In this week’s newsletter, after briskly summarizing the week’s Trump-related news, we (1) worry some more about how the Resistance’s obsession with Russia may be taking our eye off the ball; (2) dare you to listen to a loathed podcast mindfully; (3) hear from a persecuted minority (conservative MRN readers); (4) provide the usual far-flung array of background links; (5) in News You Can Use, offer some guidance on how you can complicate Trump’s latest construction project: building a “war cabinet.”
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THE WEEK IN TRUMP
Bolton the bellicose: Trump appointed John Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, alarming a broad range of national security experts. The more sanguine reactions came mainly from neoconservative quarters (though Bolton himself isn’t a textbook neocon, as he tends not to justify his calls for military intervention in terms of democracy promotion or other high-minded things). Bolton would be the most openly belligerent person to occupy the NSA office since it was created in 1953—unless you believe that Michael Flynn, who occupied it for the first few weeks of Trump’s administration, is more deserving of that title. Bolton has advocated bombing Iran as a first step toward regime change, and he is a longstanding proponent of regime change in North Korea. Only last month he argued for the legality and necessity of bombing North Korea. He is one of the few Washington establishment figures who still defend the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he helped bring about—dishonestly, some colleagues have said—as a member of the George W. Bush administration. Unlike his two predecessors in the Trump White House, Bolton is considered a capable political and bureaucratic operator. He is so well known for flattering his superiors and abusing his subordinates that, in the Wikipedia article called “Kiss up kick down,” he has his own subheading.
War footing: The Bolton appointment came ten days after Trump’s appointment of the very hawkish Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, causing more than one observer to opine that Trump is “assembling a war cabinet.” (It almost goes without saying that he’s assembling a tear-up-the-Iran-nuclear-deal cabinet. And that tearing up could make war with Iran more likely.) Because only the Pompeo appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, attempts to keep the war cabinet from being assembled are focusing there. With Rand Paul having come out against Pompeo, it would take only one more Republican vote, and the united opposition of Democrats, to stop Pompeo’s confirmation. Stopping it has been considered a long shot, but the Bolton announcement may have increased the chances of success a bit by rattling the cages of doves.
Not-so-great wall: Trump signed the $1.3 trillion “omnibus” spending bill, avoiding a government shutdown. After signing, he complained about the level of spending and the rushed legislative process. Trump seemed particularly unhappy that he didn’t secure $25 billion for a southern border wall, and had to settle for $1.6 billion that will get him only 33 miles of fencing. The president pledged to “never sign another bill like this again.” That vow may be tested under intense political pressure. This spending bill keeps the government open only until September 30, which is five weeks before the midterm elections.
A bluer state: The Supreme Court boosted Democrats’ hopes for the midterm congressional elections by declining to overrule the Pennsylvania state supreme court’s creation of a new congressional district map. The map was drawn up to counteract Republican gerrymandering that the state court had deemed in violation of the Pennsylvania constitution. Pennsylvania Republicans are now trying to impeach Democratic judges on the court.
Lawyered down: John Dowd, Trump’s lead attorney in handling the Mueller investigation, resigned. And this week’s announcement that Fox News commentator Joseph DiGenova would join Trump’s legal team began to seem premature, as Trump was said to be reconsidering that idea. Meanwhile, Trump was reportedly having trouble attracting legal talent from DC’s top law firms.
Other shoes drop: Trump’s past sexual escapades continued to live in infamy. Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice who says Trump forcibly kissed and groped her in 2007, won a favorable court ruling: a New York state judge said her defamation lawsuit against Trump could proceed. Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, said in a CNN interview that she had a ten-month affair with Trump in 2006. She also filed a lawsuit against the parent company of the National Enquirer, hoping to void a contract she signed shortly before the election that, she claims, used false pretenses to silence her. And remember Stormy Daniels? Her interview with 60 Minutes is scheduled to air this Sunday.
More tariffs: Trump imposed $60 billion in tariffs on 10 Chinese industry sectors, including electric vehicles, agricultural equipment and advanced medical products. China responded with plans for $3 billion in tariffs on pork, recycled aluminum, steel pipes, fruit, and wine, and said more may come. Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown, from the manufacturing state of Ohio, praised Trump’s move, while Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, from Iowa, fretted that China would hit soybeans next. The US stock market had its worst week in two years, and fears of a trade war were cited as the main cause.
