Issue #55: Dec 16–Dec 22, 2018

In this holiday double-issue of MRN we: (1) explain why so many people disapprove of Trump’s decision to withdraw ground troops from Syria; (2) continue the meticulously orchestrated public relations campaign surrounding our impending Patreon launch; (3) explain how mindfulness can help you cope with annoying relatives during the holidays; (4) succinctly summarize a week that was action-packed even by Trump-era standards; (5) steer you to background readings on things ranging from criminal justice reform to the oldest known record of a border dispute; (6) offer the holiday edition of News You Can Use. [Note: No newsletter next week, as the MRN team will be working 24/7 formulating New Year’s resolutions.]

–Robert Wright

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Pulling out: President Trump announced that the roughly 2,000 US ground troops in Syria will be withdrawn, and declared that ISIS has been defeated. He also told the Pentagon to come up with a plan to remove half of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

Grim resignation: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, after trying and failing to convince Trump to keep troops in Syria, announced that he will step down from his post at the end of February. In a resignation letter to Trump, Mattis emphasized the importance of respecting allies and standing up to Russia and China and then said he was stepping down so that Trump could have a secretary of defense “whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”

Burst of bipartisanship: Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill that passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly. The law will reduce the minimum sentence for many nonviolent drug offenses, expand job training programs, and limit how far from their families prisoners can be incarcerated.

Lapse of bipartisanship: Much of the federal government shut downSaturday morning after Trump failed to convince Democratic senators to support a spending bill (passed by the House of Representatives) that includes money for a border wall. If the shutdown continues, some 800,000 federal workers won’t get their paychecks, though about half of them will still be required to work.  

Former first family foundation: The Trump Foundation, the Trump family’s charity, agreed to dissolve itself under judicial supervision after the New York Attorney General concluded that it had engaged in “a shocking pattern of illegality.”

Back to Mexico: The Trump administration said it will start sending asylum seekers who cross the border illegally back to Mexico to await their hearings, lest they disappear during a temporary US residence. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused to let the administration enforce a regulation that would deny asylum to such immigrants altogether, insisting that enforcement await the outcome of a challenge to the regulation now working its way through the courts.  
We’ll always have Paris (until 2020, at least): Nearly 200 countries, including the US, agreed on rules to limit carbon emissions, a crucial step in implementing the 2015 Paris accord on climate change. Although Trump announced last year that the US will withdraw from the accord, its terms don’t permit such withdrawal until 2020.

Stocks tank: The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst week since 2008, losing nearly 7 percent of its value. The drop was variously attributed to a Fed interest rate hike, an impending government shutdown, turmoil surrounding Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement, and various signsthat an economic slowdown may lie ahead.

Job application? The Wall Street Journal reported that William Barr, Trump’s Attorney General nominee, sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to the Justice Department earlier this year arguing that a big part of the Mueller investigation was “fatally misconceived.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was advised by a senior Justice Department ethics official to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation but rejected that advice.

Ban the bump: The administration banned the bump stock, the device that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire as rapidly as automatic weapons and was used in the Las Vegas massacre. Gun owners will have until the end of March to destroy or forfeit the devices.


by Robert Wright

Seeing Syria clearly: Trump’s decision this week to withdraw America’s 2,000 ground troops from Syria drew widespread condemnation from the American foreign policy establishment, and from the #Resistance. Why? I’d say there are three kinds of reasons:

Reasons that aren’t especially ideological: Given the complex and fluid array of antagonists in and around Syria, a hasty and ill-thought-out withdrawal could lead to various bad things. For example, the Turkish government, which fears Kurdish separatism, could seize the opportunity to attack Kurdish forces that had been fighting ISIS at America’s behest. Even Rep. Barbara Lee—who opposes the Syrian troop presence and was the only member of Congress to vote against the post-9/11 resolution that has been used to justify much war in many countries–worries that Trump is acting precipitously.

Ideological reasons: There are lots of these. Neoconservatives, who dominate Republican foreign policy, are bent on countering Iranian influence in the Middle East, and some of them are bent on regime change in Iran. They see American troops in Syria as an important piece on this chessboard—a force that can be deployed in various ways and expanded as necessary. Liberal interventionists, who dominate Democratic foreign policy, tend to share the neocons’ suspicion of Iran, if in smaller measure. Besides, they just seem to like American troop presences abroad—a reflection of their faith that American interventions are usually benign.

And both neocons and liberal interventionists like the idea of staying in Syria until ISIS is completely defeated (notwithstanding the fact that military measures alone won’t defeat ISIS, as it will live on after the last square foot of its Syrian territory is retaken, ready to manifest itself in various places and ways.)

