In this week’s MRN—our 50th issue!—we (1) claim that the midterm elections vindicated mindful resistance; (2) ponder their other implications; (3) ask whether America could have another civil war; (4) do some civility policing (lest there be another civil war); (5) provide lots of background reading about the midterms, the Jeff Sessions firing, the revived gun control movement, and tons of other stuff.
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Election: Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans held the Senate and likely increased their majority by one or two seats, depending on final vote tallies and the results of a runoff. Democrats will now be able to investigate the Trump administration, subpoenaing witnesses and documents, and Republicans may have an easier time putting conservative judges on the bench.
Out of Sessions: The day after the election, Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign and installed Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff, as acting Attorney General (which may have been unconstitutional). Whitaker has argued that the Mueller probe should have its scope narrowed and its financial resources reduced, and has dismissed the possibility of Trump/Russia collusion and of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Better bombing optics: The US will quit refueling Saudi-coalition aircraft that are bombing Yemen, a symbolically important move that was hailedby some Democrats but won’t significantly constrain the bombing (as would cutting off other forms of US support). The move came after the UN—with Saudi-backed fighters advancing on the critical port city of Hobeidah—delayed plans for peace talks.
Another mass shooting: A Marine veteran opened fire in a country-western bar in Thousand Oaks, California, killing twelve people before killing himself. Victims included a man who survived the 2017 Las Vegas country-western concert massacre.
North Korean nukes: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo postponed a meeting with North Korean officials after the North warned that it may resume development of nuclear weapons technology if the US doesn’t lift economic sanctions.
Get well soon: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized after suffering three fractured ribs from a fall in her office. Ginsburg, a two-time cancer survivor, is at 85 the oldest justice on the Court.
Keystone blocked: A federal judge temporarily blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a priority for the president.
Accosted: After CNN reporter Jim Acosta refused to relinquish the microphone during Trump’s post-election press conference, the White House revoked his press credentials. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later tweeted an apparently doctored video, which originated with an InfoWars host, that made it appear as though Acosta had aggressively reacted to a female White House intern reaching for the mic.
NOTES FROM BOB
by Robert Wright
Mindful Resistance wins! Every two years American political observers engage in an important national ritual. They claim that the election results vindicate their pre-existing views. Whether you think the next Democratic presidential candidate should be male or female, lefty or moderate, white or non-white, surely you can find supporting evidence somewhere in Tuesday’s results. Well, I can play this game! I say Tuesday’s results vindicated MRN’s world view.
I found the key evidence while listening to The Daily podcast, which the New York Times puts out, well, daily. Friday’s podcast was about how the Democrats turned so many red House districts blue. Times reporter Kate Zernike described a race in Virginia, where Democrat Abigail Spanberger won by staying studiously on message—health care, health care, health care—and not responding to Trump’s provocations or dwelling on his hobby-horse issues, such as immigration.
Times reporter Jonathan Martin then said this approach had helped the Democrats flip seats across the nation. He recalled that after Trump’s election in 2016 “there was this extraordinary opposition that became known as the Resistance,” which evinced the view that “we’ve got to do everything we can to steadfastly oppose this president.” But “once the professional operatives in the party looked under the hood, so to speak, they realized that if we want to take the House back next year, we can’t just do it by demonizing Trump” and saying “Donald Trump’s a buffoon.”
Michael Barbaro, the podcast’s host, asked, “So Democratic party leaders looked at all this angry animated resistance that was triggered by President Trump’s election, and said, ‘We can harness this but it can’t be our message.’?” Exactly, said Martin: the anger got Trump opponents to the polls, but a carefully crafted message won swing voters over. Anger wasn’t allowed to cloud strategic thinking.
I rest my case.
But what happens now? So what does it mean, in practical terms, for the opposition party to take control of the House? Not what it used to mean. And if Democrats don’t understand this, that could be bad for the Resistance.
