Issue #12: Oct 22–Oct 28, 2017

 This week, after The Week in Trump, I address the eternal question: How should we handle the Jeff Flakes of the world? And, for those of you in New York: On Wednesday I’ll be holding a discussion with two prominent Buddhists about, among other things, how to deal with Trump in a way that is mindful and consistent with Buddhist values. If you’re interested in attending, you can RSVP here. Feel free to introduce yourself to me afterwards as a Mindful Resister!

Robert Wright 

THE WEEK IN TRUMP

Suspense Mounts: CNN and then Reuters reported that a grand jury has issued an indictment in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. The smart money seemed to be betting that this indictment, which may not be the last, wouldn’t involve very big fish—not even Paul-Manafort-sized fish. The indictment could be unsealed as early as Monday.

Three’s Company: Jeff Flake announced that he won’t seek reelection and vigorously critiqued Trumpism from the Senate floor, while Bob Corker—who will also retire next year—again spoke out against the president. Some saw Flake’s exit from the Senate as more evidence that Trump and Steve Bannon are seizing control of the Republican party. But even if so, Flake’s move poses Trump with a near-term challenge: Since John McCain is 81, has brain cancer, and doesn’t face reelection until 2022, there are now three Republican senators who are openly hostile toward Trump and not too worried about reelection. And, assuming solidarity among Senate Democrats, Trump will need at least one of the three to pass any legislation.

Why are we in Niger? Last week’s contretemps over Trump’s phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson raised—yet overshadowed—questions about what American troops are doing in Africa in the first place. This week NPRThe Nation, and the Christian Science Monitor examined the question.

Budget blueprint passes: Republicans came a step closer to cutting taxes by narrowly passing a House budget resolution.

Inexpensive opioid emergency: Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency—but didn’t promise any new federal money for the effort.

OUR FRIEND FLAKE?

Two weeks ago, after Sen. Bob Corker famously called the White House an “adult daycare center,” the journalist Ali Gharib tweeted this response: “You endorsed him for president, stumped for him, and now you’re reaping what you’ve sown.” Such sentiments led political scientist Brendan Nyhan to tweet, “Bizarre for liberals to attack Corker for genuine political bravery, however belated. Why would they expect others to follow him, given this?”

This week, with Jeff Flake having joined Corker and John McCain as the Senate’s most outspoken anti-Trump Republicans, the question posed by Gharib and Nyhan re-emerges: How should liberals respond? Warmly embrace Corker and Flake? Pat them on the head with cool approval? Scream at them?

The scream-at-them option seems popular. After Flake’s anti-Trumpism oration in the Senate, Ashley Feinberg of the Huffington Post tweeted: “the only thing jeff flake is mad about is that trump had the gall to say the quiet parts loud.”

If you are among those tempted by the scream-at-them option, here are some possible reasons for screaming, followed by my italicized commentary.

  1. Screaming feels good. So does speeding up to catch a miscreant driver when you feel a burst of road rage.
  2. Brendan Nyhan is wrong—Corker didn’t exhibit “genuine political bravery”. Same goes for Flake: Both men had announced they weren’t running for reelection, so they had nothing to lose by attacking Trump. This is trueBrendan Nyhan awarded this bravery medal too casually. Then again, if you reserved your support for politicians who exhibit genuine bravery, you’d just about never support a politician, right? Politicians rarely risk their careers for the sake of principle—which is one of many things they have in common with non-politicians.
  3. Flake and McCain and Corker can inveigh against Trump all they want, but how often have they actually broken ranks with him? As Ashley Feinberg tweeted, “jeff flake has voted with trump on nearly everything.” It’s true: Flake is a conservative; he votes for conservative things. (And by and large, when he and Trump have supported the same legislation, it has been conservative legislation, not specifically Trumpist legislation.) The reason to embrace Flake, or pat him on the head, wouldn’t be to welcome him to the liberal tribe. The question is whether there are other reasons to give Flake positive reinforcement.

Some possible answers to that last question:

  1. As Nyhan’s tweet suggests, if Flake gets positive reinforcement—if he is embraced on twitter, profiled favorably in liberal media, and so on—that may encourage other Republicans to be more critical of Trump.
  2. Flake, in concert with Corker and McCain, will wield life or death power over legislation that Trump supports in the coming year. The desire of these three senators to thwart Trump may be at odds with their desire to stay in the good graces of the Republican party. Sensing that they have allies beyond the party could make the difference.

Granted, the chances are it won’t. And the chances are that liberal praise for Flake and Corker won’t be decisive in the calculations of any other prominent Republicans thinking about getting off the Trump bandwagon. But you never know.

The great editor and writer (and former boss of mine) Mike Kinsley once wrote, “Conservatives are always looking for converts, whereas liberals are always looking for heretics.” His point was that if liberals spent less time policing the bounds of their tribe, expelling people whose allegiance is suspect, and more time welcoming converts to their tribe, they’d be better off.
Well, Corker, Flake, and McCain will never be converted to the liberal tribe. The question is whether it sometimes makes sense to think of your tribe as bigger than that—as, for example, the anti-Trump tribe. I don’t have a completely clear idea of when the answer is yes and when the answer is no. But the above considerations are the kind I’d bring to bear on the question.

Robert Wright

BACKGROUND

Los Angeles Times reporter Lisa Mascaro writes that the passage of the House Budget Resolution, though a step toward a tax cut bill, also highlights challenges such a bill will face.
Rebecca Traister argues that there’s a connection between some of the recent sexual harassment scandals and electoral politics. In particular: admitted sexual harasser Mark Halperin’s views on women, she says, led to critical coverage of Hillary Clinton and sympathetic coverage of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

DEEP BACKGROUND

Tom Edsall reviews recent political science research on polarization. He quotes one expert as saying, “The evidence is rather clear that the modern hyper-polarization is far more characterized by tribal division than by ideological distance. The real story seems to be the growing us-versus-them, in-group/out-group dynamic.”

The center-left group Third Way is spending millions to understand why Trump won and what drives political polarization, but Molly Ball writes that the analysis may be biased in favor of the group’s pre-exisitng narrative and the narrative’s policy implications.

Elizabeth Drew argues that the biggest surprise about Trump as president is how weak he has turned out to be.

Alex Madrigal wonders whether there’s a link between low-birth rates in Western countries and the appeal of xenophobic politics.

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

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