Issue #39: May 6–May 12, 2018

This is a slightly aberrant issue of MRN. Most of the usual elements are here—background links, some News You Can Use, a reader email that is duly pondered. But there’s no The Week In Trump, owing to a family obligation that kept me out of action Friday. In lieu of TWIT, we begin with my take on the most momentous development of the week, and on what kept it from being what I think it should have been: the most intensely discussed development of the week.

–Robert Wright

Share this newsletter

NOT THAT SLEAZE IS A BAD THING!

By ordinary reckoning, sleaze is a bad thing. Not just in a moral sense, but in a practical sense. Politicians who surround themselves with sleaze are thought to run the risk of becoming mired in it.

But here, as elsewhere, Donald Trump defies convention. He can turn sleaze into a political asset. Persistent news about the unlawful, unethical, or otherwise lamentable behavior of him and his gang distracts us from the more deeply lamentable things he does.

Trump isn’t doing this distraction intentionally, and he’s not doing it alone. It happens with the unwitting cooperation of journalists and social media denizens, many of whom are proud members of the Resistance. This week brought an especially vivid example of how this works.

On Tuesday, Trump announced one of the most consequential, and potentially disastrous, decisions of his presidency: America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Among the downsides of this decision are that it (1) increases the chances that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon, perhaps triggering an arms race with Arab rivals; (2) increases the chances of a major war in the Middle East, possibly between Iran and Israel, and possibly with American troops involved; (3) worsens US relations with European allies; (4) strengthens hardliners in Iran and, via reimposed sanctions, inflicts suffering on the Iranian people; (5) could eventually induce chaos in Iran—which the administration seems to welcome as a prelude to regime change, even though recent history suggests that US-backed regime change efforts are disastrous whether they succeed (Iraq, Libya) or fail (Syria); (6) degrades trust in agreements made by the US and thus may lessen chances of a nuclear deal with North Korea.

This isn’t just me talking. Though not all critics of Trump’s move would cite all these reasons for criticizing it, a very large majority of the people in the American and European foreign policy establishments are critics and would cite at least some of these reasons. Even many American politicians who were once skeptical of the deal, or opposed it outright, saw Trump’s move as dangerous and destabilizing.

Which leads to the one meager bit of consolation I felt after Trump’s announcement. Precisely because of this consensus, America would finally get a 24-hour news cycle dominated by serious analysis of the damage Trump is doing to the world.

And for one bright shining moment, that seemed to be happening. Late-Tuesday-afternoon shows on CNN and MSNBC featured an unusual number of actual experts talking about something truly important.

But then the news broke: A company controlled by Trump crony and attorney Michael Cohen had gotten half a million dollars from an investment firm linked to a Russian oligarch! And that’s only the half of it. It turned out this was the very company Cohen had set up to funnel payments to Stormy Daniels!

Do you grasp the implications? Neither did I. But don’t worry—lots of people were happy to help us out.

Within hours of the news, Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, had explained that the payment to Cohen’s company had given “Russia several sources of possible leverage over Cohen and Trump,” ranging from bribery to blackmail. Why blackmail? Because Russia, Chait wrote, could threaten to disclose the presumably illicit payments to Cohen’s company—and, besides, this news meant Russia may well have known about the secret payments to Stormy Daniels being made from the fund the illicit payments had replenished.

Cable news got into the spirit of things. Though the Iran story wasn’t entirely ignored, it was pushed out of the limelight. On CNN, Anderson Cooper led with the Stormy-Russia story, as did Don Lemon. On MSNBC, too, Stormy-Russia moved to center stage as the night wore on.

But the more we learned, the less the Stormy-Russia story looked like a Stormy-Russia story. It turned out the oligarch-connected investment firm (an American company) was one of a number of companies—including AT&T and  a prestigious law firm—that had given Cohen’s “consulting firm” money. Their apparent aim was to secure favorable treatment from (oops, I mean “provide insights into”) the Trump administration.

This was, in other words, a pretty traditional Washington story: Cohen had used his perceived access to the president to get into the influence peddling business. And one of the companies he had peddled influence to had a connection to a Russian oligarch—which isn’t surprising, given how much business he had done over the years that had one sort of Russian connection or another. He had also hit up other companies with foreign connections (he scored with a Korean aerospace company and the Swiss drug company Novartis) as well as various eminently American companies (scoring with AT&T but striking out with Ford).

And as for the fact that his consulting firm (Essential Consultants, LLC) was the same firm he had used to funnel money to Stormy Daniels: Chances are that was just a matter of convenience. Why set up a new LLC to serve shady purposes when you’ve got a perfectly good LLC that has proved its ability to serve shady purposes?

And shady may well be as far as this goes. So far it’s not clear that there’s anything illegal about it.

