Tag: Donald Trump

Behind Closed Doors

I’ve mostly ignored Trump when he whines about leaks from his Administration. I suspect half the leaks are from him anyway. But I’m forced to agree with David Frum on the new leak of transcripts of the President’s conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

Thursday’s leak to The Washington Post of President Trump’s calls with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Australia will reverberate around the world. No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer. If these calls can be leaked, any call can be leaked—and no leader dare say anything to the president of the United States that he or she would not wish to read in the news at home.

A lot of people are jumping up and down because Trump sounds rather foolish in the transcripts and it shows a lot of his claims about those calls to be lies. But the price of this … entertainment … is damage to our foreign relations. And it serves no actual purpose other than embarrassing Trump.

There are times when world leaders need to say things to each other in confidence; times when they need to do and say things that would be unpopular. Breaking this confidence hurts their ability to do so.

Empathy Part II: Why Trump Won

So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how a lack of empathy has wrecked our political system. There was an aspect of political empathy, however, that didn’t fit into that post and that I wanted to riff on. It’s the role that empathy plays in the success of politicians rather than in political discourse.

One of the big realizations of 2016 for me was that issues don’t matter as much as we’d like to think. Oh, they matter … on the edges. But our politics have become so tribal that 60 million Republicans would happily vote for a big-government authoritarian and 60 million Democrats would happily vote for globalist darling of Wall Street. There is a growing body of evidence that people define themselves by their political party, not their philosophy. And when that party changes its views, they change with the party. So suddenly, Democrats favored free trade while Republicans opposed it. Democrats though Russia was the quintessence of evil while Republicans thought they were misunderstood. An amoral sexual predator became an acceptable political leader for Republicans and an amoral money grubber became an acceptable political leader for Democrats … as long as they beat the other side’s amoral pig.

But while tribalism is an appealing and glib explanation for 2016, I think there’s more to it than that. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about too much is the importance of the perception — however flawed — that a party is listening to your concerns and cares about your concerns regardless of whether or not they have a solution for them. That is, that the party shows empathy to its constituents.

Every year, African-Americans voter overwhelmingly Democratic, despite the failure of the Democratic party to deliver anything resembling prosperity. Democrats have avidly supported policies — urban renewal, the welfare state, the War on Drugs — that I believe have made things worse for black people. So why do black people vote for them? Because Democrats listen to them. Because they go to churches and local meetings and listen. And even if they don’t do anything about black people’s concerns, the fact that they are being listened to matters. Remember when Rand Paul spoke at an historically black college? The media mocked him for making a few faux pas. But the students liked it. They were happy that a Republican was trying to reach out to them. Even if they disagreed with him, the fact that he made an effort and listened to them mattered. And if the GOP continued on that effort, they would start getting black votes. Because when the GOP does not try to get black votes, that sends a message too: “We don’t give a damn about you.”

And there’s a flip side to that, one that reared it’s head strongly in 2016. Every year, pundits wonder “what’s the matter with Kansas?” — why do rural voters vote “against their economic interests”. I’ll put aside the idea that wealth redistribution and big welfare states are “in people’s interests”. The real reason that rural voters support Republicans is because Republicans listen to them and Democrats don’t. Republicans may not have solutions to the problems of rural voters. But on many rural voters’ concerns — immigration, outsourcing, drugs, etc. — Republicans listen. And listening is far more important, politically, than solving.

We all used to joke about Bill Clinton saying “I feel your pain”. But we shouldn’t have. That was Bill Clinton’s greatest strength as a politician. He may have been a liar with the sexual habits of a Delta Tau Chi toga party. But he was probably the best President in my lifetime at making people feel like he understood, like he knew what they were going through. And a lot of the time that’s all people want, to feel like their concerns are not just being ignored, even if they aren’t or can’t be addressed.

The 2016 election puzzled a lot of people because Donald Trump won traditional Democratic constituencies in the midwest. But it was no puzzle to me. In “Shattered”, the authors note that Clinton did not want to campaign in the Midwest because she knew her pro-trade stance was unpopular. But by not campaigning, she gave a much worse message: “I don’t give a damn about you.”

