In this issue of the newsletter, after trying to impose some order on the week’s Trump-related chaos, we relay one reader’s idea about how to foster communication across America’s tribal divide. Then we talk about being mindful on social media (no meditation required!), and then we steer you to background reading on, for example: the “culture war” that is the backdrop of the gun control debate; how “negative partisanship” is making politics worse; how trying to fight conspiracy theories can help spread them; overdone Russian-bot-ophobia; and other things.
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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Scattershot: Trump sent conflicting signals about his position on guns, and by the end of the week hopes for gun control legislation in the wake of the Florida school shooting were waning.
On Monday Trump advocated arming “some” teachers and putting people deemed dangerous in mental institutions. On Wednesday he supported taking guns from potential assailants without due process and raising the age for buying assault rifles to 21; he also suggested a bipartisan bill that might include expanded background checks. On Thursday he met with the NRA’s top lobbyist, who tweeted afterwards “POTUS & VPOTS [want] strong due process and don’t want gun control.” On Friday the White House spokeswoman walked back some of Trump’s Wednesday comments, saying “there’s not a lot of broad support for” raising the minimum age for buying guns, and Trump is “not necessarily [for] universal background checks.” In the private sector, though, there was movement: Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, and Kroger all said they will quit selling guns to people younger than 21, and all three have quit selling assault-style rifles.
Culture Battle: With more than a dozen big companies having ended discounts for NRA members since the Florida shooting, activists focused on such holdouts as FedEx. The issue illustrated how ideology can shape perception. Many gun control activists would say they’re just asking that FedEx adopt a neutral position—subsidizing neither pro-gun-control nor anti-gun-control customers. (That’s how Delta Airlines described its decision to end NRA member discounts.) But conservative Ross Douthat suggested that gun owners would read these moves as “moral statements about gun owners as a class,” and fellow conservative David Brooks asserted that the “idea [behind the activism] is to stigmatize,” to establish that NRA members “are not morally worthy of being among” the groups that still receive discounts, such as AAA members.
Brooks warned that if conservatives continue to feel that they’re losing this and other battles in the culture war—“if you exile 40 percent of the country from respectable society”—then “they will mount a political backlash that will make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson.” Of course, Brooks is prone to grand pronouncements. Still, it’s not crazy to think that a scorched earth policy against corporate-NRA ties could increase conservative turnout in the mid-term and 2020 elections. And some gun control activists have gone beyond targeting companies that offer NRA member discounts; they aim to pressure Apple and Amazon into no longer including the NRA TV channel among their video offerings.
Putin trolls Trump: Vladimir Putin freaked people out by announcing that Russia has developed nuclear missiles that can’t be stopped by American defenses. He underscored the point with the ultimate in alpha-male Powerpoint moves: a video graphic that showed nukes raining down on Florida, home of Mar-a-Lago.
Helpful reminder: America’s security against Russian nuclear attack has never rested on our ability to shoot down all incoming Russian missiles, something that’s never been even remotely possible. Our security rests on deterrence—on the fact that in the wake of even a massive Russian nuclear attack we would have the capacity to retaliate with a massive nuclear attack of our own. And this will continue to be the case regardless of whether Putin actually deploys all the weapons he described. So nothing has really changed. This might be worth keeping in mind since, as arms control advocates note, it would be nice to avoid a costly and pointless nuclear arms race. (Some of these advocates had already warned that the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review, unveiled last month, could provoke an arms race; it featured a newly aggressive tone and plans for new kinds of weapons, including low-yield nukes that are considered more plausibly usable than high-yield nukes.)
Tariff rift: Trump blindsided the stock market, and some of his staff members and cabinet officers, by announcing plans for new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, to be issued next week. According to Politico, he told aides he wouldn’t make such an announcement, then, hours later, made it. The Washington Post reported that with Chief of Staff John Kelly’s influence waning, protectionist aides like Peter Navarro have Trump’s ear. Trump brushed off the subsequent stock market drop, tweeting, “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” We may find out: the European Union immediately signalled that it will levy tariffs on American products if Trump follows through with his plans.
