Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Listen: if you think this is bad, imagine if Ted Cruz were president.

I'm not trying to downplay the suffering people have already (less than two weeks in!) endured under President Trump, but seriously: imagine if Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) were president.

If you remember, Cruz had a really obvious strategy in the primary: he was going to draft off Trump.  Trump would gather a hardcore group of supporters who loved him for being outrageous and crude, and Cruz would keep his head down, refuse to criticize Trump, and eventually scoop up all of those supporters once Trump inevitably melted down.  He wasn't the only one to do that... eight other Republicans had the same plan.  As a result, Trump looked dominant among them, freely attacking them while they smiled and tried to roll with it.  And, of course, Trump's solid base of 30% among the primary voters never deserted him, making him the leader in a field so crowded that everyone else got 5-10%.  Eventually, it was too late.  Trump was the nominee.

Now was Cruz's chance.  Memorably, he went onstage at the Republican National Convention and made a speech about conservatism, but without ever endorsing Trump.  It was a clear snub, and showed that Cruz was gambling on leading a principled opposition.

Cruz would be the hero -- he would stand for conservatism in opposition to a man he'd labeled a "con artist," "narcissist," "pathological liar," and "serial philanderer."  He wouldn't bend the knee... he would bet on Trump self-destructing and losing the election.  He would be brave.

Then he caved.  Big donor Rebekah Mercer and his own base demanded it, and Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, won 2016's Marco Rubio "Profiles in Cowardice" Award (so to speak).

But imagine if it were different.

If Trump had done something so abhorrent that even his own base deserted him at the mid-point, Cruz would have profited from his unprincipled refusal to criticize his rival.  He would have snatched up all of those juicy supporters and delegates, and he'd be the nominee.  And then it's not a far leap to imagine him becoming president, although his winning coalition would certainly look rather different.

So imagine a President Ted Cruz.

President Ted Cruz's Muslim ban would have been carefully composed by experts and reviewed by everyone important.  He would have gotten input -- and therefore buy-in -- by major departments and key Congressional figures.  Trump's own Secretary of Defense learned about the ban from the news, and the only people in Congress who knew about it were staffers sworn to secrecy from their own bosses.  Legal visa holders and green card holders would have been given a month-long warning before they were barred, if at all.  Iraqi and Afghani interpreters would have been not only exempted, but given special priority for expedited visas.  No one would have been detained at airports, certainly not the elderly or children, and there would be few (if any) protests.

Rather than insulting his own party and the opposition and any protesters, President Cruz would have issued anodyne statements about respecting democracy and the right to free speech.  He would have spoken about uniting everyone in vague terms, and would have blithely ignored anything having to do with crowds, ratings, or the popular vote, instead gliding -- oily and untroubled -- into a series of well-crafted and well-staged signing events with Congress.

Cruz would consolidate power.  He'd focus on the midterm elections to cement his party's undemocratic gerrymandering advantage.  He'd subvert his enemies -- but quietly.  Donald Trump is the brute who huffs rot and bile and lumbers at you with a club of bigotry, but Ted Cruz would be the quiet-footed assassin, smiling and smiling and yet a villain, who put a knife in democracy while it slept.

Because, you see: Ted Cruz is competent and intelligent.

If liberty, compassion, and human rights are going to come under attack by a massed army of the ignorant, radical, desperate, and alt-right, then I want their general to be someone so bumbling and offensive that he cannot maintain their strength or solidarity.  I want someone who is so terrible at his job he's incapable of doing America any harm -- whose orders get overturned and whose ideas for legislation are impossible.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Listen: Stephen Bannon is not going to end the world.

So a lot of people are afraid of Stephen Bannon.  That makes some sense: Bannon is an amoral nationalist (arguably cryptofascist) race-baiter with no respect for dissent or institutional norms, and he's got way too much influence over President Trump.  But while people are going to get hurt, it's not as bad as it might seem.

Bannon, current political strategist to the White House and the former editor of Breitbart News (more on Breitbart soon), was recently placed on the National Security Council. And since this happened at the same time the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were removed from the NSC -- you would ordinarily expect the chief intelligence officer and highest-ranking military officer to be on the NSC -- that makes this move seem even more radical.  Nor does it end there: according to Foreign Policy and Politico (but really, according to anyone with a pulse who's been near the White House), Bannon has a leather-lunged voice when it comes to influencing policy on the domestic side, too.