The next day Chait, in an update to his piece, conceded that he had “leapt to the darkest conclusion too quickly.” He now acknowledged that he had overplayed the Russian angle and that the money Cohen extracted from various companies was probably just “conventional influence peddling” and “not a way to funnel money to Trump’s mistresses.”

In short: never mind. Meanwhile, amid the evening-long obsession with this story, a teaching moment had been lost. The opportunity to spend some time underscoring and analyzing an epic policy blunder had been squandered. What the Resistance had provided instead was ammunition for Trump: anecdotal support for his claim that charges of collusion with Russia are the product of fevered imaginations.

I’m not saying the teaching moment would have been transformative. But it might conceivably have been the first stage of a dialogue that led to actual activism. The Trump administration will now use sanctions to inflict suffering on the Iranian people, hoping to bring regime change. This is in principle a sufficiently inhumane and misguided policy to stimulate some grassroots organization—especially when you pair it with another of the administration’s anti-Iran policies: helping Saudi Arabia mercilessly and pointlessly bomb Yemen.

The chances of getting lots of people to write Congress about this—and getting many of them out on the streets for real-life protests—may be slim. But slim is better than none, which is what the odds will be so long as we spend our time wallowing in the Trump administration’s sleaze rather than fighting its policies.

And remember: wallowing in sleaze will always be an option with Trump, because the sleaze will keep coming. If you lose interest in Stormy Daniels there’s Karen McDougal. If Michael Cohen isn’t your cup of tea, there’s Scott Pruitt. But these stories, which get lots of airplay, never seem to move the needle on Trump’s favorability rating, and they may galvanize his base by reinforcing his claim that the media is out to get him. Sleaze has for Trump become a kind of dual-use weapon, a magical substance that sends his enemies into a frenzy of wasteful activity and—sometimes, at least—energizes his allies in the process.

As much as journalists abet this, it’s hard to blame them. Their careers live or die on traffic, so naturally they get into the habit of following the stories that draw eyeballs. And on that score, Stormy-Russia beats epic-foreign-policy- blunder any day. America is getting the news it asks for, and if it wants to be better served, it will have to get more mindful in its news consumption. (And, yes, I know how hard that is, speaking as someone who has wasted many hours reading about Trump sleaze and has probably written about too much of it in this newsletter.)

Meanwhile, shrouded from view, important things happen.

Did you know that two weeks ago the Trump administration told 50,000 Hondurans who have lived in the US legally since 1999, after a hurricane devastated their country, that they now have to leave America? Probably not (unless you read last week’s MRN).
Did you know that the Trump administration has taken to separating parents from their children when it catches a family coming across the border? Probably not; to find this news you had to scroll way down Saturday’s New York Times home page, past yet another weird Michael Cohen story, one that has nothing to do with Trump’s presidency.

Did you know that a few days ago Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that, notwithstanding all of Trump’s promises about a grand infrastructure program, there may well not be an infrastructure bill by the end of the year?

Jonathan Chait, shortly after retracting his Stormy-Russia hypothesis, did notice that last story. He tweeted, “The White House admitted it’s walking away from a major promise, to pass a huge infrastructure bill. Odd how little attention that’s gotten.” It may be in some sense odd, but it’s not unusual.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)

 

 

 MAILROOM: WHAT DO TORTURERS DESERVE?

It’s not often that a reader asks a question that has a fairly straightforward Buddhist answer, but MRN reader Anne has done that. She emailed in response to last week’s News You Can Use item about how to register opposition to the nomination of Gina Haspel as head of the CIA. Anne acknowledges that Haspel’s reported involvement in torture is problematic but adds:

But in the past week or so, I’ve listened to Michael Hayden’s comments about her on several podcasts (Slate’s The Gist, Intelligence Matters, others). I recognize Gen. Hayden has a bias (himself a veteran of the CIA and the NSA), but he is respected in some circles, and is no fan of the current occupant of the WH (a quick look at his twitter feed or recent headlines show he is actively dissenting with much of the WH policy). And he is on the record saying that Gina Haspel would uphold the laws she is currently bound to (on torture, keeping records) and is the best person to stand up to Donald Trump, as she holds the law in highest regard. Gina Haspel has risen through the ranks of the agency, apparently due to her work record.

I’m not sure what the best course of action is regarding Gina Haspel, but I would hope readers would listen to her testimony before the Senate, and seek out as much information as possible about Haspel before sending messages to their senators about which way to vote.

First, I want to emphasize that, strictly speaking, the News You Can Use section should be called “News You Can Use (or not, as you see fit)”. We don’t expect readers to follow a party line; we just post things in this section that we think might appeal to a sizable chunk of the newsletter’s audience and are broadly consistent with MRN’s values.