Now imagine an alternative universe where Clinton gave a series of speeches like so:

Yes, I supported NAFTA. And I still think it was a good call. On balance, it has benefited our nation immensely. But over the last two decades, we’ve found that it didn’t benefit everyone. Some communities got hit very hard by it. This is why I changed my position on TPP. Because I want to make sure that this time we get it right and we take care of the communities that will be hurt before we sign the deal.

That wouldn’t necessarily have been truthful. But if she’d given something like that speech, she’d be President today. Because even if she didn’t have a solution to the problems of unemployment, drugs and crime hitting rural communities, she’d at least have given the impression that she cared.

We know that because that’s why Trump is President. Because for all the sexism and bigotry and pussy-groping and incoherence, Trump gave the impression, in his clumsy way, that he felt people’s pain. That he was aware of how people felt about trade and immigration and crime and Washington corruption. And while his policies were nonsense and he’s doing little to help people in rural America, they voted for him because at least he seemed to give a damn, no matter authentic you think that damn was. A good politician would have torn him apart, of course. But Clinton was such a poor politician, she made Donald Trump look like the caring sympathetic one.

(As an aside, this is one of the reasons why libertarianism will always be a niche political philosophy and a big reason why it tends to be male-dominated. It is filled to the brim with theoreticians who have all the ideas in the world but little understanding of human nature.)

Empathy matters. Being listened to matters. It’s matters in our politics; it matters in our elections. And until the Democrats start to empathize with unwashed masses between the coasts, they will continue to lose elections.

Now Defending Sessions

Having bashed Jeff Sessions last week, I’ll defend him this week. He was absolutely right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. It’s something any moderately ethical AG would do. And it’s disgraceful that Trump is out there slamming his own AG for, as a far as I can tell, allowing an investigation into the President to proceed while not reviving a dead investigation of his defeated opponent.

I intensely disagree with Sessions, but he has been loyal to Trump form the beginning. This just shows, once again, that Trump loyalty only goes one way.

Trump, Jr. Under the Bus

I’m in Israel at the moment, attending a scientific conference. So I’ve been a bit out of the loop, politically. But the revelation that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected attorney in the hopes of turning up dirt on Hillary Clinton is extremely bad. Probably not Trump-will-be-impeached bad but unethical, slimy and disgusting. The best defense I’ve heard — I mean other than “the media lies about stuff the White House is telling them!” — is that he was too dumb to know that this was a bad thing to do.

We’re gonna have four years of this garbage. It’s only going to get worse.

Update: Jesus Christ.

Empathy in Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how bad things have gotten in politics. When I started this blogging thing back in 2004, blogging about politics was a lot of fun. It wasn’t just that “my guy” was in the White House, if Bush was ever “my guy”. It was that the internet had opened up a million voices. It could allow someone like Lee to rise to some degree of prominence by making smart, focused and often hilarious arguments in favor of his beliefs.

Over time, however, a lot of that has curdled. Not just on the internet but everywhere. The most powerful voices are, often as not, those that demonize the opposition. Arguments tend to be less about facts than name-calling. Liberals are dysfunctional snowflakes who are, nevertheless, turning America into Nazi Germany. Conservatives are mindless thugs who are also turning America into Nazi Germany. It’s a big reason why I blog less and have been engaging less on Twitter. And it’s odd (or maybe not so odd) that the tone has gotten so bad considering that the policy differences between our two major parties are smaller than they were when I was coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m used to a bit of crazy in politics, especially from the side out of power. Megan McArdle long ago coined Jane’s Law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” But what’s distressing is that we’re now seeing insanity from the devotees of the party that is in power. We saw some of this with Obama but it’s been ratcheted up to 11 with Trump. Charles Skye has a great piece on conservatism and how it has lost its way:

If there was one principle that used to unite conservatives, it was respect for the rule of law. Not long ago, conservatives would have been horrified at wholesale violations of the norms and traditions of our political system, and would have been appalled by a president who showed overt contempt for the separation of powers.

