Issue #17: Nov 26-Dec 2, 2017

In this week’s newsletter, after our summary of an especially eventful seven days of Trump-related news, I examine a proposal that was floated this week: that all anti-Trumpers put aside their ideological differences, and refrain from debating policy, so long as Trump is in office. Conveniently, this gives me an opportunity to remind you what a menace Bill Kristol is. Then, in our background section, we steer you toward arguments for taking impeachment more seriously; for getting Democrats back in touch with religion; for worrying that a reportedly impending change of leadership at the State Department could make things even worse than they are; for both hope and despair about the Mueller investigation; and so on.

—Robert Wright

 

THE WEEK IN TRUMP

 Tax Reform Advances: After making last-minute concessions to holdouts, Senate Republicans were able to pass their version of tax reform (or, as the NYT described it, “a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care”). Under the bill, the budget deficit would likely grow, as fiscal hawks failed to secure a “trigger” mechanism that would suspend tax cuts if hoped-for revenue from economic growth doesn’t materialize. Income inequality would also likely grow, since, according to the Tax Policy Center, “tax cuts as a percentage of after-tax income would be larger for higher income groups.” The bill still needs to be reconciled with the House version.

In (Court) Like Flynn: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and will cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. ABC reported that Flynn “is prepared to testify that Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians.” The significance of this report diminished after ABC, having initially said the Trump directive came before the election, issued a “clarification”saying the directive  came after the election—which means this testimony would have no direct bearing on the question of collusion to influence the election. Flynn’s admission of guilt may strengthen arguments that Trump obstructed justice in firing FBI director James Comey after unsuccessfully encouraging Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn.

Trump Versus Britain: The president retweeted three videos purporting to show Muslims committing acts of violence against, for example, a statue of the Virgin Mary. When the veracity of the videos was questioned, the White House press secretary said, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” The videos had been tweeted by a leader of Britain First, an ultranationalist group that supports banning mosques. Trump’s retweets drew condemnation across the British political spectrum—even from Brexit advocate and Trump supporter Nigel Farage—and led to an icy exchange between Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May.

Rexit? Multiple outlets reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be fired within weeks, likely to be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Floated to replace Pompeo at the CIA was Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of the most hawkish members of Congress—and, like Pompeo, particularly hawkish on Iran. Trump called the reports “fake news”.

Oval Office Insult: Standing next to Navajo WWII veterans whom he was honoring, Trump saw fit to toss off his famous sobriquet for Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “Pocahontas.” The president of the Navajo Nation called the remark “disrespectful to Indian nations.”

Kellyanne Conway, Renaissance Woman: Attorney General Jeff Sessions said White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, a pollster by trade, will “coordinate and lead the effort” to stem the opioid crisis. Trump still hasn’t filled the position of “drug czar.” Last month, Trump’s nominee for the post withdrew from consideration after his role in passing legislation that handcuffs the Drug Enforcement Agency’s anti-opioid efforts was revealed.

CFPB Showdown: Trump won the first round of the battle to control the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, as a judge ruled that Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, can simultaneously serve as acting director of the agency, at least for now. The deputy director, a holdover from the Obama administration who asserts she should be acting director, is suing to prevent Trump from appointing anyone without Senate confirmation.

Nothing If Not Flexible: The New York Times reported that Trump is claiming in private that it wasn’t actually his voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape (even though he admitted last year that it was) and that President Obama was not born in the United States (even though he admitted last year that Obama was).

HOW UNIFIED SHOULD “THE RESISTANCE” BE?

Here’s a sentence I never expected to find myself writing: This week influential liberal commentators recommended that liberals quit arguing with conservatives about public policy.

It all started when Ben Wittes, in a much-cited 18-tweet manifesto, recommended that all Americans who oppose Trump and Trumpism suspend discussion of what divides them so they can together confront this “national emergency.” He wrote, “We have grave disagreements about social issues, about important foreign policy questions, about tax policy, about whether entitlements should be reformed or expanded, about what sort of judges should serve on our courts.” He added: “I believe in putting them all aside.”

Michael Tomasky, editor of the journal Democracy and former editor of The American Prospect, then wrote a Daily Beast piece about the proposal floated by Wittes, declaring “I’m with him.”

I’m not. And the best way to explain why is to look at someone else Tomasky says he’s now with: Bill Kristol, the neoconservative writer and political operator. Tomasky correctly anticipates that one source of liberal resistance to Wittes’s proposal will be the disturbing prospect of making nice to people like Kristol. Kristol, after all, is famous for, among other things, working hard to get us into the Iraq War and working hard to defeat Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1993 plan to expand health care coverage. Tomasky writes, “Well, Bill Kristol’s done a lot of things I don’t like. And I’ve probably done a lot of things he didn’t like… But I’m ready even to forget Iraq.”

Again I say: I’m not. “Mindful resistance,” as you may recall, was never meant to connnote some stereotypically Buddhist attitude of boundless love and forgiveness. It was meant to connote calm, careful attention to all things relevant to solving the problem of Trumpism. The idea is to soberly figure out what array of forces created Trumpism and then fight those forces. Well, (IMHO) there are few people who have more influentially abetted those forces than Bill Kristol.

Consider a few areas of Kristol’s influence.

1) Foreign Policy. Had it not been for the Iraq War, ISIS as we know it would almost certainly not exist. More generally, the Iraq War, by nourishing the America-versus-Islam narrative that Jihadist recruiters love, and by creating the kind of chaos in which they do their best work, was a big boost for anti-American terrorism. And if you imagine a 2016 election with no ISIS, and little in the way of recent anti-American terrorism, you’re imagining an election in which Trump’s Islamophobia doesn’t have nearly the appeal it had—an election Trump probably loses. And Kristol didn’t just favor the Iraq War—he crusaded for it, and built a whole institutional edifice that helped bring it about.

