Friedman and Cohen

August 23, 2017

The Moustache of Wisdom sends us “From Kabul to Baghdad, My Bird’s-Eye View.”  He says a five-nation tour offered a close look at the war on terror and disturbing context for Trump’s plans for Afghanistan.  Mr. Cohen addresses “Trump’s Afghan Illusions” and tells us that the new Afghan strategy is a mess because it has no diplomatic component.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Baghdad:

I just spent eight days traveling with the Air Force to all of its key forward bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. So President Trump’s speech on Monday night was very timely for me. It was also unnerving.

It was so full of bombast and clichés, so larded with phrases like “we will break their will,” so lacking in details and, most of all, so lacking in humility in confronting a problem and a region that has vexed better men for ages that I still don’t know where he’s going — only that he is going there very definitively.

I totally agreed with the president’s remarks that our men and women serving in the Middle East “deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home.” But the rank hypocrisy of this man — who has done so much to divide us in recent months to satisfy only his “base” — using our troops as a prop to extol the virtues of national unity made me sick to my stomach.

It also made me recall a lunch I had last week in the mess hall at Bagram Airfield, near Kabul, with Chief Master Sgt. Cory Olson from the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. Olson explained that working in Afghanistan he was really disconnected from all the political turmoil in America.

And then he told me this story: “I was talking to this civilian contractor the other day who just came back from a couple of weeks’ home leave in Dallas. And this guy told me he was really relieved to get back to ‘reality’ in Kabul — because the politics back home was so crazy.”

You know that American politics has jumped the rails when a U.S. contractor is relieved to get back from America to his little base in Afghanistan.

Anyway, enough of that. Since I can’t explain Trump’s Middle East, let me explain what I saw here — three things in particular: I saw a new way of mounting warfare by the United States in Iraq. I saw in this new warfare a strategy that offers at least a glimmer of hope for Iraq, if and when ISIS is defeated. But, though only a glimpse, I saw in Afghanistan an eroding stalemate — with all the same issues that have undermined stability there for years: government corruption, distrust among Afghans and perfidious interventions by Pakistan and Iran.

The best way for me to explain what’s new in Iraq is with a scene I watched unfold on Saturday. We were at the joint strike cell in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is where multiple Air Force television feeds come in live from drones, U-2s, satellites and U.S. and coalition fighter jets. The officers there are coordinating with Iraqi Army combat forces on the ground and their U.S. military advisers embedded just behind the battlefront to hit ISIS targets as the Iraqi Army begins its push west.

Having retaken Mosul, the Iraqi Army is driving ISIS into the Euphrates River Valley, where it looks like it will make a last stand. This was the second day of the Iraqis’ thrust west and they were already meeting resistance in a small town on the road to ISIS-controlled Tal Afar. Several U.S. eyes in the sky were trained on a single-story, flat-roof building, about 30 feet wide, sandwiched between two larger buildings. Iraqi soldiers crawling toward this building were receiving lots of small-arms fire from inside, stalling their advance about 500 feet away.

Their U.S. advisers were sending all this information to the strike cell in real time. Meanwhile in the strike cell, team members sitting in front of computer screens were calculating exactly how much firepower was required to kill the ISIS fighters and not hurt any civilians who might be nearby. They did a quick tally of the remaining weapons on the American fighter aircraft in the area — seeing which had what smart bombs left.

Seconds later a call of “weapon away, 30 seconds” rang out as an F-15E released a 500-pound GPS-guided smart bomb. The screen rebroadcasting the F-15E’s targeting pod showed the bomb going straight down through the roof.

“We have splash,” said one of the controllers in a monotone as a huge plume of smoke engulfed the video screen. Quickly, the smoke cleared and the 30-foot-wide building was smoldering rubble — but the two buildings to the sides were totally intact, so any civilians inside should be unhurt.

The officer in charge told me that a few weeks earlier, during the campaign to retake Mosul, two Iraqi soldiers were wounded and hiding from an ISIS unit inside a building 15 yards away. Using laser targeting, the U.S. team fired a rocket whose size, direction and shape were chosen to take down only the ISIS building and make its walls fall in the opposite direction of the two pinned-down Iraqis. The rocket worked as intended and they were rescued.

This is war in Iraq today in a nutshell.

For years we’ve measured our involvement in Middle East wars by one pair of indexes — boots on the ground and killed in action. Because of that, most Americans are now paying scant attention to Iraq, where our boots on the ground have shrunk to a few thousand and where there have been just 17 U.S. military deaths since we re-engaged in Iraq to defeat ISIS in 2014.

But the real story is wings in the air. We are involved in a gigantic military enterprise in Iraq. But it’s with massive conventional air power married to unconventional special forces, who are advising the Iraqi Army that is actually doing the ground fighting. This is making our presence in Iraq much more sustainable for us and for the Iraqis.

Ironically, it might never have happened had President Barack Obama not withdrawn our combat troops from Iraq in 2011 because Iraqis couldn’t agree on a legal formula for their staying.

After that, the then-Shiite-led Iraqi government began abusing Sunnis, and ISIS emerged in response. That forced Iraqis to rethink their relationship with us. A U.S. Air Force special operations officer told me of returning to Iraq in early 2014 and meeting with the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service — the only truly professional, nonsectarian fighting unit then left in the country. The U.S. officer had come to ask the CTS what material aid the U.S. could offer in the fight against ISIS, and the CTS commander responded that he didn’t need aid. “We want you,” he said.

And so Obama began slowly reintroducing U.S. Special Forces back into Iraq and, for the first time, sending some into Syria, all in a totally new context. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, we destroyed the government from the top down. Wetoppled Saddam’s statue. And we were advised largely by Iraqi exiles of dubious legitimacy in local eyes.

It became our war, producing iconic pictures of U.S. soldiers kicking down doors and pointing guns at cowering women.

Even though ISIS emerged after we left, we have now returned at the invitation of Iraqis from the bottom up, not exiles — making our presence much more legitimate and sustainable for any long fight. Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were forced to unify, at least minimally, to defeat ISIS, opening new possibilities.

This is Iraq’s war of liberation. They own it.

I met Marine Col. Seth Folsom, who commands a forward special operations air base, Al-Asad, in the western Iraqi desert. It was 120 degrees outside, but he had a bounce in his step.

“I was here in 2003 and in 2008,” he told me. In those days, if he had a convoy going through a town it would speed 100 miles an hour not to get shot at or blown up, pushing Iraqi cars out of the way, creating resentments. “Now we are driving with the Iraqis. It’s a paradigm shift. It doesn’t even seem like the same country to me. Now I am saying to my Iraqi counterparts, ‘What do you want to do?’”

So we are fighting a very different war in Iraq, which Trump has amped up. But you can’t grasp its true dimensions unless you go to the overall U.S. regional air headquarters in Qatar and watch on giant screens a 24/7 choreography that boggles the mind: B-52s, U-2s, F-16s, F-22s, F-35s, F-15s, A-10s, C-17s, V-22s, U-28s, C-130s, JStars, AWACs, satellites and unmanned Reapers and Predators — all fueled aloft by a fleet of KC-10 and KC-135 flying gas stations — that have conducted 23,934 strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, using 84,585 precision-guided bombs, since we came back in 2014.

There is much still to worry about. At the joint operations headquarters in Baghdad, U.S. officers plan on computer screens and the Iraqi planners on wall-size maps with markers and blue arrows representing troops that they move around. It can drive American planners crazy when speed is of the essence.

More worrying: American advisers at the joint operations headquarters told me that many of their Iraqi counterparts take their uniforms off before they go home at night. Not everyone respects them for working with the Americans, particularly in the hard-line Shiite areas. Some have even had to change houses.

And yet, they still show up, and their men still fought house-to-house to recapture Mosul, taking huge casualties. At the height of the battle for Mosul, the U.S. Air Force field hospital at Al-Asad Air Base treated many Iraqi soldiers. The U.S. officer who heads the hospital told us that when the first Iraqi wounded soldier arrived, and he desperately needed blood, the U.S. commander asked for six volunteers. Some 50 American military personnel showed up to donate.

“It is one thing for us to be respectful of the Iraqis and another to respect the Iraqis,” the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein, remarked to me. “Today there is mutual respect. We admire their tenacity.”

All of that said, I am still wary. There is no slam-dunk here. While ISIS is on the run, lasting victory in Iraq depends entirely on whether Iraqis can come together — not just to fight a shared enemy but to build a shared government — the morning after ISIS is defeated.

Alas, there is no “power-sharing” bomb that we can drop on the Iraqi Parliament that will make Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds trust one another enough to live together as equal citizens. And there is no “culture-buster” bomb that we can drop that will burrow deep into Iraqi/Arab culture and stop them from always letting their past bury their future and instead start letting their future bury their past.

Culture always trumps strategy and only they can change their political culture. As the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, put it to me: After ISIS is defeated, Iraqis need to produce a government “for all Iraqis.” It cannot be a government where “Sunnis feel disenfranchised.” We better have in place a strategy for coaching Iraqis on power-sharing as much as we did on dynamic targeting. Otherwise, the morning after ISIS 1.0 is defeated we’ll see ISIS 2.0.

The war in Afghanistan is different. The air power component is there but U.S. Special Forces are still doing too much fighting and dying. And Trump talked on Monday night like they will now do more. And we don’t have the legitimacy you now feel in Iraq.

Personal security for our Afghan allies is still minimal. I stood on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield and listened as a U.S.-trained Afghan pilot explained that the last thing he does before climbing into the cockpit is call home to be sure his kids have not been abducted by the Taliban, who know that he works with the U.S. and have threatened him repeatedly.

Again, the fact that this pilot is still ready to fly with the U.S. shows real courage. He wants something different for his country, and he’s not alone. But is he in the majority? Clearly he’s got neighbors who don’t think that we, or the Afghan government we’re supporting, are legitimate. Culture trumps strategy.

This is going to take ages to fix, and if you fix Afghanistan, well, you fix Afghanistan. So what. If you fix Iraq with a real power-sharing accord you create a model that can radiate out across the Arab world, because Iraq is a microcosm of the Arab world, with Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and many others.

I slept well in the U.S. Embassy green zone in Baghdad, which is protected outside by Iraqis. Two nights earlier we slept at the Bagram base near Kabul and were repeatedly awakened by a blaring loudspeaker saying “take cover,” because another rocket was coming in.

For the moment — and I stress moment — we have a sustainable military strategy to defeat ISIS in Iraq. But a sustainable political outcome depends on Iraqis rising to the occasion. I do not see that in Afghanistan and I did not hear it in Trump’s speech. I fear our choices there are unchanged: lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Here was Donald Trump tethered by his generals. The new-old Afghan war strategy set out by the president Monday night contained a Trump line or two — terrorists as “losers,” the nixing of “nation-building” — but was the work of the adults in the room. They forced the commander-in-chief to curtail his wilder instincts.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, both have bitter experience of Afghanistan. John Kelly, the chief of staff, lost his 29-year-old son, First Lt. Robert Kelly, there. They were not about to let Trump declare Afghanistan “a complete waste,” as he did in 2012, and walk away.

In a sense this is reassuring. Trump is not home alone. He fires off, gets a lesson on the real world, bridles again, and is momentarily muted. Qatar, North Korea, Iran and Charlottesville: the pattern repeats itself. It’s ominous but it has not sent the world over a cliff, yet.

And now we have Afghanistan, the nearly 16-year-old war that just became Trump’s war, against the wishes of Steve Bannon, his ousted chief strategist.

The decision not to leave was the right decision; and Trump was also right to note that telegraphing future pullout dates for American troops, as President Obama did, is military folly. Ashraf Ghani, the embattled Afghan president, needs United States help in holding the line against an invigorated Taliban. But what Trump announced did not amount to a strategy, let alone a new one. It amounted rather, in the tweeted words of Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, to “a set of incoherent slogans.”

Trump talked plenty about “victory” but did not even attempt to define what would constitute it. That’s because there can be no military victory in Afghanistan. The best that can be hoped for is keeping the Taliban from power, and bolstering government forces to the point the Taliban can be persuaded to sue for peace. In other words, the end game can only be diplomatic.

Yet Trump has eviscerated the State Department. He has not named an ambassador to Afghanistan; he has eliminated the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; he has shown no inclination to engage allies or Afghanistan’s neighbors on ways to end the war.

While the president talked distantly of reaching “a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban,” his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was explicit about supporting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban “without preconditions”: the usual disconnect.

Iran could have been helpful; Trump has rebuffed it in his Saudi love trance. Russia could have been helpful; Trump is paralyzed by his Moscow secrets with respect to President Vladimir V. Putin. So Iran and Russia will do their worst in Afghanistan. As for China, another important regional player, it did not even get a mention.

Trump invited India “to help us more with Afghanistan” — effectively holding a red rag to the Pakistani bull. The military in Pakistan will be enraged by the combination of Trump’s blunt (if justified) criticism and blandishments to India. This looks like sheer diplomatic stupidity. I wonder if the State Department, whose expertise has been flouted since January, even got to vet the speech.

The Afghan war could have been ended a long time ago when people still remembered what it was about. But the United States diverted its forces and treasure to Iraq. Then Obama, in preparing to withdraw from Iraq, tried to compensate with a hapless “surge” in Afghanistan. This is a zigzagging chapter in American military history that soldiers are not about to resolve now. The mission became a mess; some 2,400 American troops have given their lives for a moving target. Trump’s words did nothing to redress this shame.

“Trump put forward no coherent plan for finishing the war,” Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me. “He needs a serious diplomatic tack.”

The problem is Trump has no notion of diplomacy. He looked like an impersonator as he spoke, a man pretending to be something we know he’s not. A man of such evident moral shallowness, to whom personal sacrifice is a stranger, cannot speak of valor, bravery and heroism without becoming cringe-worthy.

He spoke of “principled realism.” His presidency has been about unprincipled recklessness: allies shunned, dalliances with dictators, environmental sabotage. The man who earlier this month could not distinguish between neo-Nazi white supremacists with blood on their hands and leftist protesters calls for America’s soldiers to come home to a country that rejects bigotry and “has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty.”

Really?

Shortly after Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, lost his son in Afghanistan, he gave a eulogy for two marines killed in Iraq. Kelly described how, confronted by a suicide bomber in a truck, “they never stepped back. They never even started to step aside. They never even shifted their weight.”

For that brave act, of course, they needed something Trump will never have: a center of gravity.

Solo Bobo

August 22, 2017

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “What Moderates Believe.”  He babbles that instead of ideology, moderation is a way of coping with the complexity of the world.  “Gemli” from Boston will have a few words to say.  Here’s Bobo:

Donald Trump is not the answer to this nation’s problems, so the great questions of the moment are: If not Trump, what? What does the reaction to Trump look like?

For some people, the warriors of the populist right must be replaced by warriors of the populist left. For these people, Trump has revealed an ugly authoritarian tendency in American society that has to be fought with relentless fervor and moral clarity.

For others, it’s Trump’s warrior mentality itself that must be replaced. Warriors on one side inevitably call forth warriors on the other, and that just means more culture war, more barbarism, more dishonesty and more dysfunction.

The people in this camp we will call moderates. Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate. It is too milquetoast. But I’ve been inspired by Aurelian Craiutu’s great book “Faces of Moderation” to stick with this word, at least until a better one comes along.

Moderates do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world. Moderates tend to embrace certain ideas:

The truth is plural. There is no one and correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth. Sometimes immigration restrictions should be loosened to bring in new people and new dynamism; sometimes they should be tightened to ensure national cohesion. Leadership is about determining which viewpoint is more needed at that moment. Politics is a dynamic unfolding, not a debate that can ever be settled once and for all.

Politics is a limited activity. Zealots look to the political realm for salvation and self-fulfillment. They turn politics into a secular religion and ultimately an apocalyptic war of religion because they try to impose one correct answer on all of life. Moderates believe that, at most, government can create a platform upon which the beautiful things in life can flourish. But it cannot itself provide those beautiful things. Government can create economic and physical security and a just order, but meaning, joy and the good life flow from loving relationships, thick communities and wise friends. The moderate is prudent and temperate about political life because he is so passionate about emotional, spiritual and intellectual life.