But this week, as if on cue, most of the conservative media fell into line, celebrating President Trump’s abrupt dismissal of the F.B.I. director, James Comey, and dismissing the fact that Mr. Comey was leading an investigation into the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia.

While there are those like Sean Hannity who are reliable cheerleaders for all things President Trump, much of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump. The distinction is important, because anti-anti-Trumpism has become the new safe space for the right.

Here is how it works: Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?”

For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

That’s the conservative side. But I would argue that the liberal side has gotten just as bad if not worse. The entirety of the Left Wing media has lost its damned mind. I’ve backed off of all the late-night TV shows except Oliver (on occasion) because the tone has gotten so bitter and angry. We are constantly deluged with outrages Trump has committed. And while some of those are indeed outrageous, others are stuff Obama did (executive orders), stuff every President does (Loyalty Day) or stuff that did not, in fact, actually happen (the MLK bust removal). Despite no evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians and little evidence that anyone in his campaign did, it’s routine to see him denounced as a traitor and to hear Republicans denounced as complicit because they haven’t impeached him yet. And it culminated last week with a Democrat — one who loved Maddow and Maher and belonged to Facebook groups calling for revolution — taking shots at a bunch of Republicans.

Look at the comments section of any liberal blog or even a New York Times article on bad rhetoric. Republicans are routinely denounced as, in one of the top-rated comments, “ignorant, mean-spirited, inhumane, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, culturally backward and/or downright stupid.” And if you have the temerity to point this out, you are blasted for “false equivalence”. We’re told MSNBC isn’t as bad as Fox News or that Colbert isn’t as bad a Limbaugh. Maybe. But which side rioted in the streets after an election? Which side has Antifa thugs punching people, looting stores and shouting down speakers? Which side is turning places like Evergreen College into Mickey Maoist clubs?

None of these points are new. The press, the media and the pundits have been talking about the extreme partisanship for some time. But I think they have tended to misjudge the problem. Most of the time, they simply decry “partisanship” or “rhetoric”. But … we’ve always had that. And frankly, it doesn’t bother me that much. I want people to be passionate for and motivated by the things they believe in. If you think abortion is a modern-day holocaust, I don’t think you should feel any compunction about saying so. And if you think abortion restrictions make women slaves to their wombs, don’t hold back. I want people to speak powerfully for what they believe to be right. If you remember Lee, you’ll know he wasn’t one to pull punches at all. That’s what I liked about him.

In fact, partisanship can be a good thing. McArdle points out one of the blind spots in policy wonkage — people don’t look too hard for evidence that invalidates their pet theories. Partisanship, however, becomes a natural balance to this:

The idea of perfectly neutral arbiters looking for “just the facts, ma’am” is an illusion; we are all human, fallible, and more than occasionally blind. Ideological diversity within a group means that even if the individuals are blind in different spots, at least the collective has a decent panoramic view.

That base, irrational, often angry “I know that’s wrong!” feeling that people get when reading an op-ed by the other team is actually the start of something wonderful: the search for disconfirming evidence that can falsify bad theories (the other team’s, of course), and refine good ones (yours, of course). So that bit by bit, jab by jab, we get closer to the whole picture.

So I don’t mind partisanship. Debate and argument are not just “not bad”; they’re essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Partisan opposition killed some of the worst parts of Obamacare. Partisanship brought us a balanced budget back in the 90’s. Often, when we’ve blundered, it’s because of a lack of opposition. “Partisanship” usually translates out of Punditese as “people disagreeing with me” and calls to end “partisanship” are often misguided calls for one side to just concede.

No, partisanship qua partisanship isn’t bad; what’s bad is the lack of empathy for the other side. The problem is that both sides have decided that the opposition is not just wrong, but evil. That every argument “they” make is a disingenuous front to conceal their real motives. So the pro-life side can’t honestly be concerned about what they see as the extinguishing of millions of lives; no, that’s just a front to conceal their hatred of women and desire to control their bodies. And the pro-choice side can’t honestly believe women should control their own bodies; they want a hedonistic society in which sex doesn’t have consequences. We’ve defined each side not by the millions of reasonable people but by the thousands of crazy assholes. We don’t just hate politicians; we hate everyone who supports them.