Bad Jared Days: The president’s son-in-law had a bad week. Along with 30 other White House staffers, Kushner saw his interim security clearance downgraded, so he’s no longer allowed to see top secret information. And if he thinks he can just peek over his wife’s shoulder… well: CNN reported that Ivanka’s business dealings are being scrutinized by the FBI, apparently to see if she is susceptible to foreign pressure and hence not an appropriate recipient of highly classified information.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the CEO of Citigroup and the cofounder of Apollo Global Management each met with Kushner at the White House months before their companies gave large loans to Kushner’s family real estate firm—raising the possibility of a policy quid for a personal financial quo. And The Washington Post reported that, according to US intelligence reports, several foreign governments have pondered ways to manipulate Kushner “by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” In a New York Times op-ed (later corroborated by NBC News), Marcy Wheeler surmised that Special Counsel Mueller “appears to be assessing whether Mr. Kushner, in the guise of pursuing foreign policy on behalf of the United States, was actually serving the interests of his family and foreign governments.” And speaking of foreign governments: The Intercept reported that, only weeks before Trump, with Kushner’s strong support, backed a Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, Kushner’s father unsuccessfully sought a loan from Qatar’s government for the Kushner family’s financially distressed skyscraper at 666 Fifth Ave.
As if all that weren’t bad enough: New York’s state banking regulator is reportedly investigating loans Kushner received from Deutsche Bank. And if you’re convicted of a state crime, the president can’t pardon you even if he’s your father-in-law.
Still-in Sessions: Trump resumed his war with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, launching another public insult. But if, as some have said, Trump’s periodic denigrations of Sessions are intended to provoke his resignation, this one conspicuously failed. On Wednesday Trump tweeted that it was “DISGRACEFUL” that Sessions asked an Inspector General to investigate how evidence related to the Russia investigation was gathered, rather than use “Justice Department lawyers,” who would presumably be less independent. Sessions issued what amounted to a defiant counter-statement and drew support from several Republican senators. The episode underscores how problematic it is to fire Sessions—both because the ensuing uproar would be to some extent bipartisan and because there’s no guarantee Trump could get a replacement confirmed in a narrowly divided Senate.
All the Hope puns were taken: Hope Hicks announced that she will step down as White House communications director. Hicks is one of a dwindling number of White House staffers who belonged to Trump’s inner circle before the presidential run. (The rate of White House staff turnover in the first year of Trump’s presidency was 34 percent, according to the Brookings Institution—six times higher than in George W. Bush’s first year and nearly four times higher than in Obama’s first year.) Hicks is credited with being an intermittently moderating influence. As The New York Times put it: “Among the things Ms. Hicks had advised Mr. Trump, according to multiple White House officials, was to tone down some of his Twitter posts or stop sending them altogether, an effort that had mixed results.”
Other exits, real and rumored: Josh Raffel, deputy communications director and de facto PR troubleshooter for Jared and Ivanka, will be leaving, Axios reported. The US Ambassador to Mexico will resign in May, according to a memo sent to her staff. A political appointee in the Interior Department resigned after CNN reported that on social media she had spread conspiracy theories and made anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT remarks. And NBC News reported that Trump plans to dump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The most-mentioned replacements, in order of their likelihood of starting a war, are John Bolton and Stephen Biegun.
Immigration issue simmers: The Supreme Court declined to expedite consideration of Trump’s executive order terminating the DACA program, as the Justice Department had requested. The decision means that 1) lower court rulings that have kept DACA largely intact will remain in effect, rendering moot Trump’s March 5th deadline for Congress to either reform DACA or see it terminated; 2) the (liberal-leaning) Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case next, rather than see it go straight to the Supreme Court. No date has been set for a hearing, and no decision is expected before June of this year; 3) The case probably won’t reach the Supreme Court until its 2018-2019 term, which means a final ruling will likely come in June 2019; 4) For now, at least, the pressure is off Congress to produce a legislative solution; DACA beneficiaries— “DREAMers” who were brought to America as children—can continue to apply for two-year extensions of their permission to stay in the country when that permission expires.