Bannon and senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller helped lay the political and ideological foundations for Trump’s rise before Trump came on the scene. Breitbart was instrumental in promoting the idea that establishment Republican lawmakers had betrayed American workers on issues like immigration and trade, a theme Trump rode to victory in November.
They’ve been responsible for setting an “action plan” for Trump’s first weeks in the White House, developing executive orders and memoranda, and deciding when Trump would sign each new document, according to people familiar with the process.
Bannon's level of no-holds-barred contrarian nationalism is so extreme that it's barely in touch with reality, putting the scrofulous adviser right in the same plane of existence as his conspiracy-theorist boss.  Urging Trump on to ever-more-Trumpian heights of bare-knuckled bruising, he's shaped so much of the current White House stances that Trump has begun publicly following the man's lead; only a few days after Bannon snarled at the New York Times that the media was the "opposition party" and that it should "keep its mouth shut" after daring to criticize the winner of the presidential race, Trump himself began adopting the formula in his tweets.

But for Trump, that's also the problem.  Trump has no sense of norms or respect for dissent, and Bannon has only reinforced these worst qualities.  But norms and respect are not just decent, they're also useful.  To wit, from Foreign Policy:
This is looking very much like the Bannon Regency. It was Bannon and his sidekick Stephen Miller, a young former aide to senator-turned-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, wrote Trump’s kick-them-in-the-teeth inaugural address. And it was the two Steves who, according to CNN, ran the rollout of the immigration executive order on Friday afternoon, doing an end run around the normal interagency process and overruling the Department of Homeland Security to insist that the entry ban apply to hundreds of thousands of permanent residents who happened to hail from one of the seven banned Muslim countries.
After my post urging you to donate to the ACLU (who raised $20 million over the weekend, when they usually raise $3 million a year) and my post with clippings about the results of the Muslim ban, hopefully I don't need to review why the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster.  It was not just immoral, it was also incompetent.  And here's the thing: Bannon and Trump aren't going to change.  People don't really change, but they especially don't change if they scorn disagreement and refuse to accept blame.  So stuff like this is going to happen again and again.

As I mentioned yesterday, Trump's numbers are historically abysmal for a new president.  He will hate that.  Trump has shown that he is intensely driven by metrics: polling in the primary, crowd sizes, television audiences, etc.  It is possible that he will ignore them or pretend they're not real for a while, but even he can only sustain so much denial.  Eventually, he's going to look for someone to blame... and in that instance, everyone else with pull in the White House is going to rightfully point at Bannon.  Maggie Haberman of the New York Times has pointed out that this has been a consistent and reliable pattern.  It happened with campaign staff, who were fired, with Press Secretary Spicer, who was yelled at, with National Security Adviser Flynn, who has been pushed to the periphery in the past week.

Eventually, Trump is going to make a change.  And Bannon is an obvious target to get muscled out by ambitious and more conventionally villainous Reince Priebus or Jared Kushner.

There are other possibilities.  Maybe Bannon will see this coming, and adapt to survive -- bring in a voice of moderation that he can control (although that seems hard to imagine).  Or maybe Trump won't mind bad numbers, if he can be successfully convinced that they're fake (although his constant obsessions seems to belie such sangfroid).  Or maybe they'll staff up and figure things out enough that they actually start doing a good job (although see the previous point about people not changing).

Now the usual caveats apply: whatever happens, a lot of people will pay with their lives and liberty for the reckless and casual evil of these sorts of people.  I'm not minimizing that.  But one way or another, I think Bannon's influence won't long reign supreme.

Listen: we are the majority.

Honestly, it shouldn't really matter whether or not the president has high approval ratings.  The president is elected to lead, and sometimes that means doing things that are right, even if they're unpopular.  And since the Constitution has nothing to say about polling, an unpopular president has the exact same power as a popular president.

But appearances do matter.  Other elected officials will oppose the president if they see his policies are unpopular, and a deeply unpopular president is usually much more cautious.  These factors both explain why no unpopular president has ever managed to pass a big reform or change in modern American history.

And so it's significant that -- as mentioned on our Victories page -- Trump's approval is dropping.  He started off as the most unpopular president ever inaugurated, probably because he lost the popular vote by three million votes.  This is despite the fact that it's much more common for new presidents to get a bump as everyone watches them go through all the pageantry of the process.  But rather than a bump, Trump's approval has actually dropped during his first week in office.

There are six major pollsters doing presidential approval right now.  You can see the specific numbers here, but basically three of the six have Trump with negative net approval (that is, more people disapprove than approve), two have slim positive net approval, and one has +10 approval (55% approve, 44% disapprove).  That last might be good news for Trump, but that pollster (Rasmussen) has historically favored Republicans, skewing their numbers up a few points... and they had Obama with +23 at this same point.