Creativity is syncretistic. Voyagers don’t just pull their ideas from the center of the ideological spectrum. They believe creativity happens when you merge galaxies of belief that seem at first blush incompatible. They might combine left-wing ideas about labor unions with right-wing ideas about local community to come up with a new conception of labor law. Because they are syncretistic, they are careful to spend time in opposing camps, always opening lines of communication. The wise moderate can hold two or more opposing ideas together in her mind at the same time.

In politics, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The harm government does when it screws up — wars, depressions — is larger than the benefits government produces when it does well. Therefore the moderate operates from a politics of skepticism, not a politics of faith. He understands that most of the choices are among bad options (North Korea), so he prefers steady incremental reform to sudden revolutionary change.

Truth before justice. All political movements must face inconvenient facts — thoughts and data that seem to aid their foes. If you try to suppress those facts, by banning a speaker or firing an employee, then you are putting the goals of your cause, no matter how noble, above the search for truth. This is the path to fanaticism, and it always backfires in the end.

Beware the danger of a single identity. Before they brutalize politics, warriors brutalize themselves. Instead of living out several identities — Latina/lesbian/gun-owning/Christian — that pull in different directions, they turn themselves into monads. They prioritize one identity, one narrative and one comforting distortion.

Partisanship is necessary but blinding. Partisan debate sharpens opinion, but partisans tend to justify their own sins by pointing to the other side’s sins. Moderates are problematic members of their party. They tend to be hard on their peers and sympathetic to their foes.

Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.

Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.

If you have elected a man who is not awed by the complexity of the world, but who filters the world to suit his own narcissism, then woe to you, because such a man is the opposite of the moderate voyager type. He will reap a whirlwind.

Christ, what a load of horse pucky.  I love the “If you have elected” bit — actually, Bobo, Mein Fubar lost the popular vote.  Here’s what “gemli” has to say:

“There might have been a time when political moderation meant something, but those times ended long ago. These days, moderation means opting for a political solution that ensures a moderate number of women have back-alley abortions, or imprisons no more than, say, ten percent of an entire minority population for non-violent drug crimes, or accepts that just a few million of the old, sick and poor will have no health care.

We know a lot more than we did a generation or two ago, and moderation and knowledge are incompatible. When you know that gay people are simply ordinary human beings and not disgusting immoral monsters who wantonly flaunt God’s laws, you can’t watch them get turned out of businesses or prevent them from bonding with the people they love.

We can’t opt for a moderate amount of global climate catastrophe, by drawing the line when Florida is under water, or when a storm of the century occurs more often than once a week.

Moderation was nowhere to be found when Barack Obama was president, and the opposition party stonewalled his every moderate initiative. And yet we’re currently watching a Congress full of moderate Republicans having trouble distancing themselves from a crotch-grabbing narcissistic megamoron who’s defending neo-Nazis, blaming their dead victims and threating nuclear war with North Korea.

There is only one way to characterize what has become of the United States, and that’s to say we’ve gone moderately insane as a nation.”

Krugman’s blog, 8/20/17

August 21, 2017

There was one post yesterday, “The Political Failure of Trickle-Down Economics:”

Tomorrow’s column is in part about the political failure of Trumpcare, which was — despite all those populist noises during the campaign — a case of trickle-down economics on steroids: huge benefit cuts for lower- and middle-income families, to provide huge tax cuts for a tiny minority.

But was that failure really so exceptional?

We tend to think of the period since Reagan’s election as a conservative era; even though Republicans controlled the White House only a few years more than Democrats, there were lots of centrist Dems willing to cooperate with R agendas, versus almost no cooperation when Ds held the WH. And one tends to think of the period as a whole as involving tax-and-transfer policy tilting to the right.

Yet that’s not something that jumps out from the numbers. Think about taxes on the top 1%. Yes, Reagan and GW Bush cut them; but both Clinton and Obama raised them. The CBO estimates have some funny fluctuations, driven I think by capital gains: big capital gains raise tax receipts without a corresponding rise in measured income, as I understand it. Still, the overall picture is that at the end of the Obama years taxation of the rich was pretty much back where it was pre-Reagan:

Meanwhile, there were harsh cuts to some social programs — Clinton ended welfare as we knew it — but expansions of others. One simple metric: Medicaid enrollees as a percent of the nonelderly population, via the CDC:

I’m not saying that the “nation of takers” stuff, a vast population living off the dole and voting to tax their betters, is at all right. But it is true that a welfare state supported by progressive taxation has been much more robust than the year-by-year political narrative might lead you to think.

But in that case, why the incredible surge in inequality? Good question, and not that easy to answer. But there is, I think, a good case to be made that things like the collapse of unions and financial deregulation mattered a lot more than the taxing and spending issues we spend so much time talking about.

 

Blow and Krugman

August 21, 2017

Mr. Blow points out the obvious in “Failing All Tests of the Presidency.”  He tells us, as if we needed reminding, that there are no good Nazis.  Prof. Krugman asks “What Will Trump Do to American Workers?”  He says we should pay less attention to taxing and spending, more to power.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

We are leaderless. America doesn’t have a president. America has a man in the White House holding the spot, and wreaking havoc as he waits for the day when a real president arrives to replace him.

Donald Trump is many things — most of them despicable — but the leader of a nation he is not. He is not a great man. Hell, he isn’t even a good man.

Donald Trump is a man of flawed character and a moral cavity. He cannot offer moral guidance because he has no moral compass. He is too small to see over his inflated ego.

Trump has personalized the presidency in unprecedented ways — making every battle and every war about his personal feelings. Did the person across the street or around the world say good or bad things about him? Does the media treat him fairly? Is someone in his coterie of corruption outshining him or casting negative light on him?

His interests center on the self; country be damned.

What some have always known about Trump, others are slowly coming to realize, and with great shock and horror. The presidency is revealing the essence of the man and that essence is dark.

What America saw clearly in Trump’s disastrous handling of the violence in Charlottesville was a Nazi/white nationalist apologist if not sympathizer, a reactionary rage-aholic, a liar, and a person who has absolutely no sense or understanding of history.

By claiming that there were some “very fine people” among the extremists marching in Charlottesville, the president made a profound declaration: The accommodation of racists is his creed.

As Susan Bro, whose daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed in Charlottesville, said last week, “You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ” Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. used a speeding car to mow down a crowd of protesters who had gathered to rebuke the Nazis and white nationalists.

According to The Chicago Tribune, one of Fields’s high school teachers said he once “wrote a three-page homework paper that extolled Nazi ideology and the prowess of the Führer’s armed forces,” and that even before then, the teacher said, “he had been well aware of Fields’s racist and anti-Semitic beliefs from private discussions he had with Fields during his junior year.”

And even worse, The Tribune reported:

“At least four times when the boy was in the eighth and ninth grades, Florence police were summoned to his home, mostly by his frantic mother, Samantha Bloom, an I.T. specialist. It was just the two of them living together, and young James, among other incidents, was reported to have spat in her face, smacked her head with a phone and frightened her with a foot-long knife, according to records of the 911 calls. Neighbors, in interviews, similarly described a troubled youth who treated his mother cruelly.”

This was no fine person, and no person who walked shoulder-to-shoulder with him is a fine person. There are no good Nazis. There are no good white nationalist accommodators. There are no good people who see racists and don’t want to retch.

But somehow, the person we now call “president” saw what happened in Charlottesville, saw that a car had been used to kill Heyer, and still found it appropriate to say that there were bad people on “both sides.”

He cleaned that up in a teleprompter speech, but the next day returned to the defense of the indefensible, this time with even more verve and venom.

He apparently felt that the media had unfairly condemned him for his original remarks and he was going to be the counterpuncher and strike back at the media. Again, it was all about him, not us. But when he lashed out at the media, the cameras were rolling. There were no prepared remarks. There was no teleprompter. Trump stood exposed and in the raw, the deepest, truest thoughts of his soul erupting from his face, and what came out were bitterness and bile.

He was not there to heal the nation or to uplift it. He was there for personal exoneration and redemption. He wasn’t there to plead the case that America could rise on the wings of its better angels. He was there to defend the demons.

