In this week’s newsletter, after our brisk summary of another action-packed seven days of Trump-related news, I use the military-parade brouhaha (or was it just a kerfuffle?) as an excuse to address the perennial question about Trump: Crazy or crazy like a fox? We then provide links to lots and lots of background reading and close with a feel-good email from a reader. (At least, it made us feel good—good about putting out this newsletter.)
–Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
THE WEEK IN TRUMP
The shutdowns are getting shorter: On Friday Trump signed a bill that will keep the government open through March 23. The government had briefly shut down at midnight after Sen. Rand Paul forced a delay in voting to protest the deficit-expanding tendencies of the bill, which will increase spending by $320 billion over two years. Though the bill gives more money to the Pentagon than to all domestic programs combined, Trump complained on Twitter that much of the domestic spending was “waste in order to get Dem votes” and urged: “Must elect more Republicans in 2018 Election!”
Nada for DACA: In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had demanded that, in exchange for Democratic support for the spending bill, Speaker Paul Ryan commit to allowing a vote on a future bill that would protect the DACA program. But Democrats didn’t stand united with Pelosi, and the spending bill passed without any such assurance. In the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made a commitment somewhat like the one Ryan refused to make, debate on immigration legislation is scheduled to begin Monday evening. Presumably any bill that is passed would, in addition to protecting DACA (and hence “DREAMers”), include things Trump wants, such as tighter border security and restrictions on legal immigration. In any event, any immigration bill passed by the Senate is unlikely to be allowed on the House floor by Ryan unless Trump endorses it.
Trump counters counter-memo: Trump refused to permit the release of a classified memo prepared by Democrats on The House Intelligence Committee to rebut the famous Nunes memo, whose release Trump had permitted. The White House saidTrump was concerned about “especially sensitive” classified passages in the Democratic memo and would consider permitting the release of a redacted version and that the Justice Department was willing to work with Democrats on the redactions.
Alleged spouse abusers resign: On Wednesday the White House Staff Secretary, Rob Porter, resigned in the wake of reports that both of his former wives had accused him of spousal abuse, and after one had provided a picture of herself with a black eye. Porter’s boss, Chief of Staff John Kelly, who vocally supported Porter after the allegations surfaced this week, had reportedly known about them for months. The Porter scandal, coming on the heels of Kelly’s much-publicized characterization of some immigrants as “too lazy to get off their asses,” intensified criticism of Kelly and fed speculation that he might be fired. (These periodic speculations about the next big Trump firing are usually wrong, or at least premature.) On Friday a second White House staffer—speechwriter David Sorenson—resigned after a former wife accused him of physical abuse.
Another exit: Rachel Brand, the No. 3 ranking official at the Justice Department, reportedly plans to resign. Vox outlined a scenario in which her exit could make it easier for Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
We stand corrected: On Thursday the stock market reached the milestone known as a “correction.” That is, market indexes—notably the Dow Jones and Standard and Poor’s lists of stocks—had dropped in value by more than 10 percent from their recent highs. Even so, the Dow is around 30 percent higher than when Trump was elected and around 20 percent higher than when he was inaugurated, so Trump’s recent silence about the stock market may not last long. We might have expected the market to drop further after Friday’s deficit-expanding, and hence stimulative and inflationary, spending bill; after all, what supposedly drove the initial drop was fear that a hot economy with emerging inflation would trigger tighter monetary policy. Friday proved that we don’t understand the stock market.
Mussolini Watch: People warning about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies got two new datapoints to cite: (1) Trump suggested that Democrats who didn’t applaud him at the State of the Union were “un-American” and “treasonous.” (2) The Washington Post reported that Trump has set in motion planning for a big military parade in Washington DC. (For some military-parade-related reflections on Trump, see “Crazy Like a Fox?” below.)