All this is to say: President Trump is historically unpopular, and is getting less popular.  Most people didn't want him as president.  Some of his voters thought he was exaggerating about some of his plans -- that they were a "negotiating tactic."  And some of the voters who might approve of his intentions are upset at how incompetently he's enacting his plans.

It's working.  Marching, calling, emailing, and speaking truth to power... it's working.

A majority of Americans are in the resistance.  Keep it up.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Read: on the Muslim Ban

This is one of those clarifying moments in American history, and like most such, it came upon us unawares, although historians in later years will be able to trace the deep and the contingent causes that brought us to this day. There is nothing to fear in this fact; rather, patriots should embrace it. The story of the United States is, as Lincoln put it, a perpetual story of “a rebirth of freedom” and not just its inheritance from the founding generation.

"President Trump's First Defeat."  Blake Hounshell in Politico Magazine.
It’s too early to say how the politics of all this will play out, but as a sheer matter of governance, it augurs poorly. Other administrations might have carefully briefed reporters on the details of the new policy, prepared the public, put exemptions in place, clarified exactly who would be affected. They might have crafted an outreach strategy to key allies to explain the president’s reasoning and hear out any concerns. The Trump team seems to have done none of that.

"This Is What It's Like to Come to the United States as a Refugee."  Julia Ioffe in The Atlantic.
We were probably an abstraction to the flight attendants on the plane, another set of droplets in the torrent escaping the Soviet Union, another family huddling under blankets under the April snow on the tarmac at a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, another rambunctious toddler running up and down the aisles of the plane, trying vainly to recruit the people trying to sleep around her into a game of catch with a little red rubber ball.
And to most people watching the refugee crisis unfold, the refugees detained and turned back at airports across the country are likely abstractions, too. They do not see what brought them there or the bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine they had to navigate to be deemed safe and responsible refugees.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Do: help the ACLU with legal costs of fighting the Muslim ban.

Want to do something?  Set up a sustaining donation with the American Civil Liberties Association.

Yesterday, the Trump administration imposed a temporary halt to all immigration, refugees, or entry into the United States of America by anyone who has citizenship in one of the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.  In a strict sense, this sort of stoppage is not unprecedented; at one point the Obama administration did the same thing for Iraqi citizens, for example.  But in a more realistic sense, the scope of this ban and the context for its passage -- i.e. the long-promised Muslim ban of the Trump campaign -- is also pretty bad.  There's two reasons why.

It's impractical and kind of stupid, for one thing.  This blanket ban hurts a lot of people who are supposed to be on America's side, such as Iraqi and Afghani translators who have been working for America for years and were promised they could emigrate, or permanent citizens -- some of whom have been here for decades and who have green cards -- who were on vacation or visiting their homes.  The text of the ban (and the current implementation, according to chaotic first reports) even includes dual citizens of other countries... even some members of allied governments (like some British Members of Parliament such as Nadhim Zahawi and the Canadian Minister of Immigration).  And reciprocal bans are going up... Iran is planning on it, which will mean American nuclear inspectors are blocked from their work.  And since it plays into the whole "Islam versus the West" narrative, ISIS has already begun to feature the "American Muslim ban" in their recruiting.  There's a reason Presidents Bush and Obama went to such lengths to make it clear Islam was not America's enemy.  Lastly, of course, since there's virtually no crime or terrorism coming from those seven countries, so we're expending a ton of international political capital and goodwill for nothing.

But beyond the practical problems, many Americans -- myself included -- find this repugnant to American values.  The ban is only of majority-Muslim countries, and it explicitly also says that when (if) immigration and refugees and visitors and residents are allowed back in, preference will be given to members of the minority religious sects in those countries.  This sort of means Yazidis and the like, but really it mostly means Christians.  And in modern-day America, we do not discriminate against the lives of brown people or Muslim people or anyone else.  Further, we're a nation of immigrants who came from the rough countries.  Impoverished British, enslaved Africans, broken Germans, and starving Irish came in their successive waves and faced discrimination and hatred and pain.  Our ideals of inclusion and universal liberty were forged in the mingled fires of a thousand past perditions.  Give us your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free!

So do you want to help fight this?  I trust I don't even need to tell you to contact your representatives and Congressional leaders about this -- see the link on the sidebar for their contact info.

Here's something else, though: as in so many times in the past, the ACLU is waging war against illiberties.  They've already filed suit, and more suits are coming.  They're believers -- they've fought for the free speech of Nazis! -- and you can count on them to stay true.  Support them.  But don't do it with a one-time donation of $20.  Set up a monthly sustaining donation, so that it automatically goes through.  It doesn't have to be a lot, especially if you don't have a lot of money (Lizzie and I only give a few dollars a month), but it allows them to budget consistently and fight forever.  And it lets you freely ignore their spam emails asking for more, since you know you're already giving!

