This is the 20th issue of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, and we’re celebrating our 20-week anniversary by… doing what we usually do: (1) pithily and analytically summarizing The Week in Trump; (2) pointing you to background reading relevant to the week’s developments or to understanding or fighting Trumpism in some larger sense; (3) sandwiching, in between (1) and (2), some thoughts by me. This week my thoughts turned to the question of whether I was too hard on famed neoconservative Bill Kristol in this newsletter a few weeks ago—after which they turned to the question of whether I wasn’t hard enough on him. Feel free to weigh in on these or any other questions raised in this newsletter by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And Merry Holidays!
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Taxes Cut: Trump signed the Republican tax bill into law, securing his first major legislative victory. Democrats took heart in polls showing public opposition to the bill, but this opposition could prove short-lived as taxpayers discover that a large majority of them will get tax cuts. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s description of the new law—“a hefty windfall for the wealthy and only [a] paltry temporary leap for some in the middle class”—was an allusion to the fact that tax cuts for individuals (though not for corporations) are slated to expire, at which point taxes could go up for most people. But that wouldn’t happen until after 2025. Meanwhile, in 2018 only 5 percent of taxpapers would see their taxes go up, according to the Tax Policy Center. Some Democrats are, like Schumer, emphasizing the inequality of the tax relief: In 2018, an estimated 21 percent of the benefits would go to the top 1 percent of earners, who make more than $733,000 and would get an average tax cut of $51,000; and 8 percent of the benefits would go to the top one tenth of one percent. Taxpayers making between $46,000 and $89,000 would get an average cut of $900, and taxpayers making less than $25,000 would get an average cut of $60. Down the road, the law may have important indirect consequences: Republicans are making noises about recovering some of the revenue lost through the tax cuts by cutting Medicaid, on which many low-income Americans depend for health care; and the tax law’s limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes could put downward political pressure on those taxes, reducing funds available for public education and infrastructure. (A suggestion on Twitter that Democrats promise to restore full deductibility with the 2018 campaign slogan “Repeal the Republicans’ Double Taxation” failed to get huge traction. But its author hasn’t given up!)
Escalation in Ukraine: The State Department announced plans to provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities,” and anonymous officials said the arms transfer would include anti-tank missiles that could be used against Russian-backed rebels who control eastern Ukraine. It wasn’t clear what accounted for the new policy, which is inconsistent with Trump’s campaign rhetoric on foreign policy. But one consequence of accusations of collusion with Russia has been to give Trump a political incentive to appear tougher on Russia.
Global Rebuke: The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to denounce the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The vote—128 to 9 with 35 abstentions—carries no legal force but was seen as an embarrassment for Trump because he had threatened to cut off aid to countries voting for the resolution. Most of America’s closest allies voted for the resolution, and the seven countries that joined the US and Israel in voting against it didn’t exactly constitute a critical mass of the world’s power: Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo (not to be confused with Tonga).
Can Kicked Again: Congress passed stopgap legislation that will keep the government open through mid-January. Left unresolved until then were the long-term prospects for, among other things, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Democrats overwhelmingly favor both, and Republicans will need at least some Democratic support to keep the government open past mid-January, since any funding measure would, unlike this year’s tax bill, require 60 votes for passage in the Senate.
Remember the word emoluments? You can forget it again for a while: A federal judge dismissed lawsuits arguing that Trump is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by owning hotels that receive payments from foreign governments. The ruling may be appealed, and, in any event, the emoluments issue is being considered elsewhere in the federal court system as a result of lawsuits brought by other parties.
MINDFULLY CRITICIZING BILL KRISTOL
I’ve been getting some good feedback on things I’ve written in this space. I don’t mean “good” in the sense of “positive.” I mean “good” in the sense of “thought provoking” and in the sense of “giving me another excuse to write about Bill Kristol.”
A big round of such feedback came after Vox republished a piece I had posted in this space three weeks ago, in which I said some unflattering things about Kristol, the famous neoconservative anti-Trumper. International relations scholar Dan Drezner, in his Washington Post column Spoiler Alerts, challenged parts of my argument. He wrote:
I read Wright’s essay on mindful resistance to Trump, and there’s an awful lot in there on not demonizing others in different places on the political spectrum: “Outrage toward Trump often translates into a sense of antagonism toward his supporters. And antagonism toward people impedes cognitive empathy — it encourages you to depict their motivations in simplistically unflattering terms.” One could argue that this logic applies equally well to Kristol and other neoconservatives.
This is a good point: So long as I consider Kristol an ideological adversary, which I emphatically do, I am in danger of having a distorted view of him and his motivation. That’s the way human psychology works. Particularly suspect are these three sentences from my original piece:
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.
This is exactly the kind of malign motivation one might sincerely yet wrongly attribute to an adversary. Then again, the attribution of malign motivations to adversaries isn’t always mistaken. And, as it happens, Drezner’s post, in conjunction with a conversation I later had with Drezner about this on bloggingheads.tv, provided a measure of support for the cynical interpretation of Kristol’s high-decibal denunciations of Trump—support for the hypothesis that these denunciations are at least partly disingenuous. The essence of the support is this: The more you examine Kristol’s past, the more you realize that he has long evinced sympathy for important parts of Trumpism.
