Issue 81: July 14–20, 2019

In this week’s MRN we (1) deplore and analyze Trump’s attack on four minority congresswomen, and ask how best to respond to it; (2) summarize other news of the week, including several developments in the increasingly tense Middle East; (3) alert you to MRN’s just-around-the-corner summer vacation and foreshadow the future evolution of MRN; (4) direct you to background reading on things ranging from the Ebola outbreak to the new American phenomenon of the “childless city” to the new anti-war sentiment in Congress to Elon Musk’s weirdest brainchild: a technology that (in theory) lets you control your computer directly with your brain. Plus: Mapping the distribution of opioids and ranking meditation apps by various numbers.

–Robert Wright

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House rebukes Trump: House Democrats, along with four Republicans and an independent, passed a resolution condemning Trump for tweets that encouraged four Democratic congresswomen who are members of ethnic minorities to “go back” to the countries they came from (though three were born in the US and all four are citizens). At a subsequent rally, Trump supporters chanted “Send her back” when Trump mentioned Ilhan Omar, one of the women targeted in the tweets.

More Mideast tensions: Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker, a move widely seen as payback for the seizure by Britain two weeks ago of a tanker that was taking oil from Iran to Syria in defiance of sanctions (and that is still in British hands). The day before, Trump had said a US aircraft carrier in waters near Iran downed an Iranian drone—a claim Iran denied.

Ambassador Rand: Sen. Rand Paul met secretly with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif on Thursday, a meeting that Trump later acknowledged had his blessing. Paul speculated in public about the possibility of a deal featuring Iran’s assurance that it would never develop nuclear weapons, a prospect he called a “huge breakthrough”—though the 2015 deal with Iran that Trump abandoned already included such an assurance.

American military footprint expands: The US said it will deploy troops to Saudi Arabia to provide an “additional deterrent” in the face of “threats” that it didn’t name but were taken to include Iran. The 1991 stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s holiest sites, was cited by Osama bin Laden as a primary justification for attacking America in 2001, and the troops were removed after the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Ebola emergency: The WHO declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo an “international health emergency” after a case was discovered in Goma, a city on the border with Rwanda and a regional transit hub. The outbreak has claimed more than 1,000 lives this year.

Puerto Rico protests: Puerto Rican police used tear gas and pepper spray on protesters who were demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Roselló. The protests erupted after the publication of leaked transcripts showing Roselló and his inner circle texting in vulgar terms about both allies and opponents, but the demonstrations also reflect longstanding discontent with corruption and with the mismanagement of recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.

Nothing but contempt: The House voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for not complying with a congressional subpoena of documents about the now-abandoned effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The vote allows Democrats to initiate proceedings in federal court that could last years.


by Robert Wright

  Worse and worse: Remind me to never again ask this question: “How could things possibly get any worse?” This week showed us that things can always get worse. You can have a president who has played on bigotry and xenophobia in various disgusting ways but at least has never told four non-white congresswomen to go back to where they came from. You can have a president who has inspired supporters to do deeply unsettling things but at least has never stood in front of a crowd, baskingin its malevolence, as it chanted—about a Somali woman who came to America as a child refugee, gained US citizenship, and then got elected to Congress—“Send her back.”

Regular readers of this newsletter are familiar with my sermons about the importance of responding to Trump’s provocations with discernment—which can mean not responding at all, since sometimes Trump’s goal is to elicit a reaction that will fortify his base. Well, for the record: This is not an occasion when tactical silence is in order. When Trump adds a whole new dimension to his incitement of hatred and bigotry, when he stands in front of a crowd and evokes with new power memories of history’s most dangerous authoritarians, there has to be pushback.

Still, this being the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I’m duty bound to ask what form the pushback should take—and, in the course of answering that question, to assess this episode as dispassionately as possible, under the circumstances.

Let’s start with an unfortunately recurring question: Why doesn’t behavior by Trump that strikes us as beyond the pale erode support for him? Indeed, why did this particular burst of toxic Trump tweets—assuming the early polls are accurate—slightly increase Trump’s approval rating among Republicans (while slightly decreasing it among Democrats and independents)? How could a rant so widely condemned as racist be accepted, even embraced, by Trump supporters?