Set up your monthly donation today.

UPDATE: The ACLU won a ruling from a judge.  In less than 24 hours, they got two good plaintiffs, wrote their brief, filed suit, got a hearing at 7:30 on a Saturday night, and got a binding nationwide order to block all enforcement of the refugee/visa ban.  Show them your gratitude.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Listen: we won't win every fight, but we'll win some... and they build on each other.

It's rough out there, sure.  The Republican party has control of most of the statehouses, the Presidency, and both houses of Congress.  And in the first blush of a new presidency in such a situation, a lot of things get done.  They're locking down communications, banning refugees from many majority-Muslim countries, planning a wall along the Mexican border, freezing hiring throughout the government, politicizing science by requiring all studies be approved by political flacks, and have floated a host of other policies.

But really, we should compare to other presidencies.  In his first couple of weeks, Obama got the stimulus package passed (the one that arguably saved us from a depression), froze the pay of all senior staff at current levels, enacted strict rules against lobbyists, suspended new Gitmo detentions, banned torture, signed a memo requiring higher fuel efficiency standards, ended the Mexico City policy, signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act... well, you get the picture.

Sure, a lot of Trump's proposals are insane, bigoted, or ludicrously wasteful.  But the new administration is blessedly incompetent and obsessed with appearances -- and America has risen in opposition.

It's funny, sometimes nothing unites a people like a common enemy.  See, all those phone calls and all that resistance?  It's working.

  • More than 1 out of every 100 Americans marched in the Women's March.  It was the largest protest in American history.  And it happened on Day 2 of the Trump administration, when they're supposed to be at their strongest.
  • In response to relentless criticism and calls, multiple nominees  -- Puzder (Labor), DeVos (Education) have been pushed back or reconsidered.  Some senators are wavering over the ethical problems that have come to light.
  • The White House and its Press Secretary have been exposed as lying in such a blatant way that they've become a national joke.
  • The USDA was banned from releasing any data or information to the people.  There was such outrage that the ban has been rescinded!  To be sure, there's still a ban on the EPA, HHS, Transportation, and NPS... but remember, victories build on each other!
  • The attempt to throw all climate science down the memory hole has also backfired... it drew so much attention and scorn that they backed off of that one, too.
There are many more examples.  Naturally, there's a lot of terrible stuff that went through -- don't get me wrong, we're not winning them all.  But this is supposed to be the height of the Trump administration's power, when they get to have a mandate and political capital and all that jazz.  Instead... well, his approval numbers are starting in the toilet.  Where is it going to go when they start really screwing up?

Keep fighting.  It's making a difference, and every victory will have its own children.


Listen: it will all be okay.

It will all be okay.

I'm writing this on day six of the Trump presidency, and everything seems like it's going to hell.  The news is full of stories about executive orders to torture, anti-gay judges, mass resignations of senior staff, and flagrant falsehoods.  Many people are angry.  Some people are scared.  And a few people think that this is the end of America as a liberal democracy.

But listen: it will all be okay.  I'm going to tell you why.

Before I do, it's important that you know a few things: I'm a left-liberal/libertarian utilitarian cisgender white middle-class male. I'm a fucking absurd stereotype of privileged mansplaining over here. Sorry about that.

I'm also obsessed with politics and history and literature.  It didn't help very much in November: I was completely, swaggeringly wrong about the outcome of the election. It was pretty unlikely, true, and required a lot of insane variables to all come together at once... but unlikely things happen every day.  I didn't think Trump would win, and I was wrong.

It's important to remember, though, that this doesn't mean that we can't ever know anything again.  One error doesn't break the world.  Scientia potentia est -- knowledge is power, even in a Trumped-up world.  I still try to find out what is true, predict what will happen, and check to see if my predictions match reality.

Some days, that can be hard... logistically and emotionally.  There's a whole lot of bad news out there, and it will come at you and wash over you like winter waters, until you feel like you're floating away, numb in the cold of all the hatred and wrongness.

But I have to say... knowing all that I do about recent history and current events and the coming tide... I really do think it'll be okay.  Not for everyone, and not right away.  A lot is going to suck and a lot of people are going to get hurt.  We're going to have to fight and shout and struggle and cheer and cry, and we must never forget everything at stake or everything we need to do... But still.  It will all be okay.

I'm going to try to tell you why.