Emotionally driven fallacies: It’s hard to separate emotional factors from ideological ones, because the two tend to be finely intertwined. But let’s try.

There has been much emphasis on the fact that that Vladimir Putin embraced Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops. This embrace has been invoked, implicitly or explicitly, as evidence that the withdrawal will be bad for America. The logic here is simple: Russia is our adversary, so anything that’s good for Russia is bad for us!

This would be solid logic if we were playing chess with Russia—like, on an actual chessboard—instead of playing metaphorical chess in the real world. In the real world, nations have overlapping interests with their adversaries, and even with their enemies. 

At the height of the Cold War, the US and the USSR had a common interest in not starting a nuclear war. And in Syria, the US and Russia have a common interest in defeating ISIS. For that matter, Russia has an interest in stabilizing Syria, as does the US. In fact, some people are starting to sketch out specific plans in which Russia would play a constructive role in stabilizing a post-withdrawal Syria—a role that might keep the aforementioned Kurds from getting decimated by Turkish troops.

So if this logic—whatever Russia likes we should hate—doesn’t make sense, why is it so often invoked? In part, I think, because it naturally appeals to our emotions. If you see your most detested enemy being thwarted in some aim, you’ll probably feel good—pretty much regardless of what the aim is. Something your enemy wants to happen is something you don’t want to happen. For whatever reason (and I’m not sure what the reason is), the human mind sometimes suffers from a misleadingly binary conception of enmity.

In the case of Russia, emotions enter the picture in a second way. A deeply ingrained part of the #Resistance narrative is that Trump is a Putin puppet. Asserting or implying as much is such a proven retweet getter that it’s become a kind of reflex among #Resistance elites. After Trump’s withdrawal announcement, Neera Tanden, head of the more-or-less official think tank of the Democratic party, the Center for American Progress, tweeted that, though Trump is “destroying our alliances,” his “presidency has been great for Putin. They made the investment of a lifetime in him.”

It could well be that Trump is a Putin puppet—or, at least, that Putin has some kind of illegitimate influence over Trump for any number of reasons. And maybe the Mueller investigation will eventually reveal as much. We’ve definitely seen evidence suggesting that possibility. But so far there’s no smoking gun. For now the basis for the widespread belief that Trump is Putin’s puppet is largely emotional. If you hate Trump, you’d like to think the worst of him, and thinking of him as Russian operative is one good way to think the worst of him.

Anyway, my main point is that, in this matter as in others, emotions that get activated and amplified by the #Resistance can make it hard to think clearly. Though the withdrawal of troops from Syria (assuming it actually happens, and with Trump you never know) poses profound transitional problems of the kind Barbara Lee recognizes, the withdrawal could still turn out to be a good thing. And it’s logically possible for that to be the case even though Putin approves of it. In fact, it’s possible that some of the things Putin likes about it are things we should like about it. 

And now for a shocking confession: Trump’s Syria withdrawal has reminded me that emotions sometimes bias my own thinking about foreign policy. The withdrawal surprised me; I had assumed that an array of forces—ranging from neoconservative think tanks to like-minded Trump donors to the formidable array of Iran hawks that inhabit this administration—would keep Trump devoted to the mission of opposing Iran on all conceivable fronts. And it may be that this expectation was driven in part by my own desire to think the worst of Trump—to see him as a tool of these forces, just as others see him as a tool of Russia. 

I will close with some good news for all of us who feel a need to think badly of Trump. The most plausible explanation of Trump’s withdrawal decision I’ve come across is this: He wants to stay in the good graces of the most fervent part of his base—hard-core nationalists like Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson, who are deeply skeptical of foreign entanglements—because these people will be the key to his political survival as the Mueller investigation unfolds. (Consistent with this theory is his obliging that same constituency by hanging tough—so far, at least—on the border wall issue as the government shutdown continues.) And that explanation of Trump’s motivation isn’t altogether flattering.

Things I’m proud of (cont’d): I’ve been instructed by my team to do more of  what I did last week: sing the praises of MRN in anticipation of our Patreon launch in January, when we’ll humbly ask readers for financial support. If I sing these praises loudly enough, I’m told, I’ll inspire so much reader generosity that we can fulfill our longstanding aspiration to move our offices to Trump Tower—or, failing that, fulfill our longstanding aspiration to keep publishing this newsletter.  

In last week’s edition of Things I’m Proud Of, I bragged about how we keep certain kinds of stories out of THE WEEK. For example: overblown stories about Trump outrages— stories that not only waste our time but get us, well, outraged, often in counterproductive ways. Filtering out these stories, I said, was part of our attempt to cultivate a mindful outlook on the world: alert, attentive, unclouded by emotion.

