Issue #58: Jan 13–19, 2019

In this week’s MRN, we (1) ponder the question: to impeach or not to impeach? (2) put Trump and Trumpism in cosmic perspective; (3) shower love and gratitude on our inaugural Patreon supporters; (4) provide links to background reading on subjects ranging from presidential hopefuls Bernie, Kirsten, and Julian to Trump’s new plan to put weapons in space; (5) pithily summarize a medium-level-weirdness week.

–Robert Wright

Share this newsletter

 

THE WEEK

Chances of impeachment rise, then fall: Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen has told investigators that Trump directed him to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according toBuzzFeed, which also reported that investigators have documentary evidence supporting Cohen’s account. Various Democratic politicians made statements about the gravity of the allegation (suborning perjury was in the articles of impeachment drawn up for Nixon)—but then a spokesperson for Special Counsel Mueller said the BuzzFeed story contains inaccuracies.   

More hats tossed: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro signaled that they will seek the Democratic nomination for president.

More ice melts: A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Antarctic region is losing ice six times as fast as it was in the late 1970s, and that sea levels will likely rise faster than had been predicted. Meanwhile, 45 economists, including the four living former Fed chairs, signed a statement calling for the US to implement a carbon tax.

Parliament Rejexit: The Brexit deal that British Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union was rejected by the biggest margin of defeat in modern British parliamentary history, shrouding the UK’s scheduled exit from the EU this March in uncertainty. The next day, May narrowly survived a no-confidence vote.

Supremacist loses stature: House Republicans stripped Iowa Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments after he made comments condoning white supremacism and white nationalism.

Barr vows to be barrier: At his confirmation hearing, Attorney General nominee William Barr said he would not bow to pressure from Trump to curtail the Mueller investigation. But he also suggested that a final report by Mueller might not be made public.

Not in my House: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Trump to reschedule this month’s State of the Union address, citing concerns over securing the event during the government shutdown. Trump responded by revoking Pelosi’s access to military planes that were scheduled to ferry her and other members of Congress abroad to visit troops.

Census question questioned: A federal judge ruled against an attempt by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census. The government will likely appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

LA teachers strike: 30,000 public school teachers in Los Angeles went on strike, affecting one million students. The teachers are demanding smaller class sizes, more school staffing, and higher salaries.

Americans killed in Syria: Four Americans were among 19 people killed in Syria by an ISIS suicide bomber. Senator Lindsey Graham said he believed that Trump had emboldened ISIS by announcing a withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

Rocket men to reunite: The White House announced that Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in late February. Little progress toward Korean denuclearization has been made since their meeting last year.

Proposal to end shutdown: Trump offered to grant temporary protections to “DREAMers” (who entered the US illegally as children) and some other immigrants in exchange for funding for a border wall. The inherently low chances of Democrats accepting a deal that involves border wall funding were further reduced by the fact that DREAMers are already getting temporary protection via the courts. 

NOTES FROM BOB

by Robert Wright

Patreon update: Very deep thanks to those of you who responded to last week’s unveiling of MRN’s Patreon page by going there and giving the newsletter your financial support. (And as for the rest of you: there’s still time to go there, get yourself some karma points, and increase the chances of a favorable rebirth!)

I’ve prepared a video, available to all Patreon supporters (I guess the technical term is Patrons?), in which I underscore my thanks and also talk a little about where we go from here. The video is right there on the Patreon page, visible if you scroll down a little. If you’re a Patron and you’re logged into the site, you shouldn’t have any trouble viewing it.

And if you’re unable to support the newsletter via Patreon, but would like to earn a karma point or two, you can give us a measure of support by retweeting this tweet right now. Come to think of it, you can do that even if you are able to support the newsletter via Patreon.

Trump in the grand scheme of things: I just published a big piece in Wired—‘big’ in the sense of pretty long, but also ‘big’ in the sense of ambitious (and ‘in Wired’ in the sense of actually being in the physical magazine, just like in olden days). The piece aims to put Trump and Trumpism in cosmic perspective—to see them in the context of the full sweep of human history. I argue that if we understand where Trump fits into history, we can make something good out of what he leaves behind.

