Issue #45: Sept 30–Oct 6, 2018

In this week’s newsletter, we offer the usual pithy summary of the week’s news, the usual eclectic array of background links, various Kavanaugh-related things, and the answer to an uncomfortable question: Does Trump’s having reached a trade deal with Mexico and Canada mean we have to give him some credit? More uncomfortable still (initially, at least): a Trump-related meditation practice.

–Robert Wright

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 THE WEEK

Supreme Court moves to the right: Conservative Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has often been the court’s swing vote. The Senate vote came after an FBI investigation that Democrats called radically incomplete and that Republicans hailed as failing to corroborate allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh.

All in the family: The New York Times published a big report showing that Donald Trump’s father Fred transferred many millions of dollars to his son, who often presents himself as a self-made man. In the process, the Times alleges, the Trump family illegally evaded taxes.

NAFTA 2.0: A trade agreement was reached between the US, Canada, and Mexico, pending legislative approval. Though the agreement leaves much of the North American Free Trade Agreement intact, it was given a new name: USMCA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Tensions with China expand beyond trade: Vice President Pence said the US “will not be intimidated” by a Chinese naval vessel that came near an American warship conducting “freedom-of-navigation operations” in the South China Sea. In the same speech, Pence echoed Trump’s recent allegation of Chinese interference in the upcoming elections and arguedthat Google should stop developing search software that would conform to China’s censorship rules.

Internal criticism: The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General published two scathing reports about the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants from Mexico.

Bezos buckles: Amazon is raising wages for warehouse workers to $15 per hour, possibly in response to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s “Stop Bezos Act”—but the company is also ending monthly bonuses and stock awards for those workers.

Bush’s war on global governance continues: The administration pulled out of two international agreements after Iran and Palestine made claims against the US in the International Court of Justice. National Security Adviser John Bolton denounced the ICJ as “politicized and ineffective.”

Tough times for Russians abroad: Security services in the Netherlands expelled four Russians over an alleged cyberattack plot targeting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In the US, seven Russian agents were charged with working “to undermine, retaliate against, and otherwise delegitimize” efforts to expose a Russian state-sponsored athlete doping program.

Alt-right violence in Europe: German police uncovered an anti-immigrant terrorist group that assaulted foreigners and planned attacks on politicians and civil servants.

Nobel prizes awarded: The Peace Prize went to a Yazidi woman who was a captive of the Islamic State and a Congolese gynecological surgeon for their campaigns to end the use of mass rape as a weapon of war.

THE BOB-O-SPHERE

by Robert Wright

Why I’m not a pundit: Last week’s conventional wisdom—dutifully parroted by me in the newsletter—was that a Kavanaugh confirmation would help Democratic candidates in mid-term elections, as enraged Democrats trooped to the polls en masse. But by mid-week polls were picking up signs of resurgent enthusiasm among Republican voters, complicating the picture. On Twitter, Will Wilkinson offered an explanation: the right is “more uniform culturally, ethnically, and even temperamentally” than the left and therefore “much easier to whip up into a lather with a single set of messages.”

In other words, diversity has its tactical drawbacks. Yes, parts of the Democratic base are activated by #MeToo, but parts may not be. Amy Walter wrote in the Cook Political Report on Friday that, though the Kavanaugh issue “should help Democrats to solidify the gains they’ve made with women in the so-called professional suburbs, it’s not clear that it’s doing anything to motivate the young and Latino voters they need to win in South Texas, Los Angeles County or Florida.”

The good news for Democratic candidates is that the rise in Republican energy came when Republicans saw the Kavanaugh confirmation as imperiled (imperiled, as they saw it, by the “orchestrated political hit” Kavanaugh railed about in his testimony and by the #MeToo movement that Trump invoked more and more as the week wore on, questioning Ford’s credibility and lamenting the plight of young men who live in fear of false accusation). But that period of peril passed. Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight—and, as Walter noted, “in most political battles, the losers remain more engaged and energized than the winners.” We’ll see.

Learning to love Trump and Kavanaugh (or, more realistically…): Last week I had a conversation with a noted Buddhist writer and teacher, Lama Surya Das. (Don’t let the name fool you: He’s from Brooklyn.) I asked him what he says when his students ask him how to cope with the age of Trump.