The answer that springs most viscerally to mind—“Because Trump supporters are racist!”—should be resisted, I think. One reason is that it short-circuits analysis; it keeps us from understanding how artfully Trump is destroying the fabric of America. And understanding that might help us figure out how to thwart him.

Trump supporters who defend these tweets tend not to do it by defending racism. Indeed, what they do—if this focus group of Trump defenders is any indication—is interpret them as not being racist. And if you look closely at the tweets, you start to wonder if they weren’t precision-engineered to make such interpretations possible.

Here is the combined text of the now-infamous three consecutive Trump tweets:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

Note that, though this utterance was guaranteed to draw charges of racism (since, for one thing, its unnamed targets are all women of color), it also gives Trump supporters grounds for denying the charges. After all, Trump didn’t mention anyone’s race. And the reason he gave for inviting the four women to leave the country has no ostensible connection to skin color. Rather, it’s all about their attitude toward America.

What’s more, the stated reason for them to leave America isn’t so we’ll be rid of them but so they can go do some good in the lands they came from! (Or the lands their ancestors came from; three of the four women were born in America.) And Trump, generous man that he is, even invites them to return to America after they’ve done their good deeds abroad!

You may have trouble believing that anyone could read Trump this benignly, failing to see the cruelty in his remarks, failing to pick up on the xenophobic and racist roots of the “Go back to where you came from” trope.

But you have to remember that we all go through the world with blinders on. When someone we fiercely support has been attacked, we don’t embark on an objective appraisal of the evidence. We ask what the allegations against them are and then look, laserlike, for exonerating evidence. And Trump’s tweets seem built to make that job doable, even if the job takes some work.

Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of Michigan, commented that, as Republicans see it, “Trump is simply saying: ‘Hey, if you don’t like America, you can leave.” He added, “That is not at all controversial. If you already support Trump, then it’s very easy to interpret his comments that way.”

Which leads to one thing that helped Trump supporters read his tweets as exculpatory: Many of these supporters had become convinced of the truth of Trump’s premise—that some or all of his four targets are people who don’t like America.

That’s partly because some of the congresswomen had used intense language that Trump managed to turn against them. He reminded people that Rashida Tlaib rather indecorously referred to the president of the United States as a “mother***er.” And Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s characterization of immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” with its evocation of Nazi Germany, has been cited repeatedly by people who, in defending Trump’s tweets, insist that she hates America. And of course, Trump loves nothing more than to seize on Ilhan Omar’s critical comments about Israel and AIPAC as evidence of anti-Semitism. (I arguedin a past issue of MRN that they don’t constitute such evidence, and I complained this week on Twitter about a prominent journalist who uncritically spread new claims that they do.)

And then there’s the stuff—lots of it—that Trump just flat-out fabricates. He says that Omar has praised al Qaeda (wrong), that Ocasio-Cortez called Americans garbage (wrong), and that the four congresswomen have referred to “evil Jews” (none of them has). And this week we heard this classically Trumpian non-allegation allegation about Omar: “Well, there is a lot of talk about the fact that she was married to her brother. I know nothing about it.”

OK, enough analysis. Now it’s time for the Monday-morning quarterbacking—which, however obnoxious some people will find it, is worthwhile, I think. This won’t be the last time Trump says or does something horrible and incendiary. If our reaction this time around could have been more effective, knowing that could come in handy next time.

Besides, “this time” isn’t over. Trump is still stirring the pot, managing to simultaneously claim he disapproved of the “Send her back” chant and signal that he approved of it. So there’s still time to recalibrate the pushback.

My main suggestion: I think more energy should have gone into—and can still go into—rebutting the premise that these women hate America. That would include not only refuting specific false claims made by Trump but also reminding people that true patriots criticize things they think are wrong with their country, much as parents may reprimand their children not because they hate them but because they love them and want to make them better. It might also include quoting a few things candidate Trump said in 2016 about what a terrible place America had become and how terrible its president was, and then asking his supporters if those things mean he hates America.

Of course, if more time went into rebutting the claim that these women hate America, that would leave less time for other things, such as asserting that Trump’s tweets were racist.

Which might be just as well. It was certainly important to spend time on that assertion—to highlight the bigotry that is built into “Go back to where you came from.” My view is that whenever Trump breaks new ground in norm violation we have to call attention to it, and this was a particularly pernicious violation. Trump not only raised the chances that these women (especially Omar) would be violently attacked, but in some measure nourished hostility toward the ethnic groups they belong to.

