on my blog.

I disagree VEHEMENTLY with his apparent assumption that the answer is more partisanship… Especially his assertion that “Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans…”

There is nothing MORE likely to normalize Trump than to treat this problem as just another inning in the absurd left-right, Democratic-v.-Republican game.

You really need to get out of that “left-of-center” rut and recognize that Trump is a phenomenon that has no place on the left-right spectrum. He is a unique problem, unlike anything this country has ever seen.

And conservatives — real conservatives — are just as capable of seeing that as liberals. If not more so — at least they can see this is not about the usual partisan games.

You need those people — and people like me who reject the whole left-right thing altogether (and are fed up with it) — on your side in the matter of Trump.

This isn’t about winning the next inning of the perpetual game in 2018.

This guy has to go. And you know who has to reach that conclusion? Republicans in Congress.

Yep, we’re a long way from that happening right now. Republican members are tiptoeing around as though in a minefield.

But you and I and everyone who understands what a threat to the nation Trump truly is should do anything and everything we can to give them room to reach the right conclusion.

And every time a Democrat tries to make it about party, that makes Republicans more likely to close ranks. In other words, it normalizes the situation.

You know where you could start to make the situation better? By supporting and encouraging Republicans who have the guts to stand up to Trump. Sure, it’s just Graham and McCain so far, and writers such as Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens. But the more of this bad craziness that Stephens wrote about today that we see, the more likely others are to wake up.

… IF the rest of us don’t chase them back into their partisan comfort zones. Which I see too many Democrats are eager to do.

MORE of the partisan nonsense that has turned off people across the political spectrum, from Sanders’ supporters to Trump’s, is most assuredly NOT the answer to this national crisis.

It’s time to rise above, and help all Americans, not just those of your own ideological ilk, to see what’s at stake…

I wrote all that in response to an email thread on Jan. 31. Since then, I’ve seen more and more instances in which Democrats act like this is business as usual. For instance, there is talk of pulling out all the stops to try to block Neil Gorsuch from the Supreme Court. Which is insane. It shows that these Democrats completely fail to understand what is going on — or, they don’t care.

Gorsuch is a highly qualified nominee and representative of the kind of judge that a mainstream Republican would nominate. If Democrats waste what tiny amounts of political capital they have left (were it gunpowder, they’d hardly have enough for a firecracker) on this, then they’re saying Trump doesn’t pose any sort of extraordinary problem for the nation — because they’d do the same with any Republican president.

It’s hard to think of a better way for Democrats to normalize Trump than to fight Gorsuch with all their might.

Bottom line, it just looks increasingly unlikely that the Democratic Party is going to play any kind of constructive role in helping the country out of this mess. Which leaves it up to the rest of us.

Well, that’s the UnParty response. What’s yours?

Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians

If you’d like to soothe your jangled nerves with an interesting intellectual take on WTF just happened to America, you might want to read this piece in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead, Columbia native and “radical centrist.”

It’s headlined, “The Jacksonian Revolt.”

Mead

Mead

Here’s the short version: We Hamiltonians and Wilsonians (going by Mead’s descriptions, I’m kind of both, which is unsurprising) have pretty much defined America’s prevailing values and role in the world for the past 70 years. We thought this was the natural, proper order of things, and the way everything was trending as well. But while we were thinking globally and in terms of universal principles, there was… I suppose one would call it discontent… at home. The Jeffersonians (a category that includes Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, which clues you in that I’m not one of them) thought this was a wave they could ride to power, but they reckoned without the way the Jacksonians ran in and grabbed the nation by the throat with all the thoughtfulness and refinement of the backwoodsmen who trashed the White House after the original Jackson’s inauguration. (Some of the editorializing in that last sentence is me, not Mead. In case you wondered.)

Mead is not saying anything new, for him or anyone else — I called your attention to him when he made some of the same points more than a year ago. And I’ve spent much of the past year worrying that our country was repeating the horror of the Election of 1828, only more so.

But now that it’s happened, and now that this latter-day Jackson is trashing not just the White House, but practically every aspect of rational U.S. policy in the world, this seems like a good time for a deeper look into what has happened, and is happening.

An excerpt from Mead’s piece:

The distinctively American populism Trump espouses is rooted in the thought and culture of the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians—who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base—the United States is not a political entity created and defined by a set of intellectual propositions rooted in the Enlightenment and oriented toward the fulfillment of a universal mission. Rather, it is the nation-state of the American people, and its chief business lies at home. Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. The role of the U.S. government, Jacksonians believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home—and to do that while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique. 

Jacksonian populism is only intermittently concerned with foreign policy, and indeed it is only intermittently engaged with politics more generally. It took a particular combination of forces and trends to mobilize it this election cycle, and most of those were domestically focused. In seeking to explain the Jacksonian surge, commentators have looked to factors such as wage stagnation, the loss of good jobs for unskilled workers, the hollowing out of civic life, a rise in drug use—conditions many associate with life in blighted inner cities that have spread across much of the country. But this is a partial and incomplete view. Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump—flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be—seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival….

As you can see, his tones are measured as he describes this resurgence of anti-intellectualism in our politics. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you may find reading the piece soothing. Then again, maybe you won’t…

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night.

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night. Even I’m nicer to them than that…

People, can you just chill a bit over court nominations, please?