Drezner himself made part of the point in his Washington Post piece:
There are ways in which Wright could have made an even stronger argument against Kristol in particular. For example, he failed to mention Kristol’s key role in vaulting Sarah Palin to the national stage. Palin was the politician that paved the way for someone like Trump to seek the GOP nomination. As late as 2014, Kristol suggested that Palin could be the 2016 GOP nominee because, “She has a real populist streak, and a real feel for, sort of, middle America in a way that very few politicians do.”
Or, as Drezner put it to me on bloggingheads.tv, Palin was the “gateway drug” to Trump.
And then there’s Kristol’s specific affinity for some of Trump’s deplorable values and techniques. If you started listing Trump’s most disturbing tendencies, somewhere near the top of the list would be things like this: Trump engages in Islamophobia and other forms of fearmongering, and he sometimes does so using such McCarthyite tactics as guilt by association and anonymous smears (“Some people are saying…”). Well, as I observed during my conversation with Drezner, it turns out that Kristol himself has a history of doing this kind of thing.
Kristol was until recently the editor of The Weekly Standard, the neoconservative magazine he co-founded several decades ago. As such, he is accountable for the articles published on his watch. And that’s not just because, with an intensely ideological magazine like the Weekly Standard, you can assume that the editor broadly approves of the drift of its articles. It’s because the editor of any magazine, regardless of whether he or she agrees with every article, is always responsible for ensuring that they evince, at a minimum, decency and honesty.
Here are a couple of things Kristol did while editor of The Weekly Standard:
1) He ran a piece aimed at arousing dark suspicions about an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, who in 2010 expressed the aspiration to build a mosque and community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan—a project that was successfully opposed by far-right activists. Rauf was a picture of establishment respectability—so much like the kind of guy who would give a TED talk that he had, in fact, given a TED talk (about the importance of compassion). This didn’t deter the Weekly Standard from depicting him as a shady and dangerous character. Here is its line of attack, as I summarized it in a piece I wrote for the New York Times: “Rauf’s wife has an uncle who used to be ‘a leader’ of a mosque that now has a Web site that links to the Web site of an allegedly radical organization.” This is guilt-by-association so tenuous that Joseph McCarthy himself (or even McCarthy’s creepy sidekick Roy Cohn, a mentor of Trump’s) might have felt guilty about deploying it. Apparently Kristol didn’t.
2) In response to reports in 2012 that Chuck Hagel—whom Kristol denounced as “pro-appeasement-of-Iran”—would be nominated for Secretary of Defense, Kristol ran a piece by a Standard staffer with this headline: Senate Aide: ‘Send Us Hagel and We Will Make Sure Every American Knows He Is an Anti-Semite’. (Kristol himself wrote a companion piece accusing Hagel—on the basis of no good evidence so far as I could tell—of having “consistent hostility to Israel.”) Since the Senate aide wasn’t named, this Weekly Standard piece is—as I noted at the time—an excellent specimen of that classic genre of McCarthyism, the anonymous smear.
So there you have it: Kristol seems very comfortable with two of Trump’s most deplorable McCarthyite techniques: guilt-by-association and anonymous smears. And Kristol has deployed them for the same purpose Trump often deploys them: Fearmongering, with a particular emphasis on Islamophobia, sometimes in the narrower form of Iranophobia. None of this proves that Kristol’s current full-throated opposition to Trump is disingenuous. But, like his ardent support of the great harbinger of Trumpism, Sarah Palin, it certainly constitutes evidence in support of the hypothesis of disingenuousness.
I wasn’t kidding when I said my views on Kristol are suspect. I meditate every day, and I try to stay mindful, but I haven’t come anywhere near transcending all the cognitive biases that are part of the psychology of tribalism. All I can do is put the evidence out there and leave it for others to either find flaws in it or introduce other, countervailing, evidence. So do with all this what you will.
But I would add that there’s more than one kind of cognitive bias involved in the psychology of tribalism. For example: you can so intensely hate an enemy—Donald Trump, say—that your view of that enemy’s other enemies is warped, and you wind up bonding with them uncritically. And that could conceivably lead you, in the present case, to help usher Trump off the stage only to discover that you’ve helped empower a new regime that embodies a lot of the things that led you to hate Trump in the first place.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
NYT’s Andrew Ross Sorkin explains how the “ultra-rich” do better under the new tax law than the “merely rich.” An NYT tax calculator helps you get a rough sense of how your taxes will be affected and also provides a sense of how the costs and benefits of the new law will be distributed.
The tax bill nullified the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, but Politico’s Michael Grunwald says the ACA (aka Obamacare) is still alive and kicking.
This week Democrats made Rep. Jerry Nadler ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. Paul Kane argues in the Washington Post that this suggests they are preparing for impeachment.
An NYT op-ed argues that the Mueller investigation faces “four looming threats from Mr. Trump and his allies.”
Does Trump deserve credit for the rising stock market? Two writers at Foreign Affairs examine international data and say no.
The Washington Post profiles an Alabama mayor determined to fly a Christian flag, court rulings notwithstanding.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, and Brian Degenhart