There are other ways we try to cultivate a mindful outlook. In particular, 
we try to call attention to exactly how emotions cloud our thinking. We do this in various ways.

For example, this week (above), I note how emotions primed the reaction to Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria. Also this week (below), I give some guidance on how to deal with emotions when you’re at a holiday gathering with relatives, and some of them are driving you crazy. Last week, I wrote about how anger, designed by natural selection for an emphatically pre-modern environment, often misfires in the modern world—and thus, to say the least, bears watching. 

MRN’s discussion of emotions is sometimes intertwined with discussion of tribalism, and the connection between the two subjects is subtler than you might think. It isn’t just that obviously antagonistic emotions like rage can fuel tribal belligerence. It’s that cognitive biases undergird the psychology of tribalism, and these biases are in turn mediated by feelings. When you click “share” or “retweet” to spread information that supports your tribe’s ideology, and you haven’t really examined the credibility of the information, you’re evincing confirmation bias, and what’s leading you to evince it is a feeling; it feels good to see the information and to promulgate it.

Worrying about tribalism is, of course, all the rage. MRN shares that worry, but our version of it is in some ways unusual. There is a tendency to associate the problem of tribalism with the Trump era, both because a tribalized America served as Trump’s launch pad and because Trump, by his nature, deepens the tribalization. (Not a bad business model, when you think about it!) But the problem of tribalism was with us in America, and in the world, long before Trump showed up. And it will be with us long after he’s gone. And humankind will have to make real inroads against it if we’re ever going to build the kind of global community that is a prerequisite for humankind’s flourishing (as opposed to, say, humankind’s dissolving into chaos). 

To put it another way: though the title of this newsletter was inspired by the movement that arose in opposition to Trump, the mission of this newsletter would (in our humble opinion) be critical even if Trump had lost the 2016 election. We are opposed to Trumpism more than to Trump per se, and Trumpism is just the current, particularly acute, manifestation of forces that needed combatting 20 years ago and will need combatting 20 years from now. 

This belief, by the way, explains some other things I’m proud of about MRN. But I’ll save those for the next issue. That will arrive on Jan 5, after the MRN staff emerges from its holiday stupor. Then, the following week, if all goes according to plan, the Patreon launch will happen. Feel the momentum?

Home for the holidays: It is not with a deep sense of familial pride that I say this: Three of my four siblings voted for Donald Trump. But this fact does have its upside. It gives me the credentials to join in America’s newest holiday ritual: Advising people on how to cope with relatives whose political views should have long ago gotten them sent to re-education camp.   

Actually, my credentials aren’t all that strong. I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my in-laws, and those gatherings are 100-percent Trump-supporter-free. Still, I do have some relevant experience: in the summer of 2016 I attended a family reunion with my siblings and their families, which meant spending five days with about 40 people, most of whom were Trump supporters.  

And here is the approach I took to handling intra-family tribal tensions: Avoid, at all costs, uttering the word “Trump.” Everyone else followed the same rule—presumably because they knew that if the subject of Trump came up, the result would make the barroom shootout scene in Inglorious Basterds look like the opening scene of The Sound of Music. (Trigger warning: If grotesque cinematic violence bothers you, do not go to YouTube in search of the first scene, and if saccharine musicals bother you, do notgo to YouTube in search of the second scene.) Amid this moratorium on political discussion, a good time was had by all.

I was lucky: My Trump-supporting relatives had implicitly signed on to a non-aggression pact. Not everyone is blessed with Trump-supporting relatives who are as wise as mine. (I know what you’re wondering: If my relatives are so wise, then why….) 

So what is my counsel for those of you who are afflicted with Trump-supporting relatives who, unlike mine, have the bad manners to talk about Trump in mixed company? 

Well, at the risk of sounding like a meditation teacher: When your relatives say something about Trump, pay attention to the feelings that arise. This may, if nothing else, distract you for long enough that you don’t say anything in reply—which, if your temperament is like my temperament, is a good thing in itself.

But that’s not the ideal outcome. When the mindful awareness of feelings really works, it gives you a kind of critical distance from the feelings (although, ironically, that distance coincides with, and indeed results from, being more in touch with your feelings, and in that sense closer to them). If you have enough of this remove from—this non-attachment to—your feelings, then the things you say in reply to the person who aroused the feelings won’t be governed by the feelings. 

So, for example: 1) you feel anger; 2) you observe the anger; and 3) as a result of the observation, angry thoughts don’t dictate your next utterance. You don’t say something whose salient subtext is that the person you’re talking to is either an idiot or a bigot or both.  

Easy for me to say! Because my Trump-supporting relatives are so wise, I didn’t have to employ this technique at my family reunion. And the one opportunity I had to employ it—during a phone call with a sibling on the night before the 2016 election—I was so emotionally reactive that I never got around to even trying. (It’s a wonder we’re still on speaking terms.) 