In last week’s newsletter, we tipped our hat to MRN reader Nancy, who expressed interest in starting a Mindful Resistance chapter in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re happy to report that we’ve since heard from MRN reader Isaac, who also lives in Madison and likes that idea. So maybe mindful resistance is approaching critical mass in Wisconsin; maybe Madison will win the coveted title of “first city to hold a Mindful Resistance meet-up.”
But we should warn Madison that the competition for that honor is intense, and a number of cities are offering us lucrative tax-incentive packages to locate our first meet-up in their football stadiums. And, though we think highly of Madison, business is business.
Meanwhile, out in southern California, MRN reader Vivian asks if there are any Mindful Resistance meet-ups in her vicinity. Not yet, no, but if anybody in the Los Angeles area shares Vivian’s interest in that prospect, email us, and we’ll gladly pass your email address on to her. We think a Madison-LA bidding war would be good for America.
Of course, all of this begs the question: What exactly is a Mindful Resistance meet-up? What would you do at a Mindful Resistance meet-up? And, more broadly, if the Mindful Resistance readership (or some portion thereof) were to evolve into some kind of community, what kind of community would it be? What would it do? Last week we asked readers to offer feedback on these questions, and we’re happy to report that we got a lot of interesting replies.
We’re pondering these, and encourage more readers to chime in so we can extend our pondering. You can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile: we offer a reply to a specific question raised by Nancy of Madison: How would you go about bridging the communication gap between Trump supporters and Trump opponents? The reply comes not from us but from MRN reader Kathryn of Brooklyn:
I’m writing in response to your request for suggestions for Nancy in Wisconsin who wants to form a local chapter of MRN. I think her idea of reaching across the divide is wonderful. Here are some things that sprang to mind for me:
Can she find a local meditation teacher who would be willing to teach a class aimed at beginners? If so, maybe she could find a group of people from both sides of “the divide” and have them attend the class together. She could also encourage them to read some of Mr. Wright’s articles before attending the class to help them get in the right mindset.
Your request also brought to mind a lecture I attended a number of years ago by Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. One of the things he did during that process, which I thought was brilliant, was to invite all parties to an isolated country house for a meal. The topics of the negotiation were banned from the table. Instead they were instructed to tell each other about their families, and hobbies. They broke bread together and got to know each other on a much more personal level. Some discovered that they shared a great deal in common. Senator Mitchell is convinced that later, when the hard negotiating was going on, the common ground they found at the table kept things from falling apart.
Thank you and keep up the good work
Thank you, Kathryn, and keep up the good work.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
MINDFULNESS WITHOUT MEDITATION
This week brought some reminders about the downside of letting our emotions drive our behavior on Twitter, Facebook, etc. There were two articles (cited in the “Deep Background” section, below) about how outrage can misfire on social media—helping, for example, to spread conspiracy theories we’re outraged by. And there were the usual examples of blowback induced by feeling-driven social media posts.
For example: it felt good, for those of us who aren’t big fans of Donald Trump, to respond with skepticism if not derision to Trump’s claim that he would have run into that Florida high school, even if unarmed, upon hearing shots fired. But it’s not obvious what the value of this response was, and in some circles it reinforced Trump’s base-galvanizing persecution narrative. In fact, even some people who aren’t part of his base were galvanized. A critical tweet about Trump “saying he would have run into the school” elicited this reply: “NOT WHAT HE SAID! He said he BELIEVES that he would have run. Also, said that no one knows for sure what they would do. I dislike Trump intensely but I’m coming to dislike most of the media more.”
I don’t claim to know for sure whether it was or wasn’t wise to question Trump’s professed bravery, but I do know this: I rarely pass up an opportunity to sermonize about the value of mindfulness. So here goes: Even if you don’t meditate regularly, or don’t meditate at all, you can use social media as a chance to be mindful. The instructions are simple (even if following them isn’t easy):
(1) Before you tweet, retweet, or like something on Twitter, and before you post, share, or like something on Facebook: pause and reflect on what feelings are motivating you. Is there a feeling of outrage? Of alarm? Of hatred or retribution? Is there that subtle, hard-to-describe, pride-infused feeling that accompanies virtue signalling? Or a feeling of empathy? Of affection?