This piece captures a big part of my world view and a big part—a very big part—of why I started the Mindful Resistance Newsletter. Yet it’s a part of my world view that hasn’t been all that conspicuous in MRN; it enters the newsletter mainly in fragmentary and oblique ways. So I hope you’ll find time to read the piece. As I said, it’s kind of long. But here’s the first, not-so-long part—if you find it worthwhile, you can click and read the rest:

Make Globalism Great Again
By Robert Wright

A FEW DAYS before the 2016 election, journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote this about Donald Trump: “He has no concept of a nonzero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace.”

I’m not sure dominating other people is the only occasion when Trump feels at peace. Presumably there’s a moment during what is reportedly his standard McDonald’s meal—two Big Macs, two Filets-O-Fish, and a chocolate milkshake—when all seems right with the world.

Still, in Trump’s hierarchy of bliss, dominance does seem to rank at the top. “I love to crush the other side and take the benefits,” he wrote in a book called Think Big. “Why? Because there is nothing greater. For me it is even better than sex, and I love sex.” He went on to observe: “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win. That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win—not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

So it makes sense that, two years after Trump entered office, Sullivan’s game theoretical framing has caught on. The zero-sum game—in which the players’ fortunes are inversely correlated, so that for one player to win the other must lose—has become a standard paradigm for the Trump presidency. If you Google “Donald Trump” and “zero-sum” you’ll get such headlines as “Trump’s Zero Sum Delusion,” “Donald Trump and the Rise of Zero-Sum Politics,” and simply “Zero-Sum Trump.”

Some of the articles attached to these headlines are about economics. They may lament Trump’s gleeful anticipation of “winning” the trade wars he starts—as if trade were a zero-sum game—and his seeming obliviousness to the fact that trade wars can have lose-lose outcomes. Other articles focus on world affairs more broadly. Nations come together to pursue win-win outcomes in the face of all kinds of problems, from financial meltdowns, climate change, and weapons proliferation to overfishing of the seas. And Trump’s attitude toward the institutions that embody such nonzero-sum engagement is notably lacking in warmth.

As journalist Jonathan Swan wrote on Axios this summer, “Trump has expressed skepticism, and in some cases outright hostility, towards NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the Group of Seven.” Swan added that Trump has “already withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran deal” and “announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.”

The zero-sum label applies not just to Trump’s policy preferences but to his political style. He’s expert at evoking reactions that seem to have been engineered by evolution for zero-sum situations, notably fear of, hatred of, and contempt for a perceived enemy. Bill Clinton presumably had Trump in mind when he said, five months into Trump’s presidency, “We’ve seen a resurgence in the oldest of all social reactions—the tendency to look at people first as the other, to think of life in zero-sum terms, it’s us versus them.”

I claim an increment of credit for Clinton’s conversance in game theory. During his presidency I published a book about human history and the future called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, which he read and said some nice things about and assigned to White House staffers to read. Clinton even said the book had a big influence on his presidency.

As a result of all this, I once got some face time with Clinton. And when the subject turned to my book (which I made sure it did), he said what he had liked about it was that it was realistic—not naive—yet hopeful.

And it’s true that, after documenting humankind’s historical drift toward bigger and bigger cooperative networks—a process driven by technological change—I had sketched out a pretty sunny possible future.

It was a future in which the world’s nations grasp that they’re enmeshed in lots of nonzero-sum games and act accordingly: working together to solve various problems, gradually building the foundation of good global governance.

I even said this political progress could involve moral progress. People of different nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, aware of their interdependence, of the correlation of their fates, could muster the tolerance that facilitates peaceful coexistence and active collaboration. We needn’t let our tribal impulses prevail over nonzero-sum logic, I opined 19 years ago.

That was then. Now we’ve got a president who not only resists playing nonzero-sum games but actively fans emotions that impede the wise playing of them. And as if that weren’t enough, the fanning of those emotions can recalibrate the games, making lose-lose outcomes even worse than they would be otherwise. The more tribalized the world is—the more antagonistically divided along national, ethnic, religious, ideological lines—the more danger there is in, for example, letting arms control challenges go unaddressed: The more nations will be in the mood to lob missiles, the more terrorist groups there will be that might get ahold of a nuke or a bioweapon. Trump’s policy instincts make good governance hard, and his political style makes the consequences of bad governance grave.