Second: My own way of thinking about this—which, as I’ll explain, roughly aligns with mainstream Buddhist thought—doesn’t focus on the question of whether Haspel “deserves” to be punished. One could certainly argue that, if her past involvement with torture was part of her formally assigned duties, she isn’t culpable for it (even if “just following orders” does have an unfortunate historical resonance). Who among us can say for sure that, if we had been in her shoes, and had grave misgivings about following orders, we would have mustered the courage to defy them? And if in fact we would have mustered that courage, mightn’t that just be because we were luckier than her—that we had some inspiring mentor she didn’t have, or were born with a more conscientious or courageous disposition than hers?

Of course, if you follow this kind of logic far enough, you could mount an argument that no one ever deserves to be punished, because bad behavior always grows out of a history of circumstances, a history some people are just lucky enough not to share. (“There but for the grace of God go I.”) Yet people must, as a practical matter, sometimes be punished—whether to keep them from committing future crimes, to deter others from doing so, or both.

Though it’s always risky to talk about “the Buddhist view” of things, given the diversity of Buddhist intellectual traditions, the above line of thought roughly corresponds to a central theme in Buddhist philosophy: punishment is never good in and of itself (a position that contrasts with notions of retributive justice that loom large in Western thought); punishment can only be justified as a “skillful” intervention that is ultimately good for the person being punished, or for society at large, or both.

And that’s my view on Haspel: denying her the job as CIA head has nothing to do with what she “deserves,” or with restoring balance, via retribution, to some heavenly scale of justice. Rather, the point is to strengthen the norm against torture—to make it more likely that the next time a US official is tempted to facilitate torture, they’ll think extra hard before doing it.

—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)

BACKGROUND

Miriam Jordan of the New York Times reports on the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents from their children upon apprehending families trying to cross the Mexican border illegally.

In Defense One, Peter Beinart compares the current fomenting of antipathy toward Iran to the fomenting of antipathy toward Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, writing for Politico, argues that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, though often depicted as allies in their support belligerence, may be “headed for a clash.”

In Real Clear Politics, Bill Scher makes the case that Democrats shouldn’t root for Trump to fail in his North Korea summit and should give him whatever credit turns out to be due.

At cnn.com, Ron Browstein reports that many Democratic congressional candidates aren’t emphasizing issues about Trump’s character and are instead focusing on a policy-based critique.

DEEP BACKGROUND

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, without using the term “mindful resistance,” argues for a more mindful resistance.

Axios reports on a study that found a sharp increase, since 2016, in the number of Arab youth who see the US as an enemy.

In The Atlantic, James Fallows, who recently took a multi-year trip across America with his wife, writes optimistically about America’s future. He sees an upswing in community engagement aimed at improving civic institutions.

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times argues that conservatism thrives on battling the left on social media, because “online life creates an illusion of left-wing excess and hegemony that barely exists in the real world.”

ClickHole, the Onion’s Buzzfeed parody, has launched a new website that parodies the Resistance.

Novelist Walter Kirn explores the bizarre online conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which endeavors to “make Trump’s losses look like victories, his missteps like chess moves, his caprices like plans.”

The Outline reports that Facebook’s recent attempt to curb the spread of fake news appears to be working: amending the newsfeed algorithm has had “little to no effect” on mainstream conservative or liberal sites, while sites trading in clickbait and deliberately polarizing news have lost traffic.

As Mother’s Day approaches, Slate reports that one in four millennials is living at home(nearly double the figure from 2005) due to student debt, high housing costs, and other factors.

After 15 months of checking in with Trump voters in the Midwest, the Washington Post senses an “unease” among some of them: they recognize that “to see policy changes they favor they must tolerate behavior they sometimes find inexcusable.”

Russian political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov uses the medieval concept of the king’s “two bodies” to explain the nature of presidential power in Russia and outlines his expectations for Vladimir Putin’s fourth term. (Spoiler alert: it will be like the third, but worse.)

If you’re wondering what job category will next be threatened by automation, you should have a chat with Duplex, the robotic assistant Google unveiled this week. It can, for example, call a hair salon and make an appointment without the person on the other end realizing they’re talking to a robot.

 NEWS YOU CAN USE

If you disapprove of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, there are  ways to convey that to Congress. First, you can always call or write your representative or senator and say you oppose the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran because they’ll hurt the Iranian people and possibly strengthen repressive elements in the government. If you don’t have time for that, here is an online petition sponsored by Win Without War. And here is a moveon.org petition.

Of course, online petitions are of debated efficacy. But they can’t hurt! And if you sign one of them, you may wind up on a mailing list that sometimes alerts you to real-life on-the-street forms of activism. And if that doesn’t pan out, you can always unsubscribe from the email list. And speaking of email lists: If you want to stay apprised of news about the situation in Iran, you can go to the National Iranian-American Council’s website and click the “get updates” button.

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

 

Share this newsletter

Subscribe to the Mindful Resistance newsletter!