Here are two of his three bullet points, listed in ascending order of difficulty:

A. Remember that this too shall pass—that is, take comfort in the Buddhist notion of impermanence.
B. Love your enemies—yes, even Donald Trump (and, if you’re feeling deep enmity toward Brett Kavanaugh, then, I guess, even Brett Kavanaugh). Or, as Surya Das puts it, recognize that Trump, like all living beings, has “the spark of Buddha nature.” He quoted the Buddha: “Hate is not appeased by hate; hate is appeased by love.”

The natural objections to these recommendations are, respectively:

A. But if you take too much comfort in impermanence—come to see everything bad as transient and so not worth worrying about—won’t you wind up passive and apathetic, and quit trying to change things for the better?
B. Are you serious?

Both points are well taken. So I offer more modest guidance—something that’s in the spirit of Surya Das’s recommendations, and may get you part way to where he would like to get you, but may be a bit more palatable and doable. Here is my recipe:

1. Sit down, close your eyes, and think of Trump (or Kavanaugh, if you feel more enmity toward him than toward Trump).

2. Note the feelings aroused. If the first feeling happens to be love, well, I guess you’re done. But I doubt that will happen—and, anyway, in my scheme, mustering love isn’t the goal. We’ll get to what the goal is momentarily. For now the guidance is: observe the feelings—anger, contempt, hatred, rage, disgust, fear, whatever—with close attention. Where in your body do you feel them? What is their structure and texture? Is the feeling sharp, dull? Does it throb? Does it change its contours, expanding or contracting? And so on. (Experienced meditators may recognize this as Mindfulness 101, except without the awareness of breath that is a common prelude to this awareness of feelings. If you’d rather start by focusing on the breath to stabilize your attention and then move to feelings, fine—but it’s not absolutely necessary and if it seems to be getting in the way, just skip it.)

3. If you do this for long enough—10, 20, 30 minutes—the feelings may come to seem less substantial; they’re still real, still tangible (maybe in some sense more tangible than usual), but at the same time less weighty, less oppressive, less controlling. And they may seem more ephemeral, less permanent. In fact, this practice may make them less permanent; sometimes feelings dissipate under close observation. (On meditation retreats, I’ve gotten to the point where observation was like a laser beam that almost instantly dissolved feelings: Wrath? Zap! Anxiety? Zap!)

OK, you can stop now. If this worked well, then you will:

1. Have more of a sense that, yes, this moment will pass. The feelings aroused by the horror of Trump won’t be with you forever, and neither will Trump.

2. Feel less intense hatred of, contempt for, fear of, disgust about (etc.) Trump. And that’s good, because it allows you to think more clearly and less reactively.

What you think about is up to you. You can think about what to do to keep Trump from being re-elected in 2020. You can think about how to create a world in which people like Trump are less likely to come to power. But I doubt you’ll be thinking: Since everything’s impermanent, what’s the point of changing anything? And I doubt you’ll be thinking: I love Trump—let’s keep him!

So that’s my advice. But if you want to go whole hog, and actually try to muster some positive feelings toward Trump, you can watch me discuss that with Lama Surya Das here. The very beginning of the conversation is here.

Citizen of the week: After a shopper in a Colorado supermarket started harassing two women for speaking Spanish to each other, another shopper reprimanded her and called the police. The harasser was arrested. Part of the encounter was caught on video.

Trump and trade: If you’re like me, there are few things you find more uncomfortable than the feeling that there’s something you should give Trump credit for. So this past week, if you saw the headlines about Trump having reached a trade deal with Canada and Mexico, you may have wondered: Oh, no, has our president done something good?

I can answer that question for you! At least, I can give you the answer from my ideological standpoint. And, though it’s a slightly nerdy answer, it has the benefit of suggesting a way to lessen one of the tensions Trump exploited to gain power: the tension between global capitalism and the interests of some American workers.

Characteristically, Trump overstated how new and wonderful his trade deal was. (Reports that Canada abandoned its dairy tariffs are, um, exaggerated.) Also characteristically, Trump made people grateful for small things: his rantings about ending NAFTA forever made any trade deal seem like a gift from heaven.

But there is one new thing in the deal that I like: It requires Mexico to grant workers the right to unionize, and it requires that, by 2023, 40 percent of a car’s parts be produced by workers making at least $16 an hour. Both of these features will put upward pressure on wages in Mexico and were in fact favored by Mexico’s new left wing government. They will also, by raising production costs in Mexico, soften the impact of trade on American workers.