Still, hope springs eternal, and so does my belief that hope can be reconciled with realism. There’s reason to think that, in a weird way, the Trump presidency, rather than drag us into a death spiral of tribalism and lethal technology, could be a roundabout path to a higher plane.

You can read the whole piece in Wired here.

To impeach or not to impeach? This week’s BuzzFeed report that Trump suborned perjury led to a new wave of impeachment talk. Then, awkwardly for those doing the talking, the Special Counsel’s office said the story wasn’t entirely accurate.

But rest assured that there will be more impeachment talk. And I’m guessing that when all the evidence comes out, this talk won’t be wholly without foundation. Which raises the question: should you join in the talk? Should you urge your congressional representatives to impeach, and become an impeachment enthusiast, and click on so many impeachment-related headlines that Google starts mainlining impeachment news into your brain?

Your call. I’d just like to lay out some reasons it’s a tough call—why it’s not obvious to me that a drive for impeachment is a good move, and why getting too wrapped up in this issue could be a waste of time and energy.

Suppose, for starters, that impeachment results in Trump’s early departure from the White House. That is: either (1) not only does the House impeach Trump (which could well happen) but the Senate convicts him (much less likely, since that requires a two-thirds vote); or (2) Trump resigns under the pressure of impeachment, somewhat as Nixon did.

In these scenarios, we wind up with Mike Pence as president. Now, in many ways, I find the prospect of a Pence presidency significantly less horrifying than the reality of a Trump presidency. On the other hand, Pence’s governing ideology would probably be, basically, Trumpism—partly because of some of his natural leanings and partly because he would inherit Trump’s base and a GOP reshaped by Trump. Or, at least, it would be Trumpism with a few rough edges smoothed off.

Some of those edges are definitely worth smoothing off (e.g. Trump’s mindless violation of norms, and his mind-numbing day-to-day noise level). But precisely because Pence would in this sense seem like a breath of fresh air, he’d probably be more likely to get re-elected in 2020 than Trump would. So the impeachment of Trump could be good for Trumpism in the long run.

And in some ways Pence could be worse than Trump. Though Trump has largely obliged the GOP’s neoconservative foreign policy establishment, he at least has spasms of doubt about the value of prolific military intervention. These spasms aren’t shared by the establishment and probably wouldn’t be shared by a President Pence.

Don’t get me wrong: Like Resisters in general, I feel good when I hear of some new piece of damning evidence about Trump, or when I imagine him leaving the White House in disgrace. But part of the point of mindfulness is to not accept your feelings as guides to thought without carefully inspecting them. When I pause to think about it, I’m far from sure that Trump’s leaving the White House via impeachment in, say, January of 2020 would be better than his leaving via the ballot box in January of 2021 (though, of course, a January 2020 departure has the virtue of precluding a second term in office).

You can play this game of “what ifs” all day. The “What if the House impeaches and the Senate doesn’t convict and Trump doesn’t resign” scenario has all kinds of hypothetical branches emanating from it, ranging from “Trump is usefully chastened” to “Trump destabilizes the world via various gambits aimed at preserving the allegiance of his base during the impeachment drama.”

I hope all this explains why I’m an impeachment agnostic. Emotionally drawn as I am to the impeachment scenario, when I reflect on the matter I realize I just don’t know if impeachment would be good or bad.

Amid the uncertainty, I try to stay true to something I’m more sure of: The ultimate enemy is Trumpism, not Trump. So I shouldn’t let my loathing of the latter undermine, or even distract me from, opposition to the former. Which means, among other things, trying to reduce my loathing level. (And here, actually, Trump’s sheer clownishness can be an asset; I find it harder to hate a malicious buffoon than, say, a malicious mastermind).

I also try to think about what policies best combat Trumpism. If you want to get the biggest picture, longest-term view of what I mean by that, read my aforementioned Wired piece. (Sorry to keep flacking it, but I spent a lot of time on it, and it’s as close as I can come to a magnum opus on why Trump and Trumpism are here and what we should do about it.)