Look at our current healthcare debate. One side is telling us that the Republicans want to literally murder millions of people so that rich people can get tax cuts. The other side insists Obamacare is the step to fascist welfare state. Never can it can be considered that maybe Republicans honestly think handouts are a bad idea and maybe Democrats honestly think people shouldn’t be terrified of losing their insurance.

We can’t bring ourselves to think that gun controllers may not want to create a policy state or that second amendment advocates may care about gun violence but don’t see gun control as the answer.

We can’t admit that maybe thawing our relationship with Iran is a good thing. Or that maybe getting close to another terror state is bad thing. Or that maybe we should be less involved with NATO. Or maybe NATO is more important now than ever.

We can’t admit that a lot of this nation’s poverty is a result of people making bad life decisions. Or we can’t admit that it’s easier to make the right decisions (and recover from bad ones) if you’re not born into poverty in the first place.

This, of course, has been fed by a media and social media machine that insists on a constant cycle of outrage. They define the other “side” entirely by their worst imaginings. And every misstep — be it a comedian’s bad joke or a politician’s awkward quip — is recast into some peek into their inner awfulness.

But it’s a deeper even than that. It’s a cliche to say that our debates suffer from an unwillingness to listen to the other side and that we all live in “bubbles” of websites, blogs and news stations that agree with us. That’s true enough but those bubbles are not some law of nature; they are created on purpose. They are a result of our need to divide the world into “our” tribe of decent people and the “other” tribe of bad people. And in this, they reflect a deeper and more malignant ill that is afflicting our culture: an inability to empathize with anyone beyond our own social circle.

The great advice columnist Amy Alkon has written about this many times — that we have minds evolved for the stone age functioning in a modern world. We tend to see people close to us — usually limited to a couple of hundred people — as human and fallible. When they make mistakes or have misfortunes, we sympathize. When they make arguments we think are wrong, we engage them honestly. But we regard those outside of that small circle as alien and view them with suspicion. This is why we tend to be rude to strangers, why we scream at cars in traffic, why we get furious at people we don’t even know. It explains why we so readily form internet shame mobs: because we understand if your uncle makes a racist joke he’s just making a bad joke. But if someone we don’t know does it, they’re a vile person. If your sister leaves her children in the car for ten seconds, she’s just being practical. If a stranger does, they’re endangering their kid. And so we quickly revert to our primal need to stone foreign devils.

Returning to politics, the 2016 election was the eruption of this malignancy into the political sphere. The primary qualification of both candidates was their ability to enrage the other side. Democrats loved that Republicans hated Hillary Clinton. And Republicans loved that Democrats hated Trump. And now it has progressed to where what Democrats most love is hating Trump and what Republicans most love is Democrats hating Trump.

We need to get past this is we’re going to be a functional society. It’s not just a need to listen to the other side; it’s that we need to empathize: to see their politics from their point of view. You can still think they’re full of shit (and you’ll probably be right because almost everyone is full of shit about something). But we have to engage them on the arguments they are making not the arguments we wish they were making (typically because those arguments would cast them in a bad light or are easy to rebut). We have to remember that, if we’d been born in a different place or raised in a different environment, we’d probably have the same views. We have to imagine that their views are held by someone we deeply care about and respect. Because inevitably they are held by someone that someone loves and respects.

(I’m as bad at this as anyone. I try to be better, mostly because I have good friends and family members in both ideological camps. It bothers me to see them at each other’s throats, mainly because of scrounging carnival barkers persuading them that the other camp is filled with vile uncaring monsters. But it’s hard not to just write off whole masses of the body politic.)

