With this issue of the newsletter we introduce, on an experimental basis, a new feature. It’s called: Go ahead, kvetch! Actually, no, that sounds too negative. It’s called: Go ahead, contribute to the betterment of the Mindful Resistance Newsletter! Here’s how it works:
1) You tell us about some aspect of the newsletter you don’t like, or something you’ve never seen in the newsletter and would like to see—or, if you’re feeling charitable, something you’ve seen in the newsletter and liked and wish you’d see more often. Or, if you want to get philosophical, you can ask deep and probing questions about what the point of this newsletter’s existence is.
2) Then, after this feedback rolls in, I’ll address much, and possibly most, of it in a video that we’ll link to in a future issue of the newsletter.
You can give us this feedback either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by clicking the button right below this paragraph. And don’t worry about developing a reputation as a whiner: When I respond to the feedback, and refer to the people who provided it, I’ll stick with first names only (assuming you’ve given us your name, which is optional). So go ahead—make our day: help shape the Mindful Resistance Newsletter’s evolution and thus do your part to rid the world of the scourge of Trumpism.
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Slow News Week: Congress is in recess, and there hasn’t been an international crisis, a qualitatively new threat to civil liberties, a special election, or a Mueller indictment all week. Even Trump’s tweeting has been, by Trump standards, sparse. Enterprising journalists have compensated for the shortage of raw material by subjecting tweets to inordinately elaborate exegesis and by striving heroically to get video of Trump playing golf in Florida.
President Communicates Via Non-Twitter Medium: Near the end of the week, Trump sat down for an unscheduled interview with a New York Times reporter at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. It was a rambling conversation, with no obvious takeaway headline. The NYT itself opted for “Trump Says Russia Inquiry Makes U.S. ‘Look Very Bad’ ”. Vox went with “Incoherent, authoritarian, uninformed: Trump’s New York Times interview is a scary read”. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post analyzed “11 curious quotes from Trump’s New York Times interview”.
President Impressed By President: During the NYT interview Trump said, “I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A.” He also said that he knows more about “the big bills” in Congress “than any president that’s ever been in office.” Maybe these remarkable attainments explain why, as he also noted, Chinese President Xi Jinping “treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China.” (A lot of thanks Xi gets! Earlier in the week Trump tweeted that China is secretly supplying oil to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions. And in the Times interview Trump said he would toughen America’s trade stance toward China if China didn’t get tougher on North Korea.)
After Trump’s New York Times interview on Thursday, the journalist Josh Marshall, founder and editor of TPM, tweeted that Trump’s performance amounted to a “fairly obvious sign of cognitive degeneration.” Commenting on Marshall’s analysis, political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted, “Sigh. Everyone with the armchair diagnoses needs to settle down.”
Nyhan got some support from a neurologist who tweeted that Trump doesn’t show signs of dementia. But Marshall got a different and in some ways more powerful kind of support: more than 1,200 retweets. And how many retweets did Nyhan get for his call for diagnostic humility? At last count, um, three.
I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t purport to know whether Trump is suffering from cognitive decline beyond what is normal for a man of his age (though, fwiw, to my untrained ear he doesn’t sound much more incoherent and narcissistic these days than he sounded in his pretty incoherent and narcissistic conversation with Washington Post editors nearly two years ago). But I do have sympathy for Nyhan’s plight: The world just doesn’t offer much positive reinforcement for reserving judgment or encouraging such reserve. It does offer positive reinforcement for making harsh judgments about people on the other side of a tribal divide.
This didn’t used to be the case. I don’t mean that saying negative things about people in enemy tribes didn’t used to be popular. I just mean that the popularity wasn’t so immediately and finely palpable. When I wrote for The New Republic and Time in the 1980s and 1990s, the only quantitative feedback available was how many people bought each issue of the magazine. You had no idea how many people had read an article you wrote, much less how many had liked it. The main feedback you got about individual articles was colleagues either saying “nice piece” or remaining tactfully silent.
Sure, grassroots feedback occasionally trickled in via letters to the editor—but writers didn’t typically see these things unless a reader was alleging a factual error. The main form of feedback you got was from peers, people who were students of your craft. Good, thoughtful, careful writing was, via this channel, at least, rewarded.
This isn’t to say there weren’t any inducements to shoddy writing and analysis. Owners of magazines and newspapers knew that hyperbole and recklessness could sell magazines and newspapers, and some owners hired hyperbolic and reckless writers. But some owners didn’t. And no writers got the constant, moment-by-moment encouragement for melodrama or excess that many writers get from many forms of electronic feedback.
I remember when Mike Kinsley, who had been the editor of the New Republic, went on to found Slate, one of the first online magazines, and discovered that now he could know exactly how many people had clicked on a given article. He told me he didn’t think he should share that information with writers, because it would corrupt them. Wise man.
OK, enough. If I reminisce much longer about the good old days, readers will start speculating about my cognitive decline. My point is just that now, much more than a couple of decades ago, we’re in an age—not just a political age, but a technological age—that discourages calm, dispassionate analysis. The prevailing climate encourages resistance, but not mindful resistance.
Which helps explain why we started this newsletter five months ago. And which also helps explain why I hope readers will respond to the invitation I made at the outset of this issue of the newsletter, and give us feedback about how the newsletter can do a better job of fighting the tide of tribalism, and in the process fight Trumpism more effectively.
And speaking of feedback from readers: Alert reader Michael R. spotted, and emailed us about, this New York Times column in which Frank Bruni sounds some themes that have been sounded in this newsletter over the past five months. Bruni almost sounds, at times, like a mindful resister. So maybe there’s hope! Maybe journalists can, even in the current political and technological climate, resist the lure of easy affirmation. We’ll see.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Robert Pear of the New York Times says that the new tax law’s nullification of the individual mandate may backfire on conservatives and wind up expanding the Medicaid rolls
The Washington Post reports that a federal judge has ordered the department of Housing and Urban Development to implement an Obama-era desegregation rule that it had resisted.
Slate explains how, earlier this month, Memphis found a way to remove its Confederate statues in spite of a law that had seemed to preclude the removal of historic statues on public property.
In the Washington Post, Andrés Miguel Rondón draws on the recent history of his native Venezuela to illustrate how not to oppose a populist leader: “[President Hugo] Chávez’s political career… seemed not only immune to scandal, but indeed to profit directly from it. Why? Because scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains populism.”
Buzzfeed profiles Alain de Benoist, the 74-year-old French intellectual whom “the alt-right claims as its spiritual father”—and who now disavows the alt-right and is a Bernie Sanders fan.
The NYT reports from Sweden on workers who are happy with automation. “In Sweden, if you ask a union leader, ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer, ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology,’” says the Swedish minister for employment and integration. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”
In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell looks at how, and why, some Republican politicians have taken to “beating up on colleges.” Earlier this year, also in the Post, Harvard Law School professors Jack Goldsmith and Adrian Vermeule argued that “educational institutions should not be surprised” when the overwhelmingly liberal leanings of students and faculty “prove unappealing to a Congress and executive branch that are largely in the control of conservatives.”
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, and Brian Degenhart