Issue #11: Oct 15–Oct 21, 2017

In this week’s newsletter, after our summary of some of the week’s most genuinely important events, I delve into an event that got way more air time than any of them: the controversy over the disrespect Trump showed (or didn’t show, depending on who you believe) toward a fallen soldier while offering condolences to the soldier’s widow. I try to answer the looming question: Was this worth the fuss? I break that question down into a few sub-questions that may be of use in the future as you confront that recurring Trump-related question: Should I get outraged over this? Also in this newsletter, we inaugurate a new (occasional) award: Dubious Viral Tweet Of The Week—which gives us a chance to subject 140 characters or less to longer, and arguably tedious, analysis.

—Robert Wright

THE WEEK IN TRUMP

Obamacare Deal? Trump confused Washington by speaking both positively and negatively about the bipartisan Murray-Alexander bill. The deal aims to stabilize Obamacare marketplaces by restoring subsidies that help people with low incomes.
The Washington Post reported that the deal has the support of 60 senators, enough to overcome a filibuster.

GOP Cues Up Tax Cuts: The Senate passed a budget resolution Thursday night. Bloomberg reports: “Final approval of the [resolution] will unlock a special procedure allowing Republicans to pass a subsequent tax code rewrite without Democratic support. The House and Senate tax-writing committees plan to release draft legislation by early November … [The resolution allows] tax cuts that add up to $1.5 trillion to the deficit…”

Charlottesville, cont’d: At white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech in Florida, one of Spencer’s supporters fired a shot in the direction of protestors, according to police, who arrested the supporter, Tyler Tenbrink, along with two companions and charged all three with attempted homicide. Before the shooting Tenbrink had told the Washington Post, “I came here to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, the radical left threatened my family and children because I was seen and photographed in Charlottesville.”

An Inordinate Interest In Jurisprudence: Politico reported that Trump personally interviewed at least two candidates for US Attorney, including one who, if nominated and confirmed, would have jurisdiction over Trump Tower. For a president to personally interview US Attorney candidates before nominating them is extremely unusual.

Raqqa Regained: American-backed forces captured the Syrian city, which was the capital of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate. CNN reported from the scene: “It’s difficult to imagine how it could all be rebuilt. No one knows at this point who would pay for it—no one even knows who controls this city.”

Drug Czar Bows Out:  Trump’s pick to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Rep. Tom Marino, withdrew from consideration after a Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation detailed “how he helped pass legislation weakening the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise.”

Bush Brush-Back: George W. Bush delivered a speech seen as veiled criticism of Trump, including the lines “we’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism” and “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

OUTRAGE: A USER’S GUIDE

One of life’s great challenges is figuring out when to be outraged. Outrage, after all, is a precious resource. It can energize a political cause and can valuably convey deep moral disapproval—but if you indulge it too much, you’ll lose your perspective, if not your mind, and debase your rhetorical currency.

Add to that a distinctive feature of the current political moment—a president who sometimes uses our outrage to reinforce his persecution narrative, and thus energize his base—and you have a real conundrum: To be outraged or not to be outraged? That is the question.

This week provided a good opportunity to ponder it. A congresswoman who had listened in on President Trump’s call of consolation to a fallen soldier’s widow said Trump had been disrespectful in saying that the soldier “knew what he signed up for.” Outrage ensued, followed by counter-outrage, counter-counter-outrage, and, as we go to press, counter-counter-counter outrage.

Was the initial outrage wise? Here are three questions I would have recommended asking from the outset—and they’re questions you might find occasion to ask in the future, when anti-Trump outrage seems to beckon.