But, when one attempts to do a thing that can’t be done — that shouldn’t be done — one must employ the tools of deception: obfuscation, revisionism and flat-out lying.

Trump said that he had not initially condemned both sides because he wanted to wait to get all the facts, because that’s what he likes to do.

Lies.

On Saturday, when tens of thousands of protesters turned out to counter a small group of radical racists, Trump’s first response was to tweet: “Looks like many anti-police agitators in Boston. Police are looking tough and smart! Thank you.”

This man doesn’t wait for facts. This man doesn’t care about facts, or much else for that matter. He only cares about himself, his image and his positioning.

America is functioning, barely, without a functioning president. Trump is failing every test of the office. How frightening is that?

Terrifying, Mr. Blow, terrifying.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

With Steve Bannon out of the White House, it’s clearer than ever that Donald Trump’s promise to be a populist fighting for ordinary workers was worth about as much as any other Trump promise — that is, nothing. His agenda, such as it is, amounts to reverse Robin Hood with extra racism — the conventional Republican strategy of taking from struggling families to give to the rich, while distracting lower-income whites by attacking Those People, with the only difference being just how blatantly he plays the race card.

At first sight, however, the Trump version of this strategy doesn’t seem to be going very well. The attempt to repeal Obamacare was almost a caricature of trickle-down policy — take health coverage away from 20-plus million Americans while cutting taxes on a handful of wealthy individuals. But it was massively unpopular, and appears to have failed in Congress.

The next item on the agenda, tax “reform,” may not fare much better. I use scare quotes because a true reform, reducing some tax rates but making up for the lost revenue by closing loopholes, was never going to happen. Straight-out tax cuts, which benefit corporations and the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, might still go through, but even that looks doubtful.

So is the Trump agenda dead? Not necessarily, because trickle-down has never been the whole story of the Republican assault on workers. Or to put it another way: Don’t just watch Congress, keep your eyes on what federal agencies are doing.

When you step back and take the long view on trickle-down policies, what you realize is that Trump’s legislative failure is more the rule than the exception. The election of Ronald Reagan was supposed to have set America on a path toward lower taxes and smaller government — and it did, for a while. But those changes have largely been reversed.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, back in 1980 the top 1 percent paid 33 percent of its income in federal taxes. Under Reagan, that share briefly fell below 25 percent. But as of 2013, the most recent year covered, Obama’s tax hikes had brought federal taxes on the 1 percent back up to 34 percent of income.

What about safety net programs? Some were savagely cut — but others have grown, a lot. Take Medicaid, which in 1980 covered only 7 percent of nonelderly Americans. Today that number is up to 21 percent.

Looking only at taxing and spending, then, one might conclude that the conservative economic agenda has largely failed. But here’s the thing: While the rich still pay taxes and the safety net has in some ways gotten stronger, the decades since Reagan have nonetheless been marked by vastly increased inequality, with stagnating wages for most, but soaring incomes for a tiny elite. How did that happen?

Yes, globalization probably played some role, as did technology. But other wealthy countries, just as exposed to the winds of global change, haven’t seen anything like America’s headlong rush into a new Gilded Age. To understand what happened to us, and in particular to American workers, you need to look at policy — and especially the kind of policy that often flies under the media’s radar.

Take one example, covered a few months ago in a striking Times essay: the decline in the fortunes of truck drivers, whose pay used to make them members of the middle class. No more: Their real wages have fallen about a third since the 1970s, with most of the decline taking place during the Reagan years.

Now, globalization and technology haven’t destroyed trucking jobs; on the contrary, the industry is facing a labor shortage. What happened to truckers was, basically, the collapse of their bargaining power due in part to a changed ideological climate — not least at the National Labor Relations Board — that encouraged private employers to fight unionization, and in part to deregulation that undercut the position of unionized firms.

Take another example, at the opposite end of the spectrum: Does anyone doubt that financial deregulation played an important role in surging incomes at the very top of the income distribution?

Which brings us back to Trump and the effect he’ll have on America’s working class. Right now it looks as if he may have much less impact on taxing and spending than most people expected. But other policies, often made administratively by federal agencies rather than via legislation, can matter a lot.

True, Trump failed in his attempt to appoint a deeply anti-labor fast-food executive to head the Department of Labor. But the fact that he even tried to appoint Andrew Puzder tells you a great deal.

The point is that progressives shouldn’t celebrate too much over Trump’s legislative failures. As long as he’s in office, he retains a lot of power to betray the working people who supported him. And in case you haven’t noticed, betraying those who trust him is a Trump specialty.

Krugman, solo

August 18, 2017

In “Trump Makes Caligula Look Pretty Good” Prof. Krugman says unlike the senators of ancient Rome, the Republican Congress won’t deal with a rogue leader.  Here he is:

Even before the media obsession with Hillary Clinton’s email server put The Worst President Ever™ in the White House, historians were comparing Donald Trump to Caligula, the cruel, depraved Roman emperor who delighted in humiliating others, especially members of the empire’s elite. But seven months into the Trump administration, we can see that this comparison was unfair.

For one thing, Caligula did not, as far as we know, foment ethnic violence within the empire. For another, again as far as we know, Rome’s government continued to function reasonably well despite his antics: Provincial governors continued to maintain order, the army continued to defend the borders, there were no economic crises.

Finally, when his behavior became truly intolerable, Rome’s elite did what the party now controlling Congress seems unable even to contemplate: It found a way to get rid of him.

Anyone with eyes — eyes not glued to Fox News, anyway — has long realized that Trump is utterly incapable, morally and intellectually, of filling the office he holds. But in the past few days things seem to have reached a critical mass.

Journalists have stopped seizing on brief moments of not-craziness to declare Trump “presidential”; business leaders have stopped trying to curry favor by lending Trump an air of respectability; even military leaders have gone as far as they can to dissociate themselves from administration pronouncements.

Put it this way: “Not my president” used to sound like an extreme slogan. Now it has more or less become the operating principle for key parts of the U.S. system.

Despite this, it may seem on the surface as if the republic is continuing to function normally. We’re still adding jobs; stocks are up; public services continue to be delivered.

But remember, this administration has yet to confront a crisis not of its own making. Furthermore, a series of scary deadlines are looming. Never mind tax reform. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.

So who’s going to ensure that these critical deadlines are met? Not Trump, who’s too busy praising white supremacists and promoting his businesses. Maybe Republican leaders in Congress will still be able to wrangle their extremist members, who see crippling the government as a good thing, into the necessary deals.

But the revelation that these leaders were lying about health care all those years has destroyed their intellectual credibility — remember when people took Paul Ryan’s pretense of policy expertise seriously? And their association with President Caligula has destroyed their moral credibility, too. They could keep the government functioning by dealing with Democrats, but they’re afraid to do that, for the same reason they’re afraid to confront the madman in the White House.

For here’s the situation: Everyone in Washington now knows that we have a president who never meant it when he swore to defend the Constitution. He violates that oath just about every day and is never going to get any better.

The good news is that the founding fathers contemplated that possibility and offered a constitutional remedy: Unlike the senators of ancient Rome, who had to conspire with the Praetorian Guard to get Caligula assassinated, the U.S. Congress has the ability to remove a rogue president.

But a third of the country still approves of that rogue president — and that third amounts to a huge majority of the G.O.P. base. So all we get from the vast majority of elected Republicans are off-the-record expressions of “dismay” or denunciations of bigotry that somehow fail to name the bigot in chief.

It’s not just that Republicans fear primary challenges from candidates pandering to the racist right, although they do; Trump is already supporting challengers to Republicans he considers insufficiently loyal.

The fact is that white supremacists have long been a key if unacknowledged part of the G.O.P. coalition, and Republicans need those votes to win general elections. Given the profiles in cowardice they’ve presented so far, it’s hard to imagine anything — up to and including evidence of collusion with a foreign power — that would make them risk losing those voters’ support.

So the odds are that we’re stuck with a malevolent, incompetent president whom nobody knowledgeable respects, and many consider illegitimate. If so, we have to hope that our country somehow stumbles through the next year and a half without catastrophe, and that the midterm elections transform the political calculus and make the Constitution great again.

If that doesn’t happen, all one can say is God save America. Because all indications are that the Republicans won’t.