America’s New War in Syria? A week after Trump announced, in his State of the Union address, that “very close to 100 percent of the territory” once held by ISIS had been “liberated,” it became clear that liberation and peace aren’t the same thing. US forces, fighting in alliance with anti-Assad fighters, killed around 100 pro-Assad fighters via air and artillery strikes. But Secretary of Defense James Mattis insisted that “we are not getting involved in the Syrian Civil War.” Mattis said America’s use of force was defensive and so in keeping with international law. But, as Russian officials have noted, US forces, unlike Russian forces, are not in Syria with the government’s permission—so the claim that America’s killing of Syrians has the backing of international law is, to put it mildly, not self-evidently true. Last month Secretary of State Tillerson signaled that American troops would stay in Syria indefinitely.
CRAZY LIKE A FOX?
A recurring question about President Trump is whether he’s crazy or crazy like a fox.
The question goes back to his presidential campaign, when he did things like disparage a war hero and make fun of a handicapped person—things that seemed crazy if his goal was to actually get elected president.
Yet he got elected president! So maybe there had been a method to his madness? Maybe, for example, Trump realized that doing things no ordinary politician would do will get you votes in an age when ordinary politicians are widely loathed?
Maybe. Or maybe Trump is just crazy. Crazy in a way that happens to work.
In any event, Trump has, since he became president, continued to provide opportunities to ask the crazy-like-a-fox question, and it’s worth seizing such opportunities every now and then. Not because we can answer the question definitively, but because trying to answer it is illuminating; it’s an exercise in cognitive empathy—a way to see how the world may look to people on Trump’s side of the tribal divide.
This week’s occasion for asking the question (or at least one of this week’s occasions) is the military parade story. In a meeting last month with his defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump reportedly declared that he wanted a parade “like the one in France”—the procession of military hardware he witnessed while in France on Bastille Day.
The Case for Crazy:
Since military parades in Washington have mainly been reserved for victories in war (the last one was in 1991, after the Persian Gulf War), Trump looks a bit, um, eccentric in ordering one up now. After all, the “victory” over ISIS in Syria and Iraq is, predictably, turning out to be less than clear cut, as ISIS-branded militants and terrorists continue to cause trouble in the Middle East and elsewhere. So wouldn’t a big military parade just add weight to some of the weightiest concerns about Trump: that he’s a narcissist and a budding authoritarian? Just look at the uproar the parade story provoked on Twitter!
The Case for Crazy Like a Fox:
Just look at the uproar the parade story provoked on Twitter! Among Trump supporters, anti-Trump uproars may just reinforce the narrative that America’s elites hate Trump—which reinforces the narrative that they hate Trump supporters, which reinforces the bond between Trump supporters and Trump.
And then there’s the patriotism question. Remember, Trump’s supporters aren’t too concerned about Trump’s allegedly fascist drift, so the thought of a military parade that Trump presides over doesn’t remind them of Mussolini. It just reminds them of the military. Which means that people who oppose such a parade may remind them of people who oppose the military. In fact, come to think of it, these parade opponents are probably the same people who cheer those NFL millionaires who don’t stand up for the national anthem!
And as for the fact that there’s no big military victory to celebrate: Well, John Kennedy—a Democrat!—rolled out a lot of military hardware for his peacetime inaugural parade. So did Harry Truman, another Democrat. Any, anyway: One plan that’s under discussion is to hold the parade on Veterans Day, which this year is the 100th anniversary of the victorious conclusion of World War I. That’s not worth celebrating with some military flourish?
OK, enough. This parade may well not happen, since a fair number of conservatives have responded negatively to the idea. And, anyway, I don’t deny that at least some of the “uproar” may be worth generating. When a president who gives off as many authoritarian vibes as this one seems to want to emulate Leonid Brezhnev on May Day, this aspiration shouldn’t pass without comment.
Still, I think it’s always useful to try to get as clear as possible on how people on the other side of a tribal divide are thinking. And social media—at least, as we’re naturally inclined to use social media—make that a challenge. For example: Did you know, before reading the paragraphs above, that John Kennedy and Harry Truman had peacetime military parades? Or that Trump’s parade might be on the 100th anniversary of the World War I victory?