This week’s impeachment whipsaw—first the BuzzFeed story was billed as a nail in Trump’s coffin, after which the Mueller office seemed to put a nail in the BuzzFeed story’s coffin—is, if nothing else, a reminder of one thing: you can save a lot of time by not staying attuned to the ups and downs of the impeachment stock market. And maybe you can use that time wisely.

BACKGROUND

Vox presents a brief history of US government shutdowns.

In Slate, Osita Nwanevu chronicles the evolution of Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand from Blue Dog Democrat and NRA favorite to one of the most progressive members of the Senate.

CNN offers some background on Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant who became mayor of San Antonio and Obama’s HUD secretary.

The New York Times Times documents Rep. Steve King’s history of controversial remarks and positions, dating back to 2002, and his growing affinity with white nationalist groups. The Des Moines Register profiles the Iowa district that’s elected King to Congress since 2002.

In October, long before this week’s suggestion by Attorney General nominee William Barr that the full Mueller report might not be made public, Politico explained why the full Mueller report might not be made public.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg lamented this week that Saturday’s Women’s March would lack the unity of the inaugural march two years ago; she sees “a depressing study in how left-wing movements so often implode in the digital age.”

The Trump administration’s plan, unveiled this week, to expand America’s missile defense system via space-based weapons and other futuristic stuff gets a thumbs down from Franklin Spinney in the American Conservative.

Writing in the Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost argues that Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren or anyone else, deserves the support of leftists for the Democratic nomination. In the Boston Globe, various observers express doubts about Bernie’s viability as a candidate.

Politico reports on fundraising efforts that the Trump 2020 campaign has built around the government shutdown, including a YouTube ad of Trump saying “Liberals care more about illegal immigrants than they do about our own citizens.”

A new Chinese law aims to “Sinicize” Islam in China over the next five years. According to the UN, more than a million Uighur Muslims are being held in Chinese internment camps; human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of ethnic cleansing.

The Pentagon is developing a plan to scrutinize prospective military recruits with foreign ties, such as those who possess dual citizenship or have a foreign-born spouse, the Washington Post reports.

DEEP BACKGROUND

The Washington Monthly’s Daniel Block writes that Democrats need a plan to revive “heartland” cities like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, arguing that “reducing regional inequality is a case where what’s good for the country would also be good for the Democrats.”

In the Washington Post, political scientists Lucan Ahmad Way and Steven Levitsky emphasize the blurriness of the line between democracy and authoritarianism. They write that nations like Hungary have become “competitive authoritarian regimes”—not truly democratic but lacking the kind of repression traditionally associated with authoritarianism.

The Intercept reports that the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely aligned with the Democratic party, fired two staffers who had raised concerns about the influence of donations by the United Arab Emirates on the think tank’s positions.

NPR assesses the strength of the Islamic State in Syria. While ISIS has lost almost all its territory, the Pentagon estimates that it still has 20,000-30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria who wage small-scale attacks.

Weeks after Google, Facebook, and Twitter shut down pages or accounts linked to Iran, Al Jazeera looks into an apparently organized and partly bot-driven social media campaign against the Iranian regime.

A report by the Center for Migration Studies of New York finds that for the seventh consecutive year, visa overstays, not unauthorized border crossings, were the main source of illegal immigration.

Testimony during the trial of Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán suggests that a border wall wouldn’t stop the smuggling of drugs over the US-Mexico border, Kristin Phillips writes in the Washington Post.

The Washington Post profiles the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which aims to improve the quality of political conversation.

Politico reports on research from the University of Maryland showing that roughly half of Americans don’t know that Trump was born into a wealthy family, and that Republicans, more than Democrats, lose esteem for the president when they learn this.

Chinese academics recently reported that demographic effects of China’s one-child policy, which was only relaxed in 2016, combined with a declining birthrate, may cause an economic crisis.

Motherboard reports on “bounty hunters” who can give you the ability to track the location of someone’s cell phone in real time if you give them a few hundred dollars and the phone number.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

If you’re tired of personalized ads following you from website to website, or uncomfortable with online companies recording and hoarding your personal information, you might try this eight-day “Data Detox” program, produced by a nonprofit organization called the Tactical Technology Collective. The program promises to help you leave fewer digital traces as you browse the Web.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

Share this newsletter

Subscribe to the Mindful Resistance newsletter!