Blow and Collins

August 17, 2017

I do apologize for doing this later and later and later…  I’m battling a bout of PTSD — President Trump Stress Disorder.  Mr. Blow considers “The Other Inconvenient Truth” and says the Republican Party should acknowledge how it has fueled white supremacy.  They will, Charles, just as soon as pigs fly.  Ms. Collins tells us “How To Handle Donald Trump” and that what we don’t need to hear is what’s really on his mind.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Donald Trump chose Trump Tower, the place where he began his presidential campaign, as the place to plunge a dagger into his presidency.

Trump’s jaw-dropping defense of white supremacists, white nationalists and Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., exposed once more what many of us have been howling into the wind since he emerged as a viable candidate: That he is a bigot, a buffoon and a bully.

He has done nothing since his election to disabuse us of this notion and everything to confirm it. Anyone expressing surprise is luxuriating in a self-crafted shell of ignorance.

And yet, it seems too simplistic, too convenient, to castigate only Trump for elevating these vile racists. To do so would be historical fallacy. Yes, Trump’s comments give them a boost, grant them permission, provide them validation, but it is also the Republican Party through which Trump burst that has been courting, coddling and accommodating these people for decades. Trump is an articulation of the racists in Charlottesville and they are an articulation of him, and both are a logical extension of a party that has too often refused to rebuke them.

It’s not that Democrats have completely gotten this right, either. Too often, in response to the conservative impulse to punish, the liberal impulse is to pity. Pity does not alleviate oppression; it simply assuages guilt. The pity is not for the receiver but for the giver.

But in the modern age one party has operated with the ethos of racial inclusion and with an eye on celebrating varied forms of diversity, and the other has at times appealed directly to the racially intolerant by providing quiet sufferance.

It is possible to trace this devil’s dance back to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the emergence of Richard Nixon. After the passage of the act, the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln to which black people felt considerable fealty, turned on those people and stabbed them in the back.

In 1994 John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and a Watergate co-conspirator, confessed this to the author Dan Baum:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The era Ehrlichman referred to was the beginning of the War on Drugs. Nixon started his offensive in 1971, declaring in a speech from the White House Briefing Room: “America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

The object of disrupting communities worked all too well — more than 40 million arrests have been conducted for drug-related offenses since 1971, with African-Americans being incarcerated in state prisons for these offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that for whites, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 1970, Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips told The New York Times, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

The Republican Party wanted the racists. It was strategy, the “Southern Strategy,” and it too has proved wildly successful. From there this cancer took hold.

The party itself has dispensed with public confessions of this inclination — at least until Trump — but the white supremacy still survives and even thrives in policy. The stated goals of the Republican Party are not completely dissimilar from many of the white nationalist positions.

If you advance policies like a return to more aggressive drug policies and voter suppression — things that you know without question will have a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color, what does that say about you?

It says that you want the policies without the poison, but they can’t be made separate: The policies are the poison.

And yes, this is all an outgrowth of white supremacy, a concept that many try to apply only to vocal, violent racists but that is in fact more broadly applicable and pervasive.

People think that they avoid the appellation because they do not openly hate. But hate is not a requirement of white supremacy. Just because one abhors violence and cruelty doesn’t mean that one truly believes that all people are equal — culturally, intellectually, creatively, morally. Entertaining the notion of imbalance — that white people are inherently better than others in any way — is also white supremacy.

The position of opposing racial cruelty can operate in much the same way as opposition to animal cruelty — people do it not because they deem the objects of that cruelty their equals, but rather because they cannot countenance the idea of inflicting pain and suffering on helpless and innocent creatures. But even here, the comparison cleaves, because suffering black people are judged to have courted their own suffering through a cascade of poor choices.

This is passive white supremacy, soft white supremacy, the kind divorced from hatred. It is permissible because it’s inconspicuous. But this soft white supremacy is more deadly, exponentially, than Nazis with tiki torches.

This soft white supremacy is the very thing on which the open racists build.

The white nationalists and the Nazis simply take the next step (not an altogether illogical one when wandering down the crooked path of racial hostility) and they overlay open animus.

This is apparently what draws the ire, what leaves people aghast: open articulation of racial hatred. That to me is a criminal act of denial that refuses to deal with the reality that racism is also signified far more subtly than through the wielding of slurs and sticks.

White supremacy, all across the spectrum, is what lights the way to the final step as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated in his “The Other America” speech in 1967:

“In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide. Hitler was a sick and tragic man who carried racism to its logical conclusion. And he ended up leading a nation to the point of killing about six million Jews. This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him, if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

Republicans, these people and this “president” are your progeny. That is the other inconvenient truth.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Donald Trump is still president. Hard to know what to do with this, people.

In less than a week he’s managed to put on one of the most divisive, un-helpful, un-healing presidential performances in American history. It’s been a great stretch for fans of Richard Nixon and James Buchanan.

On Wednesday Trump had to dissolve his business advisory councils because the C.E.O.s were fleeing like panic-stricken geese from a jumbo jet. We now have a president who can’t get the head of Campbell Soup to the White House.

Trump also announced plans to hold a rally next week in Arizona, where he’s said he’s “seriously considering” a pardon for former sheriff Joe Arpaio, the loathsome racial profiler who never met a constitutional amendment he didn’t ignore. Arpaio’s treatment of Latinos won him a criminal contempt conviction, but of course that’s nothing to our leader.

We had no idea how bad this guy was going to be. Admit it — during the campaign you did not consider the possibility that if a terrible tragedy struck the country involving all of our worst political ghosts of the past plus neo-Nazism, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would know the appropriate thing to say but Donald Trump would have no idea.

George W. Bush would have been at the funeral for the slain civil rights demonstrator in a second. About the best Trump could do was to praise Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, for writing “the nicest things” about him. Bro did indeed express appreciation for the president’s denunciation of “those who promote violence and hatred.” That was his written-by-someone-else statement, which preceded the despicable impromptu version.

We’re only safe when he’s using prepared remarks. The extemporaneous Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville wasn’t just tone-deaf and heartless; you had to wonder about the overall mental balance of a man who managed to both defend the alt-right demonstrators in Virginia and brag about his real estate in the neighborhood.

“Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?” Trump asked the stunned reporters. “I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States. It’s in Charlottesville.”

It was truly the kind of performance you expect from a deranged person, brought out to explain why he blew up a large government building and inquiring cheerfully: “Has anybody seen my car? It’s really nice. A Ford Pinto.”

Also, Trump does not own one of the largest wineries in the United States. Trump Winery is one of the largest wineries in Virginia, which is like bragging you own one of the largest ski resorts in Ohio.

(There’s something about catching these wild misstatements and lies of self-aggrandizement that can actually be soothing in the worst of times. It’s a diversion that gives you a little break from wondering what’s going to happen to the country.)

Meanwhile, business executives were concluding it was morally compromising to be on the White House manufacturing council. It’s hard to imagine what else could happen before autumn kicks in.

We are just beginning to fully understand how critical it is for a president to have at least a minimal understanding of American history. This one seems to have only recently discovered he belongs to the same party as Abraham Lincoln. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” Trump told a political gathering. “Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”

His response to the biggest challenge of his presidency began by blaming “many sides” for the crisis. Then there was the reading of an appropriate, if way overdue, statement. Then came the disastrous press conference on Tuesday, when he was just supposed to read a brief description of the administration plan for infrastructure — something about giving road-builders a reprieve from having to consider the possibility of future flooding.

But he started to take questions and actually say things from his own mind. His staff looked worried, then nervous, then despairing.

Even when Trump is not historically wrong, or making things up to extol his own self-image, or failing to do even the least modicum of national healing at a time of crisis, he’s so incoherent that it’s possible to misunderstand what should be a simple thought.

“I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts,” he blathered at one pointthen lapsed into that terrible tendency to refer to himself in the third person. “And the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated. In fact, everybody said his statement was beautiful. …”

This can’t go on. We don’t have time to wait for impeachment. Patriotic Republicans and administration officials have to get together and find a way to make sure that Donald Trump will never again say anything in public that is not written on a piece of paper. It’s their duty to the country.