There are people who don’t have any political principles, of course. Both the 2016 candidates come to mind. But we can’t let them define our country. As much as I despised Clinton, her supporters were fundamentally decent people. And as much as I despise Trump, his supporters are fundamentally decent people. Almost everyone is fundamentally decent, regardless of their politics. Yeah, there are the deplorables — on both sides. Antifa and the Alt-Right crowds come to mind. But they are a tiny, tiny fraction of this country and even their ranks are filled more with misguided idiots than evil zealots. We can’t let our politics be defined by such debris. And until we stop, until we stop defining political success entirely as “winning” one from that awful awful other side, our politics will continue to get not only more nasty but more dysfunctional.

Comey Day

James Comey testified to the Senate committee yesterday. I watched part of it and listened to part of it. A few thoughts:

  • Overall, I found Comey to be credible. I’m no fan of either Comey or the FBI, but he crossed me as straight-forward and truthful. Certainly more believable than the deranged yam he used to work for.
  • This wasn’t the slam dunk Trump opponents were hoping for (or claiming). Comey’s testimony — which I’ll get into in a moment — was damning but not conclusive. As I’ve said, his allegations are elements of obstruction of justice but not obstruction itself. We’re still a long way from that. But the things he described were, at best, wildly inappropriate.
  • Trump and the Trumpistas are claiming vindication. This is mostly because Comey confirmed that Trump himself was not under investigation for collusion with Russia (yet). But that’s not really relevant here. Nixon didn’t actually burgle the Whitewater hotel. When it comes to obstruction, the obstruction itself is the crime, regardless of whether an actual crime was being covered up or who committed said crime. And the failure of that obstruction does not obviate the obstruction. See Libby, Scooter.
  • It is telling that the one thing Trump wanted thoroughly investigated was the pee tape. Everything else, including Russian interference with the election, was of disinterest to him.
  • The most damning testimony was that, at one point, Trump sent everyone out of the Oval Office, sat down alone with Comey and said he hoped that Comey would see his way to clearing Mike Flynn and later said he wanted the Russia investigation to go away. Republicans are weaseling, claiming this was just Trump expressing interest in the investigation. But if my boss tells me he “hopes” I’ll do something and then fires me when I fail to do it, I will take that as more than just “hope”. That solo meeting is probably the most telling. As Comey testified, Trump never asked about any other investigation. If you were bothered by Bill Clinton meeting on the tarmac with Loretta Lynch on the tarmac, you should be bothered by Trump meeting alone with Comey. And vice versa.
  • One line of defense that emerged was that Trump is new to this and didn’t know these conversations with Comey were inappropriate. I’m finding this explanation wanting. I know they were inappropriate and I’m just an internet rando. Trump has been a candidate for two years. That he cleared out the room before talking to Comey indicates that he knew it was wrong. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse for us. It shouldn’t be for, you know, the President.
  • Comey’s testimony did not do Loretta Lynch any favors. While she was not engaged in obstruction, she was certainly trying to give political cover to Clinton. That is, to say the least, not the Attorney General’s job.

So, overall, a bad day for Trump, but just one more piece of the emerging drama.

All the President’s Tweets

It’s odd that I’m finding myself defending the Administration even as they spiral down, but .. there we are.

There’s a lawsuit right now alleging that Trump’s occasional use of Twitter’s block function is a violation of the First Amendment. According to the lawsuit, people have a Constitutional right to see his tweets and respond to them on the Twitter platform.

I am very dubious of this argument for a number of reasons. First, as Eugene Volokh points out, Trump’s RealDonaldTrump account could be considered a personal account, not a government one. Second, even a blocked user can see Trump’s tweets by logging out of Twitter and going to the page. And even if that option didn’t exist, it’s not like the media never cover Trump’s tweets. Third, Twitter is a private forum, not a public one.

There’s a fourth part, too. The more substantial part of their case is that a block prevents people from addressing the President. While that’s true, I don’t believe our right to free speech and petition require politicians to stand there and listen to us. That goes double when we’re tweeting cat memes at them. More importantly, there’s nothing Twitter does that stops you from addressing the President even if you are blocked. You can tweet, “Hey, Mr. Trump, your budget sucks” until the cows come home. You just can’t tweet at the President.