Foxed out: Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, resigned his position as a Fox News analyst in dramatic fashion, writing that the network “is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers.” Peters, an extreme hawk, complained that some Fox hosts “advance Putin’s agenda by making light of Russian penetration of our elections and the Trump campaign.”
Transgender ban returns: Trump issued an order prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military “except under limited circumstances,” reversing an Obama policy.
March for our lives: Hundreds of simultaneous anti-gun-violence protests were held(at least one in every state), and many more took place in other countries. The protests were inspired by student activists in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In some places gun rights supporters staged counter-protests.
High tech and low: Cambridge Analytica, the Mercer-family-backed data firm employed by the Trump presidential campaign, saw its reputation for unsavoriness reach new heights, as its (now suspended) CEO was shown in a secretly recorded video saying the company uses prostitutes to lure politicians into compromising situations. The previous week it had been revealed that the firm had in 2014 obtained personal data from 50 million American Facebook users without their knowledge. It remains unclear whether the firm kept the data and used it during the 2016 presidential campaign, and there is disagreement over whether, in any event, the $6 million it received from the Trump campaign was money well spent.
OVERDOING THE RUSSIA THING (Cont’d.)
I hate to obsess over the Resistance’s obsession with this whole Russia thing, but:
This week brought (1) a fresh reminder that Russia is far from the only country whose influence on American politics bears watching; and (2) a reminder of the (as economists say) “opportunity cost” of spending so much time watching Russia.
On Wednesday the New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates had steered $200 million to a Republican National Committee official, apparently in an attempt to influence Trump’s foreign policy. As the Times reported, UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, which was part of the same lobbying effort, wanted Trump “to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and to adopt more “confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar.” As the New York Times noted, all of this came to pass after the RNC official personally lobbied Trump.
Could be a coincidence; we have no way of knowing how influential, if at all, this lobbying was. But the evidence of influence is at least as strong as the evidence that Trump is being influenced by some sort of leverage over him that Russia is hypothesized to have.
And the consequences of the possible UAE and Saudi Arabia influence are at least as dark as the consequences that any current Russian influence on Trump is likely to be. Trump’s “confrontational approaches” toward Iran and Qatar, as the Times put it, amount to this: (1) continued American support—in the form of weapons and logistical help—for Saudi Arabia’s massive and, at best, pointless bombardment of Yemen, which has killed lots of civilians; (2) the probable death of the Iran nuclear deal, which exerts a stabilizing influence on the region by ensuring that Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons; (3) quite possibly, eventual war between the US and Iran.
Certainly Tillerson’s appointed replacement, Mike Pompeo, seems conducive to all of these things—and no doubt his appointment pleased the powers that be in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And God knows that John Bolton, just appointed to replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, won’t exactly be playing dove’s advocate.
Both of these appointments are also evidence, by the way, that, contrary to a common Resistance narrative, Putin does not, in fact, have some kind of stranglehold over Trump. Rachel Maddow made a big deal of the fact that “the last public remarks” from Tillerson and McMaster before the announcement of their departures were “comments that were very critical of Russia.” But if this is really a deeply significant fact, how does she explain the fact that their successors, Pompeo and Bolton, are intensely anti-Russia hawks?
Can’t blame a cable TV star for trying to keep ratings high, I guess. But the obsession with Russia comes at a price—the aforementioned “opportunity cost.” Russia is absorbing so much attention that we don’t have time for other important things.
For example: Were you aware that last week the Senate voted to kill a bipartisan attempt to end America’s involvement in the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen? The vote was reasonably close—55-44. So maybe, with a bit more progressive grassroots organizing, we could have won this one. But who’s got time for grassroots organizing that might help thwart the manifestly and specifically malign designs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates when you’re busy sifting through the last words of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster for implausible evidence of vague and nefarious Russian influence? Life’s too short.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
MINDFULNESS PODCAST EXERCISE
This isn’t what you think. I’m not about to recommend a podcast that helps people exercise mindfulness. What I’m about to recommend is more challenging than that.