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So Trump nominated someone last night for the Supreme Court, and it looks like he had good advice and listened to it for a change: I’ve seen no indications at all that this Gorsuch guy is anything other than a qualified jurist. Which means that, in a rational world — barring currently unknown problems coming to light — his confirmation should be routine. Which would be welcome; we have enough turmoil in our public life at the moment.

But then, I read this main story (there were many sidebars) about the nomination in The Washington Post:

President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, opting in the most important decision of his young presidency for a highly credentialed favorite of the conservative legal establishment to fill the opening created last year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia….

WHAT?The most important decision?” In what way, in what sense, in what universe completely lacking in any sense of proportion?

To keep it simple, let’s just consider three things this “young presidency” has done that are much more far-reaching in likely effect:

  1. Pulling out of TPP. This has disengaged America from the Pacific Rim, and invited the accelerated rise of China, in a way that is likely to have staggering consequences in this century both for us and for the billions of others affected — economically, strategically, culturally and almost any other “-ly” you care to name.
  2. Sticking a finger in the eye of every Muslim on the planet. Never mind the momentary unjust treatment of 90,000 or so individuals from Muslim countries, or the unconscionably inhumane “no” to refugees. This has indelibly engraved in a billion or so people’s minds that America regards them and their faith as the enemy, the one impression that our last two presidents have gone out of their way to avoid giving, even as they prosecuted the War on Terror.
  3. Naming Gen. Mattis as defense secretary. Just as Gorsuch’s appears to be, this was one of Trump’s rare good calls. Deciding upon such a qualified leader for our military at a time when the world is so unsettled and there are so many places where things can go really wrong really quickly was of the utmost importance. But it was also an historic precedent, since we had avoided naming recent generals to that post for my entire life. (By contrast, presidents have named LOTS of Supreme Court justices who have come and gone in my life, and none of them held immediate sway over the immense power of the U.S. military.)

Speaking of Mattis — despite the semi-Constitutional issue his nomination raised, an issue worthy of respectful consideration, but not one that should have been an obstacle in light of his qualifications, and of the nation’s desperate need of some qualified people at this point in our history — all but one senator had the good sense to confirm him.

And if our nation had good sense, something similar would happen with Gorsuch. Will it?

No, of course not. As another piece in the Post, by the venerable Dan Balz, noted:

The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before.

Yes, it will. Else we would all be shocked. (I, for one, would be pleasantly surprised.) And what is likely to happen will be an utter waste of energy in a time when political capital needs to be saved for so many other more important battles.

My attitude toward Gorsuch is exactly the same as it was toward President Obama’s pick for this seat, Merrick Garland. They were both qualified for the job. They had already been vetted; they had already proved themselves. They had the requisite knowledge and experience, and reputations for probity and good judgment. There were detectable differences in judicial philosophy — differences that in a calm, proportional world would matter only to legal scholars. But both were qualified for the job — far more qualified than most people elected to Congress, for instance.

Whether one or the other was confirmed is not the Ultimate Issue. It’s not Armageddon.

Here’s the way I see it: The vast, vast majority of times the Court decides cases with wisdom and with ultimate respect for the law and for our civilization. Most decisions are unanimous — which seems remarkable to this layman, since the court deals mainly in matters lower courts were unable to settle conclusively. This has been the case over the decades, no matter whether the majority of the court is labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” Controversy exists only in a minority of cases, and most of those are at least decided intelligently, even if not the way you or I would prefer.

This has been true my entire lifetime.

To me, this testifies to presidents and senators having done a phenomenal job of picking good, qualified justices. The political branches have a much better record in this than in any other area I can think of.

Am I unhappy with some of the decisions? You bet. My opposition to Roe v. Wade is well documented here. I object not only to its legalization of abortion, but to the devastating effect that decision has had on our national politics — specifically, to exacerbating the very problem that I’m on about in this post.

(Considered logically, I am if anything even more opposed to the absurd precedent upon which Roe is based — the Griswold decision, which magically “discovered” an absolute right to privacy hiding in the shadows of the Constitution, a right that had somehow gone unnoticed in the nation’s previous 189 years.)

Today, in part because of Roe, we have vast numbers of people — thousands, if not millions of Americans will vote for a president based largely if not entirely on the basis of what sort of justices he or she is likely to name — “liberal” or “conservative.” Which is insane, given the far more immediate and far-ranging powers of the presidency. A president has the power, at every morning of every day, to make decisions that could lead to the destruction of all human life on this planet — and yet people will actually let their vote be decided on a narrow range of factors involved in a decision the president might make once, or maybe twice, in a four- or eight-year period.

It’s ridiculous. It’s far out of rational proportion.

Of course, since I’ve described the devastating effect of that one decision on our nation’s politics, you might say judicial nominations should be treated as seriously as they are. But no. That decision was an aberration. The number of bad decisions made by presidents in the same period of time since, say, Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott is far, far vaster. Which argues that we ought to devote more of our attention and political energy on the 99.999 percent of what a president does, and less on this one.

Maybe Dan Balz and other experienced observers are wrong — just as they were wrong about Trump’s electoral chances.

Maybe the enormity of what Trump is doing in virtually every other area within his authority will shock our political players into having a sense of proportion. Maybe they’ll save their powder for the big battles that must be fought, some of which (who knows?) might even be won by the forces of reason. Maybe this confirmation will be as routine as it should be, as most of them should be.

But I doubt it. There is a vast infrastructure of political advocacy out there that exists purely for fights such as this one. And both political parties are closely wedded to those interest groups, and fearful of not doing their bidding with utmost zeal.

We’ll see…