In olden days—say, 25, 30 years ago—controlling the House meant you could “drive the media narrative” by holding hearings that would publicize whatever you wanted to publicize. If you wanted to highlight corruption in the executive branch, you could subpoena the necessary witnesses and documents and lower the public’s opinion of the corrupt.
Then two things happened: (1) the now famous technological fracturing of the media landscape (i.e., the transition from the “narrowcasting” of the early cable TV era to ever-narrower-casting as the World Wide Web arrived and moved through its blogosphere phase to its social media phase); (2) the not-wholly-unrelated ideological tribalization of America, which began long before Trump, and is driven by forces deeper than him, but has reached its zenith via his distinctively polarizing persona. The upshot: We have two media ecosystems, one more-or-less anti-Trump and one emphatically pro-Trump.
So now congressional hearings that might have once driven the media narrative instead drive a narrative in one media ecosystem. Since January 2017 that’s been the pro-Trump ecosystem and as of January 2019 it will be the anti-Trump ecosystem. Democrats, in other words, will be preaching to the choir. But that metaphor makes things sound simpler than they’ll be. Trump will try to use aggressive congressional hearings, and the way they’re covered by the “fake news media,” to nourish his persecution narrative, making his fiercest followers feel even more aggrieved.
This doesn’t mean the Democrats shouldn’t be celebrating. A subpoena is a powerful thing, and congressional hearings still command attention, and even in today’s balkanized media landscape facts can be damning enough to matter widely. It just means the Democrats need to use their new powers skillfully, to deploy them carefully and attentively—mindfully, you might say—and try to maximize their impact while minimizing the blowback.
There’s one other reason for Democrats—and anyone who cherishes the rule of law—to celebrate. The power of subpoena will make it harder for Trump to smother the Mueller investigation. If the investigation has turned up damning evidence the public doesn’t know about, and Trump’s new acting attorney general—or his successor—fires Mueller or in some other way tries to keep evidence in the dark, Democrats will have a flashlight.
Crazy? Or crazy like Fox? One unresolved question about Trump is whether his antics and provocations are as impulsive as they seem, or are in fact tactically driven, part of a carefully crafted political and media strategy. Some of both, no doubt, but I increasingly think the second scenario has a lot to be said for it. Consider Trump’s decision to suspend the press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta this week. The story stole tons of oxygen from the much more important story of Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions, and no doubt suppressed attendance at “Protect Mueller” rallies held the next day (though attendance was still fairly impressive, given the short notice).
But that’s only half the story. Picking on a white male reporter allows Trump defenders to argue that his confrontations with female or nonwhite reporters aren’t misogynistic and aren’t racist. And if you don’t think Trump’s Fox News friends will make full use of that opportunity—by, say, mocking a black female reporter for alleging bias—then you don’t know Trump’s Fox News friends.
Civil War and the Civility Police: It used to be that when I heard news of a mass shooting, my first thought was “I hope it’s not a Muslim”—since, of course, violence done in the name of Jihad would send Islamophobic fear-mongering into overdrive. But this week, when news broke about a mass shooting in a country and western bar in California, I found myself thinking “I hope it’s not partisan.”
It wasn’t. The shooter was a former Marine who had been a machine gunner in Afghanistan and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome but in any event had no evident ideological agenda. So my concern was unwarranted.
But I’m far from alone in worrying about escalating civil conflict. A poll this summer found that 31 percent of likely voters think we’ll probably have a civil war within 5 years. And an interview this week on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air gave a bit of support to such fears.
The interview was with the scholar Andrew Delbanco, author of The War Before the War, about the run-up to the Civil War. Gross asked Delbanco about the possibility of civil conflict between America’s ideological camps today.
On the one hand, he replied, when you look at the 1850s and 1860s—the “complete breakdown of the federal government, the secession of almost half the country,” followed by a huge war—what’s happening today looks “like peanuts. And that’s one approach which I’m trying to cling to—you know, that something like this couldn’t happen again.”