These facts were mentioned in some mainstream news coverage. Still, I didn’t see them on my Twitter feed. And I like to think of myself as someone with a fairly bipartisan Twitter feed. But the truth is my feed’s ratio of liberals to conservatives is probably around 5-to-1. I’ll try to bring that down a notch.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
Damon Linker argues in The Week that, though Trump is nominally president, chief of staff John Kelly “is the one ultimately making the calls.”
Marty Lederman notes in Just Security that there are ways the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo can be legally released even without Trump’s permission.
The spending bill passed by Congress this week took another chunk out of Obamacare, scrapping the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was created to control Medicare costs. HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn explains. The New York Times reports on some of the bill’s other features, ranging from tax breaks for renewable energy to tax breaks for “motor sports entertainment complexes.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has scaled back his plan to radically revamp and downsize the State Department, Politico reports.
Politico also reports that “White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has taken control of the opioids agenda, quietly freezing out drug policy professionals and relying instead on political staff.”
Trump is looking into denying immigrants permanent residence if they or their children receive government aid such as food stamps, reports Reuters.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times report that the war in Syria, far from winding down, is getting messier.
GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, a once-prolific tweeter and an occasional foe of Trump, says he’s now out of the Twitter game: “Christmas weekend I decided to take a longer-than-just-Sunday social media Sabbath. And after it had gone on four days it felt pretty great.”
Bloomberg reported that Energy Secretary Rick Perry is “considering emergency orders that could keep at least some coal generators” from being shut down and prevent the coal company FirstEnergy Solutions from default. The Energy Department tweetedthat “Bloomberg news sources are misinformed.”
Democratic support for the spending bill exposed the limited leverage of the left-wing “Resistance,” concluded Politico.
In the Atlantic, Will Stancil warns that the spirit of resistance to Trump is waning among Democratic elites and this will have bad consequences in November.
J.T. Levy argues from a libertarian perspective that it’s a mistake to ignore Trump’s incendiary tweets and his crude language.
The New Republic’s Graham Vyse explores why many on the left are shaking their fists at the New York Times.
A WSJ investigation of YouTube found that the site’s “recommendations often lead users to channels that feature conspiracy theories, partisan viewpoints and misleading videos…”
Will Oremus of Slate says Facebook’s much-ridiculed plan to give more weight to news sites that users deem trustworthy may not be a bad idea. The reason: an online poll found a surprising amount of agreement between Democrats and Republicans about the relative trustworthiness of news site.
Facebook hired a pollster whose sole job was to monitor public perception of Mark Zuckerberg. He quit after six months, and now says “the more Facebook builds profit, the more it’s at the expense of the American people.”
NEWS YOU CAN USE (OR, RATHER, NEWS YOU’VE USED)
This week we don’t have any news you can use in the usual sense of information that will guide you toward constructive engagement with politics or social media or life in general. We promise to have some next week. But we do have a very gratifying email from an MRN reader named Robin who made use of a previous installment of News You Can Use. Robin’s email reads, in part:
I can’t really take the extreme rhetoric on either side of the fence, and
so lately, I find, I have to turn off the news and turn on music to clear
my head. (I highly recommend that, by the way.) Your newsletter is one way
that I can get vital information without feeling the bile rising in my
throat. I really appreciate your deep explanation of the Nunes memo, for
And also – I really appreciated the “News You Can Use” portion of your
newsletter last month. I became a Postcards To Voters volunteer.
Yesterday, along with a few women from our neighborhood progressives group,
I helped complete 40 hand-written postcards to voters in an upcoming
special election. All we were doing was encouraging voters who were
self-identified as leaning Democratic to go to the polls. Everything we
wrote was positive and upbeat. And we had such a good time with colored
pencils and stickers! For a little while, at least, I felt I could help,
and all the resentment melted away.
We thank Robin, and we encourage any and all readers to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all kinds of feedback, even the kind that won’t make us feel as good as Robin’s email made us feel. Go ahead, give it to us straight—we can take it.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade and Brian Degenhart