Friedman and Bruni

August 16, 2017

The Moustache of Wisdom weighs in on “Charlottesville, ISIS and Us” and says pluralism is America’s strength, both at home and abroad.  Tell that to the nest of Nazis in the White House, Tommy.  Mr. Bruni, in “Can’t Eclipse the American Spirit,” says what’s happening in the heavens is a bonanza on earth.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Al Udeid, Qatar:

I’ve been on the road since the Charlottesville killing. I am traveling around the Arab world and Afghanistan with the chief of the U.S. Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein; his civilian boss, the Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson; and their aides. We’re currently at the giant Al Udeid Air Base, from which America’s entire ISIS-Syria-Iraq-Afghanistan air war is run.

With all the news from Charlottesville, I was feeling in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then I looked around me here, and the connection with Charlottesville became obvious. Just one glance at our traveling party and the crews at this base and you realize immediately why we are the most powerful country in the world.

It’s not because we own F-22s. And it surely isn’t that we embrace white supremacy. It’s because we embrace pluralism. It’s because we can still make out of many, one.

I am a pluralism supremacist.

How could I not be? I look around me and see our Air Force chief, who is of Eastern European Jewish descent, reporting to a woman Air Force secretary, who was among the early women graduates of the Air Force Academy and whose senior aide is an African-American woman lieutenant colonel. The base commander here in Qatar, overseeing the whole air war, is of Armenian descent, and his top deputy is of Lebanese descent.

In the control center I’m introduced to the two Russian-speaking U.S. servicemen who 10 to 12 times a day get on the local “hotline” with the Russian command post in Syria to make sure Russian planes don’t collide with ours. One of the servicemen was born in Russia and the other left Kiev, Ukraine, just five years ago, in part, he told me, because he dreamed of joining the U.S. Air Force: “This is the country of opportunity.”

Then we get a briefing from the combat innovation team, which is designing a new algorithm for dynamic targeting with colleagues in Silicon Valley. I ask their commander about his last name — Ito — and he explains, “My dad is from Cuba and my mother is from Mexico.” The intelligence briefing was delivered by “Captain Yang.”

The very reason America is the supreme power in this region is that the U.S. military can take all of those different people and make them into a fist. And the very reason we are stuck in this region and can’t get out is that so many of the nation-states and people here are fighting only for their exclusivist dreams of supremacy — Shiite supremacy, Sunni supremacy, Alawite supremacy, Taliban supremacy, Turkish supremacy and Persian supremacy.

With a few exceptions, they can’t generate self-sustaining power-sharing. Which is why we keep defeating the worst of them and they keep losing the peace, because the best of them can never share power long enough and deep enough to build lasting stability.

None of the U.S. military people here talk U.S. politics. But I do. As a citizen, I say they deserve a commander in chief who does not need three tries to grudgingly denounce violent white supremacists. Pluralism is our true source of strength at home and abroad. It has to be nurtured, celebrated and protected from its enemies everywhere and always.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s talk strategy. We toured the command center here with its wall-size screens that take the data from satellites, drones, manned aircraft, cyber, sensors, human intelligence and aerial refueling tankers and meld them into a series of strategic targeting decisions. Watching the choreography of all this is both chilling and mesmerizing.

We are moving “from wars of attrition to wars of cognition,” explained General Goldfein. These new integrated systems are simultaneously “state of the art, unparalleled — and too slow for the future.”

On one recent day you could look up at those screens and find a Syrian fighter jet preparing to drop bombs near U.S. special forces in Syria. The Syrian jet is about to be blown out of the sky by a U.S. fighter jet, while two Russian fighters watch from a higher altitude and a stealth U.S. F-22 watches the Russians watching the U.S. plane watching the Syrian.

While that is all happening, the coastal Syrian surface-to-air system lights up as Turkish, Jordanian and Israeli jets buzz in and out of theater. And almost daily an Iranian-made drone being directed from the back of an R.V. by Iranian Revolutionary Guards members in the desert of eastern Syria is hunting for U.S. special forces. We’ve shot down a couple of those, too.

If you tried to sell this very real drama to a video game company, it would be rejected as unrealistic.

Just one U.S. fighter jet over Syria — and we have them in the air now 24/7 — has to be aerially refueled eight or nine times during its eight-hour mission. Add in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on any given day the Air Force is coordinating as many as 60 KC-135 tankers (aerial gas stations) operating over these three countries.

Meanwhile, ISIS is buying drones from online shopping sites, jury-rigging them with GoPro cameras and grenades and dropping them on U.S. and Iraqi troops, or it’s armor-plating S.U.V.s, loading them with explosives and a suicide bomber and turning them into Mad Max vehicles driven right into our troops or our allies.

The good news? ISIS, having been largely defeated in Iraq, will most likely be defeated in Syria, too, by Americans, Kurds, Russians, Syrians, Iranians and pro-Iranian militias. The bad news? There is a good chance that ISIS’ territory will ultimately fall under Iran’s sway.

Preventing that would require the Arab-Sunni Muslim world to get its act together, but it is as weak and divided as ever. That’s why Iran now indirectly controls four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Sana and Damascus. And what is really scary is that it controls them at a pretty cheap price through proxies. We can defeat ISIS extremism, with our pluralistic fighting machine, but the one thing we can’t do is create Sunni-Shiite pluralism and power-sharing to replace it. Which is why we keep getting dragged back — not to make things better but, as always, to prevent the bad from becoming the awful.

I wanted it to be otherwise, but it’s not. We tried. So, do we just keep trying? You can’t visit one of these huge U.S. bases built since 9/11, see the dedication of the young men and women, and the sophistication of the systems they have built, and not wonder: What if all of this talent and energy and idealism and pluralism were applied not to propping up a decrepit Arab state system against Iran, but instead fixing the worst neighborhoods of Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit?

We need to have a national discussion about this.

Yeah.  I’m sure we’ll get around to that after 3 or 4 Friedman Units.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Situated on a busy thoroughfare and oh so romantically named, the 1st Interstate Motel in Casper, Wyo., could stand improvement. Eight of its nine reviewers on Trip Advisor gave it the lowest rating possible, and they weren’t shy about their reasons. “Absolutely filthy.” “Two empty liquor bottles under the bed.” “Foul smell.” “Horrible smell.” “Hell hole.”

But you can snag a room this coming Sunday and Monday for only $1,211 a night, according to my recent search on hotels.com.

A bargain! No, really. The initially advertised rate was $1,346, for two queen beds. For a kitchenette as well, it was $1,616, later discounted to $1,454. Act now while supplies last.

What the 1st Interstate Motel has in lieu of an endurable odor is an exalted latitude: Casper lies on the path of towns and cities from Oregon to South Carolina that are set to experience a total eclipse on Monday. And this eclipse is a total mind-blower.

I don’t mean astronomically — moon smothers sun, day turns to night, birds freak out, all of that. I mean entrepreneurially. What’s happening in the heavens is a bonanza here on earth, in this money-minded patch of purple mountains, fruited plains and Donald Trump-branded properties called the United States.

Our response affirms that we Americans haven’t completely lost our savvy or our way. True, we failed to sniff out and stanch a presidential disaster in the making, and we’re stuck for now with a morally bankrupt plutocrat so defensive and deluded that he’s urging more nuance in the appraisal of neo-Nazis. But we still know a prime interplanetary opportunity when we see one.

The eclipse is precisely that. I’m not well versed in matters of the cosmos — I’ve never even made it through a whole episode of “The Big Bang Theory” — so I’ll describe its rareness in a vocabulary that I and most of you probably better understand. Envision a month in which the president didn’t golf. Imagine a sentence in which he didn’t brag. Fantasize a speech of his that made you proud. The eclipse is that rare.

Contradicting its name, it reveals rather than obscures many aspects of the American character. It’s a portal to the crafty, stagy, venal sum of us.

We Americans are marketers above all else. I wasn’t more than a few minutes into my eclipse research when I learned of the claim that Hopkinsville, Ky., makes to being “the point of greatest eclipse,” a reference to how long the eclipse will last there: 2 minutes 40 seconds.