Here’s a real life example: I was blocked by Howard Dean for a fairly anodyne snark. I can’t tweet at him. But I can tweet about him just fine. See:

So no I don’t think this suit has merit. Let me be clear: I would prefer that the President not block people on Twitter. I don’t think politicians should block people at all since they’re in the public sphere. And Trump’s use of the block features seems rather random than arbitrary. But there is no Constitutional right to make the President listen to you.

Political News Round-Up

So many stories, so little time.

  • My criticisms of Trump are only reasonable if I praise him when he does something right. Privatizing air traffic control is something right. Many countries have already gone that route, including Canada. This is something conservatives and libertarians have wanted for 20 years. I’m glad to see it proposed and I hope they can get it done.
  • The FBI has already arrested the person who leaked secret NSA documents to the Intercept indicating Russia tried to hack election officials and databases in 2016. People are jumping and down but this is absolutely normal. Obama prosecuted leakers; Bush prosecuted leakers and this leaker left an easy trail to herself.
  • Trump went on a Twitter tirade the other day about the travel ban, undermining the DOJ’s case before SCOTUS as the Courts have used Trump’s speeches to justify striking down the ban. I’ll be honest: I’m very dubious about using Trump’s speeches and tweets to divine his “real” motivation for the ban. That’s creeping into some very dangerous territory where the Courts essentially try to mind-read the politicians’ intentions rather than read the words written on the page. I would prefer executive orders be evaluated based on, you know, the actual executive order. While I oppose the travel ban, I’ve been persuaded that it’s constitutional. As Scalia used to say, “Stupid but Constitutional”. Trump can tweet until the cows come home and that won’t change what’s in the EO.

More to come.

Duterte and Trump

I’m getting tired of these things. Donald Trump — who will happily “stand up” to European leaders and call them on NATO funding and trade — made some time to praise Rodrigo Duterte last week. Any President should be embarrassed to talk to let alone praise (and give classified info) to Duterte:

Since Duterte took office in June, Philippine national police and vigilante death squads have embarked on a campaign to slaughter drug users as well as drug dealers. “Hitler massacred three million Jews [sic], now, there’s three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said in September. Last month, he told a group of jobless Filipinos that they should “kill all the drug addicts.” Police have killed over 7,000 people, devastated poor areas of Manila and other cities, and used the drug war as a pretext to murder government officials and community leaders.

Look, Presidents sometimes have to deal with scumbag leaders. But Duterte is next-level scumbag — a murderous bloodthirsty despot who is turning the Philippines into a nightmare. And it’s not like he’s the only dictator Trump likes kissing up to. Remember all that stuff about how Obama snuggled up scumbags and pissed on our allies? Trump is doing that and then some.

It raises another concern too. Duterte has turned the police in the Philippines into an extra-legal force for violence. Trump has appointed, as his Attorney General, a man who thinks the biggest problem with police shooting videos is that there’s video. He’s seeking to ramp up the War on Drugs, end consent decrees and pull back on civil rights investigations. The GOP is considering a bill that would make police unaccountable while making assaulting a police officer a federal crime. And he’s tapped batshit crazy and power-abusing Sheriff David Clarke for a possible DHS role.

Are we going to go the way of the Philippines? I don’t think so. There are a few too many checks on power to go there quite yet. But it’s clear that Trump’s admiration for Duterte is more than just lip service.

Today’s Trump Drama

Today in Trump, we learned that his trusted son-in-law may or may not have tried to set up a communications line to Russia outside of normal channels that American intelligence services couldn’t monitor. This comes on the heels of Trump pissing away what turned out to be a pretty good visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel by dumping all over Europe and NATO.

The last few weeks have been exhausting with revelation after revelation, ranging from the banal to the dramatic. This is precisely what I feared when Trump won: that we’d have non-stop drama and bullshit. It would be like the 2016 election itself only every day and for four years.