But, he added, “the other way to think about the story” is that “institutions that seemed durable and seemed unlikely to fail turned out to be extremely fragile.” And one contributing factor was the intemperance of “public language on both sides.” Radical abolitionists “were extremely belligerent and extremely insulting” and so were slave owners. And “the anger just started to feed on itself. And the viciousness of the politics sort of becomes an engine of its own perpetuation. And some of that feels like what’s going on right now.”
Delbanco worries that we’ve forgotten that “civility and a modicum of respect for the other side—even if we think that the issues that divide us are so fundamental that we could never come to an agreement about them—that some measure of respect for the other side is critically important… By looking at the past, one is reminded that things that we take for granted as stable can suddenly go up in smoke. And we want to be really careful about that, I think.”
I agree. Which is why I’ve decided to become a permanent, card carrying member of the much-maligned “civility police.”
So, for example, I join in the condemnation of the dozen or so people who walked up to the house of Fox News star Tucker Carlson at night, while his wife was home alone, and chanted, “Tucker Carlson, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night.”
Even aside from the inherent creepiness of this kind of behavior, there’s the danger that this kind of thing could escalate in tit-for-tat fashion. What if, say, some liberal pundit responded insensitively to the fears expressed by Carlson’s wife, and then one of Carlson’s defenders publicized that pundit’s home address so that people could go harass his family? Oh, wait, that actually happened. Hmmm…
Self-appointed Twitter scold: I know it’s obnoxious to go around slapping people’s wrists for arguably ill-considered tweets, but I’m afraid that’s part of my duty as a civility police officer. This week’s scolding is directed at Anand Giridharadas, someone I like a lot (and whose very worthwhile book I recently discussed with him) but whose viral election-night tweet I didn’t like. It read, “Whatever happens tonight, the results suggest a country that is on a knife’s edge —basically 50-50—on the acceptability of racism, nativism, demagogy, lies, chauvinism, abuse of power, cruelty, and corruption.”
So the idea is that everyone who voted for any Republican congressional candidate finds all those things—racism, cruelty, nativism, corruption, etc.—acceptable? We’re not even allowing for single-issue voters—you know, like, Joe is pro-racism but has doubts about corruption, while Mary abhors racism but is totally on board the pro-corruption bandwagon? Or, more seriously: Joe and Mary are deeply religious evangelicals who hate racism but think abortion is unacceptable?
Now, granted: (1) The tweet came in the heat of battle, as the outcome of the election seemed in doubt, and after two years of deep frustration for Trump opponents; (2) Maybe, even then, it wasn’t meant as literally as I’m taking it.
(1) I think tweets like this feed a kind “essentializing” of people in the other tribe—who are in fact a diverse array of people with diverse motivations—and that this impedes comprehension of them. However tempting it may be to dismiss Trump supporters as racists, nativists, and so on, that doesn’t shed much light on, and in fact discourages exploration of, the question of how they came to hold the views they hold.
(2) I think it’s important to ask ourselves how our messages sound to the other tribe (even if I sometimes fail to do this myself). And this kind of tweet, I think, feeds a force that helped get Trump elected in the first place: the feeling among many of his followers that coastal liberal elites hold them in contempt.
And what’s the upside of a tweet like this? Well, it got 2,500 retweets.
I’m not saying getting retweets and new followers was the conscious motivation here. But retweets and new followers feel good, and so encourage repetition. That’s what drives a non-trivial amount of the deepening polarization we’re seeing: The way to get status within your tribe is to deepen antagonism between the tribes. And the more antagonism there is, the truer that is. This is a positive feedback dynamic of a very negative kind.
On a more positive note: Having just given my prize for least favorite viral tweet of the week, I now hand out the trophy for best viral tweet of the year. The award goes to… @geraldinreverse, author of this quasi-koanic tweet that I find wonderful for reasons I can’t entirely articulate.
Click send: In future issues of MRN, I plan to do more in the way of highlighting and/or replying to emails from readers. So I encourage you to write us—at firstname.lastname@example.org—about whatever remotely relevant thing is on your mind: your take on politics, on policy, on mindfulness, on meditation, or your questions about any of these. And of course, we welcome feedback on the newsletter itself, which is always in state of evolution.