Still, sometimes I do better. Maybe you can, too. If you give this a try over the holidays, let us know how it works: See you in the New Year.


In the Daily Beast, Spencer Ackerman and Kimberly Dozier make the case that Trump’s decision to withdraw ground troops from Syria was in part a reaction against National Security Adviser John Bolton’s attempt to foist on Trump his own preferred policy—keeping the troops there so long as Iranian troops and proxies remain there.  

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg looks at how criminal justice reform gained support among conservatives.

Tom Hals of Reuters explores the question of whether Trump’s new policy of returning some asylum seekers to Mexico is legal.

A report from the research group Stratfor, reflecting on this week’s new rules for the Paris climate change accord, concludes that while technologies to mitigate or adapt to global climate change are becoming more economically viable, weak international institutions make it hard to forge a sound strategy.

With Trump’s border wall still lacking government funding, more than 225,000 wall enthusiasts have pledged over $15 million as part of a $1 billion GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the wall.

An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Veterans Affairs spent only a tiny fraction of its allotted budget for suicide prevention outreach over the past two years. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly twice that of the general population.
boycott campaign against Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show has led at least 11 advertisers to drop the program. The campaign started after Carlson said in a monologue that immigration makes the US “poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” Politico’s Jack Schafer opines against the boycott.

Google effectively ended development of a censored search engine for China following employee protests.

After Patreon banned far-right YouTuber Sargon of Akkad (real name Carl Benjamin) for hate speech, high-profile Patreon users—including Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Dave Rubin—announced they’ll be leaving the platform. Peterson is planning to launch his own alternative to Patreon.

A New York Times video shows France’s Yellow Vest protesters demonstrating, partying, and, sometimes, struggling to articulate their grievances. In a BBC video, a professor from the London School of Economics explains why similar protests are spreading across Europe.

The Treasury Department plans to lift sanctions against three companies controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who apparently is owed millions of dollars by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort (and whose relationship to Manafort is reportedly being explored by the Mueller investigation).

NPR interviews a Catholic nun who tweets to Trump about her daily prayers for the president. For example: “Dear @POTUS. 672 days later still praying you & all leaders respect & value the real human lives impacted by your policy decisions & rhetoric, especially those who are poor & vulnerable.” [Thanks to MRN reader Razinah for alerting us to this.]


In Buzzfeed, Karl Sharro does a faux-analysis of France’s current turmoil that satirizes western takes on turmoil within Arab countries.

The Niskanen Center recently held a conference titled “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump” and published its vision for a more moderate Republican Party. At the New Republic, Jeet Heer lauds some of the group’s policy ideas while questioning whether there is a coherent constituency for them. David Brooks is smitten.

A Carnegie Europe article explains the structure of the European Parliament and warns that its currently dominant coalition of centrists will be challenged by left- and right-wing populists in the 2019 election.

Beginning in 2019, Denmark will require new citizens to shake hands at their naturalization ceremony, a move intended by lawmakers to encourage the assimilation of Muslim immigrants, some of whom, on religious grounds, avoid touching members of the opposite sex.

More than a year before the passage this week of criminal justice reform legislation, the American Bar Association evaluated the effectiveness of “three strikes and you’re out” laws. The ACLU has listed 10 reasons to oppose such sentencing. In 2010, the ACLU described the inhumane and harmful effects of mandatory minimum prison sentences. Last year, PBS Newshour published charts detailing the costs and ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums.

Smithsonian Magazine tells the story of a recently deciphered 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian marble pillar that is the oldest known record of a border dispute.

Google opened a virtual version of Brazil’s National Museum, which was destroyed by a fire in September.

Merriam-Webster says the most looked up word of the year was “justice,” which edged out “lodestar” and “nationalism” for the title.

In the American Conservative, Addison del Mastro appraises secular Christmas songs from the mid-twentieth century in their cultural context. Biggest surprise: The song “Do You Hear What I Hear” was an allusion to nuclear war.


Kids R Us: When shopping this holiday season, you needn’t confine your presents to children you know. HuffPost has published a list of nine ways to donate gifts to children in need, including homeless children, hospitalized children, and children with a parent deployed abroad.  

Yes we can: Since the hardworking MRN staff will take next week off, we offer you our New Year’s guidance now. Resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, but studies have found that “successful resolvers employed more cognitive-behavioral processes.” And who among us doesn’t want to become a successful resolver? So here, courtesy of Big Think, is an examination of some cognitive-behavioral-process-related life-hacks that may help you become a successful resolver in 2019. Godspeed.

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

Nikita Petrov, Colleen Smith, & Colin Pugh

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