2) Health care. How was Donald Trump able to make the repeal of Obamacare a powerful issue? Partly, of course, by distorting the public’s perception of Obamacare. But he got a big assist from genuine deficiencies in Obamacare—deficiencies that resulted from concessions made in the face of strong and longstanding opposition to more encompassing and coherent health care reform. And Kristol was—from the Clinton presidency throughthe Obama presidency—an influential opponent of such reform.

3) Income inequality. A big asset for Trump in 2016 was the sense among many low-income whites that there are two Americas: an America of affluent metropolitan elites and a low-income stratum of middle America that those elites don’t care about. The Senate tax bill that passed this week will exacerbate income inequality, and it is only the latest in a series of conservative tax initiatives that have had that effect, and thus reinforced this sense of grievance. Bill Kristol has been on board for most of them.
Tomasky (who is one of our sharpest and most sincere liberal voices, and whom I disagree with only respectfully) might argue that, actually, Kristol is no longer a leading contributor to things like income inequality. After all, didn’t he oppose this Republican tax bill? For that matter, didn’t he oppose Trump’s drive to repeal Obamacare? Yes, and Tomasky celebrates this leftward drift of Kristol and some other neoconservatives: “They’ve changed. Not me. I’m happy to make common cause with them.”

Forgive me for injecting a note of skepticism. This isn’t the first time Kristol has shown a malleability on domestic policy that wasn’t matched by malleability on foreign policy. (For example, he departed from Republican tax-cut orthodoxy in 2012.) A cynic might go so far—and some cynics have—as to suggest that a belligerent, militaristic foreign policy is the lodestar for Kristol and some other neoconservatives, and that they’re willing to support whatever constellation of domestic policies it takes to sustain a coalition for this militarism. In this view, the current moment is, for Kristol, an opportunity to win favor from fervent liberal anti-Trumpers, favor that can be used later to sell another war. Certainly Kristol has used a river of emotionally resonant anti-Trump tweets, produced with factory-like efficiency, to massively increase his Twitter following and win the hearts of swooning liberals.

Which leads to one big reason we can’t afford to put our differences with Kristol on hold until Trump leaves office: That next war could be coming soon. Trump is already undermining Obama’s Iran nuclear deal (which Kristol energetically opposed) and in other ways exacerbating tensions with Iran. If reports of an upcoming administration reshuffling are true, we will soon have passionate and reckless anti-Iran hawks running both the State Department and the CIA. And, by the way, the one at CIA, Tom Cotton, is a Kristol protégé.

This is the irony of Kristol’s Trump-era makeover into what Matt Yglesias has called “woke Bill Kristol”: It began to take shape during the presidential campaign, when Trump was sounding like a neocon’s worst nightmare—criticizing US military entanglements and talking rapprochement with Russia; but, predictably, Trump has been engulfed by the Republican foreign policy establishment, which is to say the neoconservative foreign policy establishment. So Bill Kristol is getting much the kind of foreign policy he likes while absorbing the good will that comes from remaining officially anti-Trump. He is perfectly positioned to influentially encourage the next foreign policy disaster.

And now, as I understand it, we’re being told by Wittes and Tomasky that, if that disaster starts to unfold, and people like Kristol start abetting it, we should remain silent because “the resistance” is some kind of sacred brotherhood? Indeed, have I somehow betrayed the resistance by spending the last few paragraphs reminding people of Kristol’s pernicious views?
This isn’t just about foreign policy, and it isn’t just about Kristol. The many areas of disagreement within “the resistance”—in foreign policy, tax policy, health care policy, and so on—are not things we can suspend discussion of if we’re serious about defeating Trumpism. Because the drift of policy in these areas will help determine whether the ground in America stays fertile for future versions of Trump—whether our policies continue to foment terrorism, income inequality, bad health care, uneven educational opportunity, and the many other things that leave many Americans feeling alienated. We don’t want to get rid of Trump only to find ourselves singing the lyrics of the old Who song: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” So we can’t afford to spend the interim hugging everyone who opposes Trump and singing Kumbaya.

—Robert Wright

 

BACKGROUND

In Slate, Jed Handelsman Shugerman explained how Mueller is “neutralizing Trump’s pardon power.” But, also in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick worried that, even if Mueller eventually produces a smoking gun, “the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America might not matter enough, to enough people, to bring the Trump train to a stop.”

If Rex Tillerson indeed leaves the State Department soon, he won’t leave it as he found it, according to the New York Times; he has been hollowing out the department, freezing hiring, firing long-time diplomats and leaving others with no work to do. But heir apparent Mike Pompeo will be worse than Tillerson, argued Paul Waldman in the Washington Post: “Pompeo’s move to State and [Tom] Cotton’s elevation to the CIA would make the end of the deal restraining Iran’s nuclear program, and possibly even another American war in the Middle East, much more likely.”

Mick Mulvaney, so long as he serves as both budget director and acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is “one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the country” according to the Washington Post; he can, for example, greenlight or kill investigations into financial institutions.


DEEP BACKGROUND

Vox’s Ezra Klein made the case that it’s time for Democrats to get serious about impeaching Trump.

Michael Wear, who worked in Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, wrote in the Atlantic that “Democrats ignored broad swaths of religious America in the 2016 election campaign [and the] party must turn back to people of faith.”

“As much as one-third of the United States workforce could be out of a job by 2030 thanks to automation, according to new research from McKinsey.”

 

—by Robert Wright and Aryeh Cohen-Wade

 

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