In the Atlantic, Benjamin Wittes lists ten reasons that Matthew Whitaker, the new acting attorney general, will have trouble interfering with the Mueller investigation. The New York Times profiled Whitaker.
In Mother Jones, Kara Voght writes that gun control advocates expanded their power in the midterm elections and explains how they plan to use it.
In Politico, Bill Scher contends that Democratic candidates evincing a “Midwestern Nice” personality did well in the midterms and suggests Democrats should keep this quality in mind when selecting a presidential nominee.
In Lobelog, Paul Pillar argues that midterm election results may make Trump even more inclined to act recklessly on the world stage, increasing the chances of war with Iran or even China.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump will nominate State Department spokesperson Helen Nauert as Ambassador to the UN. Nauert was a host on Fox & Friends who had no foreign policy experience when she took the State position in 2017.
The Orlando Sentinel explores the history behind Florida’s 150-year-old ban on voting rights for ex-felons, which was overturned by referendum on Tuesday. Although many believe this change will help Democrats since African Americans have a high incarceration rate, more than half of the nearly 1.5 million newly eligible voters are white.
Media Matters documents how the story of the migrant caravan dominated front-page coverage in the Washington Post and New York Times in run-up to the election. In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tries to figure out whether public interest drove media coverage of the migrant caravan, or vice versa.
This week voters in Alabama and West Virginia passed measures designed to trigger abortion bans in the event that the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
An Intercept reporter was able to buy Facebook ads for users interested in “white genocide conspiracy theory.” Facebook had vowed to improve its automated ad targeting system a year ago after ProPublica used the same technique to buy ads for users interested in topics like “Jew hater” and “How to burn Jews.”
Bernie Sanders caught flak for saying that “there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.”
Bill Gates unveiled a $200 million initiative to “reinvent the toilet” in Beijing this week, saying his goal is to save a half million lives.
In Tricycle, Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi calls for a more politically engaged Buddhism. Also in Tricycle, MRN editor Robert Wright was interviewed about Mindful Resistance.
In Medium, political scientist Brendan Nyhan writes that since Trump took office, support for immigration has grown—reaching, by some measures, record highs. In the American Prospect, Paul Starr weighs ambiguous evidence about the impact of anti-immigration rhetoric on the midterm elections and concludes that “voters didn’t repudiate nativism”—at least, not decisively enough to discourage Trump from going nativist in the run-up to the 2020 election.
In Vox, Chavie Lieber writes about manipulative advertising practices in children’s smartphone games, which feature ads that blur the line between games and ads and even shame children for declining in-app purchases.
In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo explains how Google employees who staged the recent company-wide walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases hope to sustain a network for intra-company activism and may have changed the landscape of labor relations in Silicon Valley.
Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times’s Berlin bureau chief, says the rise of the far right in formerly Communist eastern Germany was driven partly by men who grew disenchanted as industrial jobs disappeared and eastern women moved to western Germany.
Dmitri Terenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes about competing views within the Russian foreign policy community as to whether Putin should be engaging with Trump—and explains why Putin himself thinks that he should.
A series of surveys by the Pew Research Center suggests that Europe is still divided into East and West by attitudes on religion, minorities, and social issues.
A study by Penn psychologist Melissa Hunt suggests that using Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram causes depression and loneliness.
Bernie Glassman, an influential teacher of Zen Buddhism who mixed humor with Buddhism, passed away at the age of 79.
The Dollar Street project shows photos of the homes and possessions of 264 families of different economic status across 50 countries.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
The UN estimates that 14 million people are at risk of famine in Yemen—in large part because of bombing by, and an economic blockade imposed by, a Saudi-led coalition that the US supports. If you want to help, check out this New York Times list of respected organizations that provide humanitarian relief there. And feel free to express support for grassroots-funded NGOs that lobby against the Saudi intervention and America’s support for it. These include Win Without War, the American Friends Service Committee, and Amnesty International.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade, Brian Degenhart,
Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh
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