I’ve long championed this kind of thing—a more progressive kind of global governance. I think that, if we’d had more of it in the past, Trump would have been less likely to get elected, because globalization would have been slowed just a bit, and global capitalism would have been less sharply disruptive.

A question arises: But if NAFTA 2.0 is an example of “global governance,” shouldn’t Trump, a professed enemy of global governance, be trying to undermine it, not champion it? Yes. And he is undermining it, even as he champions it!

As a New York Times op-ed noted, the trade deal actually eliminates some of NAFTA’s transnational panels for resolving disputes between member countries. And binding dispute resolution is one of the most important features of good global governance—not just in the realm of trade, but generically (border disputes, etc.). The deal also, at Trump’s insistence, expires in 16 years—and who knows whether at that point politics in Canada, Mexico, and the US will permit its extension? Such features amount to the “deinstitutionalization of North American economic ties,” as the authors of that op-ed put it.

So if you wanted to, you could accuse Trump of signing a deal that lets him brag to American workers that he’s defending their interests without telling them that the defense he’s constructed has self-destructive tendencies built in.

But your time might be better spent urging politicians who oppose Trump to favor policies that make the election of people like Trump less likely. And Trump’s trade deal points, however perversely, to one category of such policies.

Living off the grid: The Freewrite Traveler, a “distraction-free typewriter,” was unveiled this week. Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for the manufacture of sunglasses that would block out all screens—computer, phone, and TV. Warning: Don’t put them on while reading this newsletter!

BACKGROUND

At fivethirtyeight.com, Perry Bacon Jr. argues that “Republicans rescued Kavanaugh’s nomination by making it about #MeToo.”

Buzzfeed reports that “hyperpartisan” publishers on Facebook deepened divisions over the Kavanaugh nomination and that conservative publications made especially powerful use of the platform.

In Brazil a Trumpesque politician has “surged to the front of the pack in Sunday’s presidential election,” reports the Washington Post.

Buried within a 500-page environmental impact statement issued by the Trump administration is a concession that global temperatures are likely to rise by seven degrees this century, but the report contends that addressing the problem is “not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

In Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report on leaked emails that show how the White House is working to bypass Congress and cut funding for such international programs as aid to the Palestinians and funding for women’s rights programs.

In the face of threatened sanctions from the US, India finalized a $5 billion deal to buy surface-to-air missiles from Russia. The US recently imposed sanctions against China for purchasing the same missiles from Russia.

 

DEEP BACKGROUND

A Pew poll of people in 25 countries finds that only 27% “have confidence in President Trump to do the right thing in world affairs.”

In Wired, information warfare expert Molly McKew writes about the cadre of “information terrorists” in the orbit of conservative activist Roger Stone. She says they helped foment the harassment of journalists and other perceived enemies in controversies ranging from the Gamergate affair to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination fight.

A study of people who believe that Trump’s wealth is self-made finds that after learning about the substantial financial help he got from his father, they viewed Trump not only as a less capable businessman but as less empathetic.

Conor Friedersdorf offers one answer to the question of what Lindsey Graham gets in exchange for slavishly supporting a president he once derided.

In Foreign Affairs, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking write about what the 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz can teach us about a new kind of warfare fought on the social media battlefield.

Three academics pulled off a hoax by getting academic journals, mostly in the field of gender studies, to publish fake research papers on such subjects as “canine rape culture” and “feminist astronomy.” The Chronicle of Higher Education asks whether this is an amusing expose of left-wing intellectual muddle or an example of academic dishonesty and bad faith.

 

 NEWS YOU CAN USE

GOTV: You are already registered to vote (assuming you comply with our imagined picture of a typical MRN reader). But many people aren’t—and, alarmingly, a new Gallup survey finds that only 26% of Americans age 18 to 29 say they are “absolutely certain they will vote” in November (compared to 58% for adults in general). So get the word out via Facebook, Twitter, or email, or via standing on a corner shouting excerpts from the Federalist Papers. In particular, let people know that deadlines to register vary by state and in some states are as early as this week—as shown in this highly shareable list of state deadlines in the Root. And Vote.org provides tools that help people check on their registration status, register online, print a mail-in registration form, or find a polling place.

—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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