(2) Ask yourself whether these feelings should be trusted. In other words, reflect on such things as: (1) the accuracy of any information you’ll be spreading; (2) the value of any information you’ll be spreading; (3) how the information will be viewed by people of different ideologies, and how they may react to it; (4) whether, in light of all these reflections, spreading the information seems wise.
I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that feelings can be easily categorized as “good guides” or “bad guides.” Outrage, if morally informed and wisely channeled, can lead to worthwhile behavior. And I agree with the psychologist Paul Bloom that empathy is sometimes not a good guide to behavior. (He and I discussed this thesis of his book Against Empathy here.) That’s why I recommend pausing to examine any and all feelings, and then reflecting further, before doing consequential clicking on social media.
As I said, this is easier said than done. (I’ve been known to fail to do it.) And, though it’s in principle doable without meditating, it will probably be easier if you do have a daily meditation practice. And even then it’s a challenge. But these are challenging times.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
In the Atlantic Peter Beinart says that, though conservatives continue to have a stranglehold on gun control legislation, they are “losing the culture war over guns”—“they remain powerful, yet they feel under siege.”
In a Twitter thread Josh Marshall argues that the NRA is exploiting the sense of cultural siege felt by some gun owners. “[M]ost of the NRA’s public messaging isn’t even about firearms any more”—rather, it’s about the “culture war,” and the idea is to “inextricably embed maximalist gun rights into the country’s partisan polarization.”
The Washington Post recounts how the NRA turned on Smith & Wesson in the late ’90s after the gun manufacturer moved to implement voluntary reforms like child-safe triggers.
The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey argues that Trump’s tariffs “don’t make economic sense … America’s steel and aluminum industries simply do not employ that many workers [while] the tariffs will raise costs for a vast sweep of businesses.”
Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute criticized knee-jerk reaction to the tariffs: “What Trump is doing is extremely modest, not very important, and has been done by most Presidents.”
A New York Times op-ed—co-authored by “a former Sessions aide and a frequent Sessions critic”—applauds the attorney general for standing up to Trump and argues that he must keep doing so. “What is at stake in this dispute is nothing less than American rule of law.”
Tom Edsall writes in the New York Times about “negative partisanship”—when voters hate their ideological enemies more than they support their own side. He argues that the phenomenon is causing American politicians to be less responsive to their constituents.
A study found that Trump’s election made Americans, on average, more accepting of bigotry and less likely to see themselves as bigoted.
In the Globe and Mail, Yale psychologist M.J. Crockett explains how our “ancient outrage instincts” can, when expressed via social media, become massively dysfunctional.
In Wired, a social media researcher argues that conspiracy theories are often made more viral by the outraged reaction against them. Case in point: the claim that activist high school students from Parkland, Florida were actually “crisis actors.”
Want to blame our social media ills on Russian bots? Not so fast. Buzzfeed offers reasons to suspect that their influence is being overstated in the non-social media.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
The opposite of slactivism: If you favor gun control and/or want to show sympathy for victims of gun violence, and you want to express these sentiments beyond the online world, you should know about some things that are happening in actual physical space:
March 14: The #Enough National School Walkout, planned by organizers of the January 2016 Women’s March, is a coordinated national event. Students will leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the students and teachers killed in the Parkland, FL high school shooting. Over thirty thousand people are listed as “attending” on the event’s Facebook page.
March 24: The March for Our Lives Rally, organized by students from Stoneman Douglas High School, will take place in Washington, D.C. and in scores of other locations. (We mentioned this in last week’s MRN, but the number of locations may have grown since then.)
April 20: The Network for Public Education is planning a National Day of Action Against Gun Violence, marking the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Students and teachers are encouraged to take such action as linking arms, having a sit-in before or after school, or wearing orange to represent support for gun control.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart