Issue #25: Jan 21–Jan 27, 2018

In this week’s newsletter, after we review the week’s events, and before we give you some  links to background reading, I try to mindfully and systematically address this question: “How horrible is Chuck Schumer?” Sorry, no plot spoilers—you’ll have to read the piece if you want to find out how horrible Schumer is or isn’t. Meanwhile, in other news: If you value the newsletter and want to support its continued publication, you can do one of two things: (1) give us all your material assets; (2) use our social media icons (craftily designed to let you share either the whole newsletter or its sections) to spread the word about MRN. Once you’ve thought about (1), doesn’t (2) seem pretty painless?

–Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


Shutdown Showdown (cont’d): At last progressives and conservatives have found something they can agree on—that in the showdown over the government shutdown, Democrats caved. And it’s true that, in exchange for re-opening the government, Democrats got much less on the immigration front than the guaranteed protection of DACA beneficiaries (“Dreamers”) that they’d initially demanded. What they got is a vague-sounding promise from Mitch McConnell that if there’s no immigration deal in a few weeks, the Senate will consider some sort of immigration legislation or other. Still, some on the left deemed the progressive hand-wringing premature at best. And some on the right warned that for the GOP to become known as the anti-Dreamer party would be a big mistake. Meanwhile the bipartisan group of Senators who had tried to pull their parties toward the center served as a reminder that, for both parties, immigration is potentially a wedge issue. Intra-party fissures may become more evident in the coming weeks.

Nice Dreamers ya got there—shame if somethin’ bad was to happen to ’em: After the government re-opened, White House officials said Trump is willing to let Dreamers stay in the country and even eventually become citizens. But the officials laid out stiff preconditions, including tons of money for a border wall, an end to “chain” (or “family reunification”) immigration, and an intensified crackdown on undocumented immigrants who are already here. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Secretary waiveddozens of environmental regulations to pave the way for a wall.

Trump Walks Walk: Trump’s longstanding threat to get tough with trading partners finally found concrete expression, as the administration imposed tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels. Like most tariffs, these will hurt consumers (LG immediately announced a washing machine price hike), hurt some workers (e.g those who install solar panels), help some workers (e.g. those who make washing machines—especially if Asian manufacturers move factories here to avoid tariffs), and risk triggering retaliatory tariffs that hurt American workers. Also like most tariffs, these drew criticism from many conservatives, though the solar-panel tariff seemed designed to minimize blowback on the right, what with its anti-environmentalism, pro-fossil-fuel vibe.

Split Over Syria: Turkey sent ground forces into Syria, following up on aerial assaults against Kurdish militias that began the previous week, and said it would establish a buffer zone in Syria. The Kurdish militias—which Turkey considers a threat because of Kurdish separatists within its borders—are backed by the US. All of this is complicating relations between Trump and Erdogan, two leaders who once seemed poised to form a lasting bond over their shared ethno-nationalist populism. Last week the two spoke by phone and then disagreed over what was said. Whether coincidentally or not, Turkey’s aerial assault immediately followed a US disclosure that American ground troops would remain in Syria indefinitely. The US says its continued presence in Syria, and its support of Kurdish militias, is mainly in the service of fighting ISIS, though many observers believe that opposition to the Syrian regime and to Iranian influence in Syria loom at least as large in the American calculus.

The Targeting of Mueller, Then and Now: The New York Times reported that in June Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller but backed down in the face of resistance from the White House counsel. Meanwhile, some Republicans, in trying to discredit the Mueller investigation, got into conspiracy theorizing that alarmed other Republicans.

Davos Man: Trump went to the World Economic Forum, a mecca for corporate titans and other globalists, and sounded not as scary as some of them might have feared.


MRN reader Denise writes in to recommend that each week I take one news item and “give it a mindful resistance ‘treatment’.” That treatment, she says, should include looking at “opposing views” on the subject at hand and doing various other things, including urging “compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others.” 

Well, as I explained last week, cultivating compassion isn’t central to our mission at MRN, though it can be a welcome byproduct of what we do. More central to our mission—and closer to the original Buddhist meaning of “mindfulness”—is cultivating broad and dispassionate awareness. This awareness is then put in the service of understanding—understanding that can then, we hope, be used to give Trump a one-way ticket to Mar-a-Lago in 2020 (if not before) and pave the way for better days.

So Denise’s first recommendation—presenting various viewpoints on an issue—is right in our wheelhouse. Let’s give this a try and see how it goes. This week’s topic: The government shutdown showdown between Democrats and Republicans.

Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has taken a lot of heat from progressives for “capitulating” to Republicans. In their view he should have kept insisting that any spending resolution that would re-open the government include protection for the now-famous “Dreamers.” So let’s start by trying to understand Schumer’s perspective and then move on to the perspectives of other players.

POV 1: Chuck Schumer. I think Schumer, in the end, had little choice but to “capitulate.” Five Democratic senators had deserted him on the initial vote, and other centrist Democrats were signaling they weren’t going to stick with him for long if the shutdown continued and Mitch McConnell kept holding votes to re-open the government. So the question becomes: Why weren’t centrist Democrats on board? Why had some abandoned ship and why were others preparing to abandon it? Well:

POV 2: Centrist Democratic senators. Consider the perspective of someone who had “deserted” Schumer on the initial vote: Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin, who is up for re-election this year, felt he would alienate many West Virginia voters if he stuck with Schumer. Which raises the question of why West Virginia voters would have been alienated. Well:

POV 3: Voters who would have punished Democrats who stuck with Schumer. A not uncommon #Resistance take on voters like those in West Virginia is this: Their position on the government shutdown reflects, at best, cruel indifference to Dreamers and, at worst, a bigoted hatred of them.

That probably does apply to some voters, in West Virginia and elsewhere. But it’s far from the only way to explain voter opposition to the government shutdown. Remember: The question before West Virginia voters, and voters nationwide, wasn’t, “Should we find a way to let the Dreamers stay in America?” (On that issue 70 to 80 percent of people nationwide support the Dreamers.) The question was: Is guaranteeing the protection of these 700,000 Dreamers worth shutting the whole government down? You can certainly imagine someone saying yes to the first question and no to the second—in other words, opposing the shutdown without being a bigot or being being indifferent to the fate of the Dreamers. After all, keeping the government open on Mitch McConnell’s terms didn’t mean deporting the Dreamers (who are for now protected by a court order). It just meant their fate would remain unresolved for now.

There’s one other point to make about the perspective of the voters Manchin was worried about, but before making it I must pause and pay tribute to congressional Republicans for a tactical masterstroke. The masterstroke involves CHIP, a program that gives health insurance to low-income children. Democrats had long demanded continued funding for CHIP, and Republicans, at the last minute, attached this CHIP funding to the spending resolution that would keep the government open. So if Manchin had stuck with Schumer he would have been voting against a program that helped many children, especially in low-income states like his. Or, to put it the way it would have been put in anti-Manchin campaign ads this fall: Manchin would have been depriving CHIP recipients of guaranteed funding out of concern for Dreamers, even though in West Virginia the former, in addition to being US citizens, vastly outnumber the latter.

POV 4: Trump and Congressional Republicans. OK, enough about the Republicans’ tactical brilliance. How could they so callously disregard the fate of the Dreamers? Actually, Trump, and no small number of Republicans in Congress, say they’re willing to let the Dreamers stay in the US, and maybe even offer them a path to citizenship. But Trump wants to get as much in return for this as possible: an end to “chain” immigration and to “lottery” immigration, a “big beautiful” wall, a more vigorous crackdown on undocumented immigrants already in the US, and so on. You can call this cynical—using people as bargaining chips—but in politics cynicism is pretty much standard operating procedure.

Schumer, for his part, is preparing for this bargaining by saying that any previous offers he may have made Trump about funding the wall are “off the table.” In other words: Trump can’t pocket the offers Schumer made last time around and ask for more.

So, for now, you can call what Schumer did either “capitulation” or “tactical retreat.” (And you might pause and note what different emotional resonances those two terms carry, and how which term you choose thus shapes your thinking about this, including your ability to look at things from Schumer’s point of view.)

One might conclude, in light of the above analysis, that if there’s a criticism of Schumer to be made, it’s for not seeing how this would play out. After all, in retrospect it’s pretty clear that McConnell was holding the stronger hand—especially once Republicans attached CHIP funding to the spending resolution. 

But most of the people accusing Schumer of “capitulation” aren’t in a position to make that criticism, because they were the ones demanding that he take the stand he initially took. (Only a few progressive commentators, such as Bill Scher, warned that Democrats would get blamed for the shutdown and come under growing pressure to cave.) And one reason they demanded this is that they didn’t realize his strategy was probably doomed. And one reason they didn’t realize this is that they didn’t do the work of looking at things from various people’s perspective’s—including including the perspective of Joe Manchin and other centrist Democrats and the voters they represent.

And one reason they didn’t do this work, I’d suggest, is that the psychology of tribalism isn’t conducive to this kind of perspective taking. If you start from the premise that everyone who disagrees with you about an issue you care about is bad—racists, bigots, amoral cynics, whatever—then your analysis doesn’t usually get much more fine-grained than that. 

Note that this whole exercise—an exercise in broadened awareness and, ultimately, deeper understanding—doesn’t depend on cultivating compassion. But the fact that compassion isn’t central to mindfulness doesn’t mean there’s no role for it here. 

For one thing, this broadened awareness may lead to compassion for some of the players— maybe even Chuck Schumer; the guy was in a tough position! (Though I must admit that I myself wondered aloud, if half-jokingly, about his bargaining skill.)

And compassion can enter this discussion via other avenues as well. In particular: In deciding how we react to Trump’s latest offer on immigration, I think compassion rightly dictates that we consider how it would affect the millions who are already in the country—many of whom came here back when the understanding was that this immigration was technically illegal but widely accepted. I argued about this with my friend and (alas) Trump supporter Mickey Kaus at this point in a recent conversation I had with him on I recommend watching the exchange in part because of a previously unpublicized story I tell about something that seems to have happened to an undocumented immigrant on a Greyhound bus recently.


—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)


The New York Times assessed the impact of Trump’s tariffs on America’s solar energy industry.

If Mueller gets Trump to answer questions under oath, how might that play out? The Atlantic’s David Graham looked at Trump’s past depositions for clues. Graham also wrote that the Russia scandal has put the left in the strange-bedfellows position of supporting the FBI.

In Slate, Fred Kaplan says that Trump’s generals are leading him into quagmires in Syria and Afghanistan.


In the Washington Post, Dylan Matthews argues that Hispanic immigrants are assimilating as rapidly as earlier ethnic groups that immigrated to the US.

In Bloomberg, View Noah Smith argues that anti-immigration sentiment in the US has weakened over the past decade and says it will likely prove less consequential than a century ago, when nativism led to severe immigration restrictions.

An annual survey showed that trust in government and other institutions fell sharply last year.

In The New Republic, Jeet Heer argues that Trump’s frequent ineffectiveness in pursuing his political goals may provide more, not less, reason to worry that he is undermining democracy and steering America toward authoritarianism.



1) In light of that New York Times report about Trump’s attempt in June to fire Mueller, maybe we should again link to the map of protest sites to be used in the event of a Mueller firing.

2) And, on the maintaining-peace-of-mind front: 

MRN reader Annette writes: “On the social media question, I have been engaging with LinkedIn to get some balance. People post the corporate-styled self help drivel but they also post what they’re doing in their professional lives… It gives a more balanced view of the world, a world where people are doing amazing things, have principles and treat others with appreciation.”

Relatedly, I recently got a new smartphone and haven’t yet installed the Twitter or Facebook apps, and I’m noticing that confining social media time to when I’m at my desk has its virtues. And speaking of the tyranny of smartphones: In The Guardian Oliver Burkeman offers a couple of ways to loosen your phone’s grip on you. (One of them—changing your smartphone screen from color to black-and-white—didn’t work wonders for me, but your mileage may vary.)

OK, that about wraps it up. If you have any news-you-can-use nominees, or any feedback on the newsletter, or anything else you want to share with us, please email us at:


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


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