To exploit this blessing, Hopkinsville has rebranded itself “Eclipseville,” built a snazzy website using that term and orchestrated an array of events. You can combine eclipse viewing with bourbon tasting, which didn’t surprise me, or with scuba diving, which did. When I think Kentucky, I somehow don’t think coral reefs.

You can of course purchase Eclipseville swag: fleece blankets, twill caps, T-shirts in sizes going all the way up to XXXL. We Americans merchandize, and we Americans swell.

We Americans splurge. For sale on a popular site for handmade crafts, there’s a $1,224 “solar eclipse diamond ring” with a series of gems that change colors incrementally from yellow to black and back again, thus evoking “the moon’s journey as it eclipses the sun.”

We Americans congregate. All along the eclipse’s path, there are small outdoor theaters and large outdoor stadiums in which eclipse watchers will come together, each with his or her own protective eclipse eyewear, of which there seem to be thousands of varieties. I’ve yet to order mine. We Americans procrastinate.

There are eclipse concerts, too. In Jefferson City, Mo., a band will play selections from a particular Pink Floyd album, and if anyone out there is guessing “The Wall” or “Animals” and not “Dark Side of the Moon,” you’re eclipse-grounded and must stay indoors.

In Columbia, S.C., a philharmonic orchestra will perform the soundtrack from a certain intergalactic epic. Savor the “Star Wars Musiclipse.”

We Americans sometimes connive, if we’re being honest and not letting our vanity eclipse the truth. In Oregon in particular there have been complaints that hotels canceled or “lost” reservations made long ago so that they could jack up prices, then blamed … computer glitches! That’s my new preferred explanation for Trump’s election.

We Americans are resourceful — evident in how many are poised to wring dough from their domiciles. According to Airbnb, there will be more than 50,000 “guest arrivals” tied to eclipse viewing, in comparison with fewer than 11,000 in the same geographic area a week earlier.

A week after the eclipse, a room at the 1st Interstate Motel reverts to $63 a night. That’s savings of more than $1,000 from the eclipse rate! Amazing what a galactic phenomenon will do — and what we Americans will do with it.

Bobo and Bruni

August 15, 2017

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “How to Roll Back Fanaticism.”  He gurgles that modesty is the most powerful answer. It means having the courage to see the world as complicated and progress as a product of balancing competing truths.  Just like Mein Fubar, right Bobo?  Cripes…  Mr. Bruni says “President Trump Cannot Redeem Himself” and that his new words on Charlottesville — muted and late — weren’t enough.  Here’s Bobo, followed by a very brief comment by “JBC” from Indianapolis:

We’re living in an age of anxiety. The country is being transformed by complex forces like changing demographics and technological disruption. Many people live within a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives. Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future. People will do anything to escape it.

Donald Trump is the perfect snake oil salesman for this moment. He lacks inwardness and therefore is terrified by the possibility of anxiety. He has been escaping self-scrutiny his whole life and has become a genius at the self-exculpating rationalization. He took a nation beset by uncertainty and he gave it a series of “explanations” that were simple, crude, affirming and wrong.

Trump gave people a quick pass out of anxiety. Everything could be blamed on foreigners, the idiotic elites. The problems are clear, and the answers are easy. He has loosed a certain style of thinking. The true link between the Trump administration and those pathetic loons in Charlottesville is not just bigotry, but also conspiracy mongering.

In the White House you have pseudo-intellectuals like Steve Bannon who think the world is secretly controlled by the “deep state.” You have memos like the one written by the recently fired Rich Higgins, positing a massive worldwide conspiracy involving the A.C.L.U., the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Nations and global Marxism. The alt-right, which has emerged in support of the Trump administration, is marked by the same conspiratorial epistemology. It provides explanations for complex events that allow its followers to avoid anxiety. The leaders of the alt-right claim to possess superior understanding that pierces through the myths that blind common mortals.

The world is secretly controlled by the globalists. The Sandy Hook school shooting never happened. There’s a child abuse ring run by Clintonites out of a pizzeria in Northwest D.C. All the ambiguities of life can be explained by pointing to the malevolent webs of secret power that only you — you precious, superior few — can see and understand.

From here it’s a short leap to those losers in Charlottesville. If the alt-right thinks the globalists secretly and malevolently control society, the neo-Nazis go back to the original version and believe that a conspiracy of Jewish bankers does. For them, tribalism is not only a way to feel some vestige of pride in their own lonely selves, it’s also an explanatory tool. The world can be a bewildering place, but not if you see it as a righteous war between whites and blacks, between straights and gays. The neo-Nazis are not the first group to discover that war is a force that can give an empty life meaning, even a race war.

The age of anxiety inevitably leads to an age of fanaticism, as people seek crude palliatives for the dizziness of freedom. I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment — the Trump presidency and beyond — is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths. The intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness, then everything else falls apart.

The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined.

But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.

In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths — between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity. There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment.

Modesty means having the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it. Modesty means being tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain. Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning. As Kierkegaard put it, “The more original a human being is, the deeper is his anxiety.”

Over the next few months I’m hoping to write several columns on why modesty and moderation are superior to the spiraling purity movements we see today. It seems like a good time for assertive modesty to take a stand.

And now here’s “JBC,” destroying Bobo in 24 words:

“So basically Brooks wants Obama back, a man who embodied the modesty and respect for the complexity of the world in which we live.”

Next up we have Mr. Bruni:

We saw Donald Trump’s true colors on Saturday, when he was given the chance — a ready-made moment for presidential grace — to denounce the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., and instead found wrongdoing “on many sides.” That was Trump minus the pressure and the planning. That was his initial instinct, his first impulse.

We saw a different palette at a lectern in the White House on early Monday afternoon, but it was pure artifice, and muted and unpersuasive because of that.

Sure, he got some of the brush strokes right: the succinct assertion that “racism is evil”; the specific callout of the “K.K.K.” and “white supremacists”; the remembrance — finally — of Heather Heyer, who died as a consequence of the precise hatred that it took him more than two days to name.

But we should note that just hours before he stepped up to that lectern, supposedly to make things right, he used that infernal Twitter account of his to taunt a black chief executive, Kenneth Frazier, for resigning from an administration advisory board. That was unscripted Trump. And he was peeved and hostile, not penitential and healing.

We should also note that he began his brief statement on Monday by congratulating himself on the American economy and implicitly taking credit for what he said were a million new jobs. This is what our self-consumed, ungenerous president prefers to do — brag. He thumps his chest when he should be on his knees.

Atone? Adjust? Inspire? These are outside of his character and beyond his ken. We can’t hope for any better, not at this point. And neither can his fellow Republicans, who find themselves at another juncture — maybe the most important one yet — where they must decide whether to continue showing him allegiance or carve out greater space between him and them. They’re no doubt judging the politics of it all and looking to the numbers. How I wish they’d judge the morality of it all and look to their souls.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather that Trump said what he did on Monday than maintain his silence, which was breathtaking, galling — and spectacularly revealing. He needed to speak, and to say some of the very words he did.

But the length of his delay upped the ante on his delivery, which was passionless. He barely cleared the bar of grudging. He fell miles short of stirring:

“Justice will be delivered.” “No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws.” “We are all made by the same Almighty God.” “Racism is evil.”

Amen, amen, amen and amen, but this preacher’s sermons have been wildly inconsistent and as often designed to divide as to unite. That was his path to power, one much uglier than most politicians travel, and his election didn’t do what so many of the Republicans who reluctantly supported him hoped that it would and make him a bigger person.

No, Trump is the yardstick by which all other Republicans measure large. He makes you yearn for leaders you never in your wildest dreams considered yearn-worthy.

When, before Trump, did you find yourself wishing that someone could just summon the courage, clarity and compassion of … Ted Cruz? If only the Texas senator were our president! Back on Saturday, when Trump was still hemming, hawing and hiding, Cruz released a statement superior to what Trump, with more time and the help of many aides, delivered on Monday.

“The Nazis, the K.K.K. and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred they propagate,” Cruz said. “These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail.”

He was emphatic and eloquent. So were Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. As I heard their voices and read their words, I saw a glimmer of something positive: Trump’s failings are prompting G.O.P. leaders to enunciate certain principles in a clearer and more unequivocal way than they did before. Because of him, they’re drawing lines in the sand — at least semantically.