  1. Did we really have a clear idea of what Trump did? No. We were relying on a politician who opposes Trump for both the account of what he had said and for the interpretation of it. And, from the beginning, the interpretation was dubious. After all, how likely is it that Trump meant to sound disrespectful? Even Trump has better judgment than that. And if he didn’t mean to be disrespectful, then the most likely explanation is that he handled a delicate situation awkwardly, as he is famously prone to do. That’s not worth an expenditure of outrage.
  2. Did Trump violate some norm that we should work hard to uphold? Even if you place the worst interpretation on this—even if you believe Trump meant to  disrespect this soldier—the answer is no. Don’t get me wrong: Respect by a president for dead soldiers is a norm worth preserving. But it’s not a norm you have to work to preserve, because it’s in no danger of crumbling. After all, it’s pretty much never in the interest of a president to violate this norm, and even if we imagine that Trump doesn’t grasp this fact, we can rest assured that his successor will. Contrast this with Trump’s suggestion last week that NBC News, having done some reporting he didn’t like, should perhaps be shut down by the government. That is an occasion for outrage—because lots of presidents would like the press to be less critical of them, and you can imagine future presidents who would be happy to achieve this through intimidation. And world history shows that freedom of the press can be eroded incrementally by leaders who act on this inclination.
  3. Is there much political capital to be gained via outrage? This is usually hard to predict (or even to know in retrospect). But from the beginning, in this case, there were grounds for doubt. This had all the earmarks of a he-said she-said story that would leave most Americans believing the version told by the person on their side of the tribal divide—which means one effect would be to reinforce Trump’s persecution narrative. As it happens, this became more complicated than a he-said she-said story, as Chief of Staff John Kelly stepped in and said that the congresswoman’s paraphrasal of Trump was accurate but her interpretation wrong. And that, surely, will suffice to make this episode, in the eyes of Trump’s base, another example of how unfairly Trump is attacked. Indeed, that a general who lost a son in combat was Trump’s validator in this case will help make this story, in those same eyes, another testament to the lack of patriotism among Trump’s opponents. And as for the fact that Kelly turns out to have inaccurately remembered an earlier incident involving the same congresswoman, and to have attacked her unfairly on the basis of that memory: well, anyone who thinks that will get much traction on Trump’s side of the tribal divide should, imho, pay more attention to human nature and to the way technology has balkanized the distribution of news and its analysis.

     Robert Wright   

 

DUBIOUS VIRAL TWEET OF THE WEEK

A tweet on Friday that within 24 hours racked up 2,400 retweets displayed the following poll results:

Clinton voters who believe accusations against
Harvey Weinstein: 77%
Trump: 83%

Trump voters who believe accusations against
Harvey Weinstein: 66%
Trump: 8%

We can guess what fueled the retweeting—these data seemed like evidence that Trump voters are less objective, less impartial, than Clinton voters. Well, before Clinton voters get too self-congratulatory, note one asymmetry between Weinstein and Trump: Trump was the Republican candidate for president, whereas Weinstein wasn’t the Democratic candidate for president. In fact, Weinstein was somebody most Clinton voters probably hadn’t heard of until they heard that he was a sexual predator. It may have been only later (if then) that many of them learned he had been a big Democratic donor. So for Clinton voters to judge Weinstein critically doesn’t take nearly the impartiality that it would take for them to judge Clinton critically or for Trump voters to judge Trump critically. Further, the Weinstein allegations were so fresh and pervasive that it was hard for anyone to not remember them—whereas the Trump allegations hadn’t been widely reported for a long time, which gave his followers plenty of time to forget them (which, of course, a candidate’s followers are more likely to do than the opponents’ followers, thanks to the kind of cognitive distortion that fuels the psychology of tribalism).

 

BACKGROUND

FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester warned that insurance rates will go up even if the Alexander-Murray bill passes: “even if that deal were to become law … it almost surely couldn’t happen in time to stop the fallout from President Trump’s decision to halt payments to insurers…”

NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS, cautioned on “The Daily” podcast that, even after the retaking of Raqqa, the terrorist network still has 3800 square miles of territory and that the “hardened fighters” who survived Raqqa may spread out across the region.

Rachel Maddow drew criticism from some on the left as well as the right for suggesting that the ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers was a consequence of Trump’s inclusion of Chad in his latest proposed travel ban.

 

DEEP BACKGROUND

Vox’s Sean Illing posted a dispatch from a recent gathering of 20 political scientists who discussed the state of American democracy. Pessimism was abundant: “scholars pointed to breakdowns in social cohesion … the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion.”

NYT’s Eduardo Porter finds little hope for America’s smaller cities: “They might try to become innovation hubs by, say, drawing large teaching hospitals. [But p]erhaps the best policy would be to help [residents] move to a big city nearby.”

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal delves into how Facebook divided the country and shaped the 2016 election: “the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”

Bruce Cain argues in The American Interest that much of Trump’s behavior can be interpreted as a strategy for winning the electoral vote in 2020 without winning the popular vote. Cain assesses possible electoral reforms that could make it harder to win in the electoral college without winning the popular vote.

—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade with contributions from Nikita Petrov and Brian Degenhart

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