The idea came from MRN reader Svetlana. She writes:
“I am… subscribing to podcasts from the right and libertarian sides of the political spectrum and paying attention to the physical sensations in response to hearing views I don’t agree with. Or I think I don’t agree with, until I start unpacking why I hold the view. Mainly, I am left with ‘hah, I wonder what the empirical evidence is for such-and-such a claim …’ ”
Excellent homework assignment, Svetlanta! And it has at least two takehome lessons:
1) You don’t have to meditate to practice mindfulness. I certainly recommend meditation, in part because I think that makes it easier to carry mindfulness into everyday life. But if you want, you can just skip the meditation and go straight to the everyday life part. Just pay attention to feelings that arise in various situations—on social media, while watching Cable news, while listening to a podcast, whatever.
2) Being mindful of your feelings (which, btw, are far from the only thing you can be mindful of), can help you cease to be their slave. That’s what’s happening when Svetlana, having viewed her aversion to right-wing ideas with some measure of non-attachment, starts doing what those feelings would otherwise prevent: actually considering the possibility that views held by the enemy tribe might have some evidence on their side.
And, by the way, for some of you, this exercise may have already begun. When I recommended that you go listen to a podcast you disagree with, did the suggestion alone give you a modest feeling of dread or aversion? If not, then I suggest you put a finer point on the prospect: Imagine listening to a specific person who drives you nuts… and then actually go listen to them.
And feel free to email us about the results—or, about anything else that pertains to this newsletter: firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
LOCAL NEWS: CONSERVATIVES SEEN READING MRN!
A few weeks ago, we got an email from MRN reader Topher (aka Chris). After suggesting a news item MRN might opine on, he added a sheepish PS: “I’m a conservative, hope that’s okay.”
Yes, it’s highly okay. In fact, we’ve gotten a couple of other emails lately from people who, while not explicitly identifying as conservative, advanced positions associated with conservativism in the course of giving the newsletter some pushback. Let’s give them some airtime—and some counter-pushback.
But first, a general point about this newsletter and ideology. The parts of Trumpism that MRN is devoted to resisting include xenophobia, bigotry, fearmongering, other kinds of demagoguery, reckless disregard for truth, recklessness on the global stage, crudely tribalistic nationalism, authoritarian tendencies, utter amorality, and so on. All these things are as noxious to many on the right as they are to many on the left. And all of them are sometimes exhibited by people on the left as well as by people on the right.
This doesn’t mean that the generally progressive and/or liberal orientation of the people who put out this newsletter will never come through. But we hope that, when that orientation does come through, it won’t scare off any conservatives who are with us on the critical importance of resisting Trumpism.
OK, now on to the pushback and counter-pushback:
MRN reader Richard writes, “Have you considered that there are those who are anti-Trump and yet pro-Second-Amendment, and pro-firearms-related-pursuits, including among the mindfulness and Buddhist community in this country?”
Actually, yes, we’ve considered that. It’s one reason that, on the two occasions when our News You Can Use section alerted readers to opportunities for gun control activism, we started the section with the word “If”. (“If you favor gun control and/or want to show sympathy for victims of gun violence…” “If you’re a proponent of stronger gun control and other steps to reduce gun violence…”)
That said, a couple of points:
1) There’s no contradiction between being “pro-Second-Amendment” and favoring at least some form of gun control. There’s very little chance, for example, that limiting the capacity of magazines to, say, eight bullets would be found by the Supreme Court to violate the second amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms.
2) Though there are no doubt Buddhists who are “pro-firearms,” it’s also true that nonviolence is a value that can be found in Buddhist writings going way back. Indeed, “right livelihood,” one of the eight factors on the famous Eightfold Path, has often been interpreted to preclude making a living via the manufacture or sale of weapons.
Many Buddhists, like many people of all spiritual traditions, don’t live in complete conformity with all ideals associated with the tradition. For example, notwithstanding the Buddhist ideal of non-harm to all sentient beings, lots of Buddhists eat meat.
Besides, this newsletter is by no means for Buddhists only. And it’s not for meditators only. It’s for people who would like to engage the great political challenge of our time in a mindful manner—that is, without counterproductive overreaction, with careful and calm attention to relevant information, and with firm and skillfully harnessed resolve—whether or not they use meditation to assist in this endeavor.