Of course the winds of opportunism and convenience could wipe out those lines in an instant. Of course Republicans have upbraided Trump before, only to hug him anew.

But there can be no doubt: He’s past the point of hugging. His pretend amends at the White House on Monday didn’t color him warm, cuddly and redeemed. They were just Trump trying to get through another miserable day. And you, Republican members of Congress, have to figure out how your party and the rest of us get through the next miserable years.

Krugman, solo

August 14, 2017

Mr. Blow is off today.  In “When the President Is Un-American” Prof. Krugman says Trumpism is a betrayal of our national identity.  Here he is:

Remember back in 2008, when Sarah Palin used to talk about the “real America”? She meant rural and small-town residents — white residents, it went without saying — who supposedly embodied the nation’s true essence.

She was harshly condemned for those remarks, and rightly so — and not just because the real, real America is a multiracial, multicultural land of great metropolitan areas as well as small towns. More fundamentally, what makes America America is that it is built around an idea: the idea that all men are created equal, and are entitled to basic human rights. Take away that idea and we’re just a giant version of a two-bit autocracy.

And maybe that is what we have, in fact, become. For Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the murderous white supremacists in Charlottesville finally confirms what has become increasingly obvious: The current president of the United States isn’t a real American.

Real Americans understand that our nation is built around values, not the “blood and soil” of the marchers’ chants; what makes you an American is your attempt to live up to those values, not the place or race your ancestors came from. And when we fall short in our effort to live up to our ideals, as we all too often do, at least we realize and acknowledge our failure.

But the man who began his political ascent by falsely questioning Barack Obama’s place of birth — a blood-and-soil argument if ever there was one — clearly cares nothing about the openness and inclusiveness that have always been essential parts of who we are as a nation.

Real Americans understand that our nation was born in a rebellion against tyranny. They feel an instinctive aversion to tyrants everywhere, and an underlying sympathy for democratic regimes, even those with whom we may currently have disputes.

But the present occupant of the White House has made no secret of preferring the company, not of democratic leaders, but of authoritarian rulers — not just Vladimir Putin, but people like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Rodrigo Duterte, the homicidal leader of the Philippines. When Trump visited Saudi Arabia, his commerce secretary exulted in the absence of hostile demonstrations, an absence ensured by the repressiveness of the regime.

Real Americans expect public officials to be humbled by the responsibility that comes with the job. They’re not supposed to be boastful blowhards, constantly claiming credit for things they haven’t done — like Trump bragging about job creation that has continued at more or less the same pace as under his predecessor — or which never even happened, like his mythical victory in the popular vote.

Real Americans understand that being a powerful public figure means facing criticism. That comes with the job, and you’re supposed to tolerate that criticism even if you feel it’s unfair. Foreign autocrats may rage against unflattering news reports, threaten to inflict financial harm on publications they dislike, talk about imprisoning journalists; American leaders aren’t supposed to sound like that.

Finally, real Americans who manage to achieve high office realize that they are servants of the people, meant to use their position for the public good. In practice, human nature being what it is, many officials have in fact taken financial advantage of their office. But we’ve always understood that this was wrong — and presidents, in particular, are supposed to be above such things. Now we have a leader who is transparently exploiting his office for personal enrichment, in ways that all too obviously amount in practice to influence-buying by domestic malefactors and foreign governments alike.

In short, these days we have a president who is really, truly, deeply un-American, someone who doesn’t share the values and ideals that made this country special.

In fact, he’s so deeply alienated from the American idea that he can’t even bring himself to fake it. We all know that Trump feels comfortable with white supremacists, but it’s amazing that he won’t even give them a light tap on the wrist. We all know that Putin is Trump’s kind of guy, but it’s remarkable that Trump won’t even pretend to be outraged at Putin’s meddling with our election.

Speaking of which: I have no more idea than anyone else what Robert Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, questionable financial ties, possible obstruction of justice and more will find. Trump is acting very much like someone with something big to hide, but we don’t yet know exactly what that something is.

Whatever role foreign influence may have played and may still be playing, however, we don’t need to wonder whether an anti-American cabal, hostile to everything we stand for, determined to undermine everything that truly makes this country great, has seized power in Washington. It has: it’s called the Trump administration.

Collins, solo

August 12, 2017

In “Trump Tweets Tough” Ms. Collins says let’s just pray that Trump’s current bellicosity is all hot air and no balloon.  Here she is:

“Look, I have — nobody has better respect for intelligence than Donald Trump,” said the president of the United States this week.

I know, I know.

Trump was actually talking about C.I.A.-type intelligence, but it’s still a quote worth remembering. In fact, you might want to consider printing it out and posting it somewhere in your workplace, so you can look up at it every once in a while.

Or at minimum, stick it in the irony drawer.

It’s been an unnerving week, what with all the “locked and loaded” threats to North Korea from the White House. Meanwhile in Pyongyang, tens of thousands of people responded by waving their fists in the air and holding up slogans like, “Let’s become bullets and bombs devotedly defending respected Supreme Leader Comrade Kim Jong-un!”

This is the North Korean version of a presidential tweet.

I believe I speak for a great many Americans when I say I am scared as hell of a confrontation between the head of the strongest nation in the world, who once wanted to play the president in “Sharknado 3,” and a nuclear power dictator whose favorite house guest is Dennis Rodman.

When a reporter asked the president about his threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said “maybe it wasn’t tough enough.” Followed by “maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough” and “if anything, that statement may not be tough enough.” This was all within 30 seconds. There seems to be a theme.

This was during a media event at Trump’s golf course in New Jersey on Thursday, and the president followed through with complaints about how the previous inhabitants of the Oval Office had left him with a big mess because they didn’t know how to handle a rogue nuclear power like the Donald does.

“Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective,” Trump whined. “You look what happened with Bush. You look what happened with Obama. Obama — he didn’t even want to talk about it.”

“But I talk,” our president said, unnecessarily.

The theme of my-terrible-predecessors ran on into another meeting with reporters on Friday, in which Trump announced that South Koreans felt “more reassured with me than … with other presidents from the past.” Upping the ante, he also bragged that “very few presidents have done what we’ve done in a six-month period.”

“I’m not sure that anybody’s done what we’ve done in a six-month period,” he amended. This was new — in the past Trump allowed as how Franklin Roosevelt might possibly have accomplished a little more. And take that, Abraham Lincoln.

Trump hadn’t been so available in a long time, and he certainly had a lot to share. He differentiated between bad leaks “coming out of intelligence and various departments” and good leaks from the White House staff, which just involve people who “want to love me and they’re all fighting for love.”

When a reporter asked about Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to expel 755 workers from the American Embassy, Trump demonstrated once again that there is absolutely nothing Putin can do that will make our president criticize him. (“No, I want to thank him, because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. … We’ll save a lot of money.”) What do you think he’d have said if Putin had jailed our diplomats? Expressed gratitude for the free room and board?

On Friday he claimed he was just being sarcastic. Still, he couldn’t resist adding, “But we have reduced payroll very substantially.”

There’s certainly something about Putin that makes Trump go gaga. Maybe the North Korean craziness is his attempt to impress Putin with his own manly manhood. There’s nothing in this administration that doesn’t seem to come back to Russia sooner or later. Students of the future will look back upon the 2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow as the central moment in 21st century history. Third graders will know that Miss Venezuela won.

Speaking of Venezuela, Trump spoke vaguely about “a possible military option” there, too.

Let’s just pray his current bellicosity is all hot air and no balloon. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to soothe the country, saying, “Americans should sleep well at night.” He did not mention whether there would be nightmares.

Maybe there’s some reassurance to be had in the fact that Trump tends to talk big and act, um, minimally. Try counting the moments of real change, drama or even strong reaction over the last six months that go beyond verbal, and before you’ve gotten through the fingers on one hand, you’ll probably already be down to the firing of the Mooch.

That’s our best hope: That the guy with the nuclear football is not necessarily the same person as the one sending out loopy messages on his smartphone. People who’ve dealt with the private Trump often say they found him less crazy than the public version.

Of course, he’s definitely a lazy thinker who doesn’t like to confront a memo longer than a page. But nobody’s perfect.