Speaking of not harming sentient beings:
MRN reader Jefferson (of Germany) took exception to the billing—“Elephant-killing incentivized”—that we used to describe Trump’s lifting a ban on the import of such hunting trophies as elephant tusks. Jefferson writes, “By lifting a ban one is not ‘incentivising’ anything. It is allowing or permitting something (good or bad as the case may be) but not rewarding it.”
Well, yes, and no. Our headline was accurate in the sense that Trump’s move made the incentive to hunt elephants stronger than it had been before; he had restored a market-based incentive that the ban on trophy hunting had previously dulled. On the other hand, economists often use the term “incentivize” to refer to the encouraging of behaviors above and beyond any incentives provided by the market itself. In that sense of the word incentivize, as Jefferson notes, Trump’s removal of the ban didn’t incentivize anything.
Of course, that sense of the word seems to presuppose that a world of pure market incentives is some kind of state of nature. But to elaborate on what I mean by that might betray my progressive/liberal bias, so I’ll stop….
—Robert Wright (@robertwrighter)
At Lobelog, Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton report on the role billionaire Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson may have played in getting John Bolton appointed National Security Advisor.
Also at Lobelog: In a December 2016 article, Greg Thielmann, who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, described how Bolton tried to suppress analysis that didn’t support his goal of invading Iraq.
In Vox, German Lopez explains how the anti-gun-violence activism that has taken shape in the wake of the Parkland school shooting could actually change the political calculus surrounding the gun control issue and lead to significant reform.
In the Guardian, Jason Wilson argues that recent campus “free speech” controversies show how “the right wing outrage machine” has perfected the art of “pushing progressives’ buttons.”
The Intercept reports that Jared Kushner shared information with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about who in the Saudi royal family opposes the prince—possibly sharing classified information and in the process breaking the law. The piece also reports that the crown prince has told people he has Kushner “in his pocket.”
At Wired, Antonio García Martínez argues that “Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.”
In the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, readers were reminded that they can use conveniently located Twitter and Facebook icons to share either the entire newsletter, or sections thereof, on social media. They were encouraged to spend the rest of the week mired in painful, soul-wrenching guilt if they failed to act on this information.
In the American Prospect, Robert Kuttner argues that America’s political mainstream has failed to define and support “a constructive form of economic nationalism”—and that’s why Donald Trump gets support for the crude and unproductive form of economic nationalism reflected in his recent tariffs.
Geoffrey Skelley, of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, reviews the stats on House retirements and finds the modern record has already been broken: “52 members from both parties have opted against reelection bids, surpassing the previous midterm record of 49 in 1978.”
Historian Sean Wilentz, in Democracy, explores the century-long history of the terms “progressive” and “liberal,” arguing that the populist elements of progressivism should be rejected, and that Trump’s populism should be “resisted by means of reason.”
In The Week, Damon Linker reflects on how the constitution was designed to help America transcend political tribalism and why the current moment is such a challenge to that design.
In The Wall Street Journal, philosopher Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein reflects on the history of political tribalism, going all the way back to ancient Greece.
On meaningoflife.tv, neuroscientist Molly Crockett talked with Robert Wright about moral outrage and why it sometimes goes haywire on social media. And yoga instructor Josh Summers talked about, well, yoga, but also about mindful resistance.
NEWS YOU CAN USE
The group Win Without War has assembled an evolving list of statements about John Bolton by members of Congress. You can use it to see where, if anywhere, your congressional representatives stand on the Bolton issue.
Of course, Bolton’s appointment isn’t subject to Senate confirmation. Still, there may be value in conveying your sentiments on the issue to your representatives in the House and Senate. Word on the street is that there is information about Bolton’s past that may come out and that could complicate his quest for a security clearance and/or make the appointment politically difficult for Trump. So if people encourage their congressional representatives to convey disapproval of the appointment to the White House, that could prepare the ground for this (admittedly long-shot) turn of events.
Meanwhile, another key part of the assembly of Trump’s “war cabinet”—the appointment of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State—is subject to Senate confirmation. So feel free to convey your views on Pompeo to your Senators. (If you’d like to invoke information about Pompeo’s views, here is a well-researched appraisal.)
The usual avenues of communication to members of the Senate are available.
—by Robert Wright, Aryeh Cohen-Wade & Brian Degenhart