Still, making racism the overwhelmingly dominant thrust of the counteroffensive may have helped make Trump’s tweets the Rorschach test he wanted them to be: Even as the tweets enraged his critics they convinced his supporters that the rage was unwarranted, and that the critics are therefore mindlessly hostile toward Trump’s tribe.

In any event, there are several advantages to now amping up scrutiny of Trump’s claim that these four women hate America:

1) No sentient person can deny that he has made this claim.

2) In backing up the claim he has said a number of demonstrably untrue things—and I think there’s always value in calling out his consequential untruths, hard though it may be to inject these refutations into the conservative media ecosystem.3) In rebutting the claim, the four congresswomen Trump attacked can get rhapsodic about how much they love this country. Of course, they’ve always been able to do that—and in fact have done it—but they’ve never before done it under as big a spotlight as is on them now. Center stage is theirs, and this is an opportunity to confound Trump’s caricature of them. Some of them have already started to take advantage of this opportunity, and I say keep it up.

Trump’s basic political strategy is to look at people and say, “You’re not one of us.” Sometimes—often, in fact—he directs this charge at an ethnic group. But, while encompassing racism, the strategy goes beyond it; whatever the group (mainstream journalists, say), he takes the same basic approach, painting it as in some sense hostile, threatening, worthy of ostracism. He is the heir not just of George Wallace but of Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin.

Combatting this will be a challenge, to say the least. And I know that many people in the Resistance dismiss the kind of calm, deliberative approach I advocate—with its close attention to the psychological dynamics within the opposing tribe—as pointlessly passive. They listen to Trump’s supporters defend his outrages and conclude that trying to pry a few away from him is a lost cause.

But the Trump supporters you hear from aren’t necessarily typical Trump supporters, and they’re certainly not typical of the uncommitted voters who might vote for Trump as a last resort but would just as soon not. My view—of life, really, not just politics—is that however stark and binary things may seem, however deeply drawn the boundaries, there are always places where incremental gains can be made with sufficient effort.

Granted, attitudes on both sides of America’s tribal divide are much less fluid than two years ago, and gaining ground is harder than ever. But in war you fight, as adroitly as possible, for every square inch of turf until you’ve either won the whole thing or lost the whole thing. And this is war.

  Breaking: After next week’s issue, the hardworking MRN staff will begin its six-week summer break. We like to think you’ll miss us and will be sorely in need of consolation. If so, look at it this way: six weeks is way shorter than last summer’s break of 15 weeks. Plus (and this is yet more evidence that America is already great) Hollywood, as if to fill the void left in your lives by MRN’s absence, is offering up its usual menu of great summer blockbusters.

Like last year’s break, this one will serve as a chance for us to reflect on the newsletter’s future and consider changes in it that might help us fulfill our mission (total world domination—or, failing that, partial world betterment). We’d like to make the newsletter something more people will engage with, and we’d like to do a better job of giving people something that will stay with them after they’ve read it, as they carry on with their lives as neighbors, as citizens of their country, as citizens of the world. And, as a practical matter, we have to make it something that’s doable—something we can keep putting out, given the resources we have.

Right now it feels to me like the resulting changes in the newsletter will wind up being more substantial this year than they were last time around—possibly including changes in the newsletter’s length, its frequency, and its name. There could also be changes in its scope of coverage, though in the broadest sense its mission will remain the same.

There are Patreon supporters who won’t be surprised to hear this; I discussed the logic behind some of these possible changes in recent videos on Patreon. The feedback I got was very valuable, so there will definitely be more Patreon videos in which I ponder our future and pause for input. But of course, we also value input from non-Patrons. To that end, we will, during the break, use Patreon’s “unlock” feature to make some of these videos accessible to non-Patrons and invite their feedback.

When we do that, readers will get an email notification. We may also email you on other occasions—like, for example, if we get super-ambitious and construct an actual reader survey. And, of course, you can always email us with any thoughts whatsoever about the newsletter:

As long as I’m on the subject of Patreon, I want to take the opportunity to thank our Patrons. The financial support you’ve provided has made a real difference. And, leaving aside the material value of the support, we’ve gotten vital spiritual sustenance from the knowledge that you value our mission enough to provide it.  You are one of the main reasons I’m determined that there will still be a newsletter after our six-week break, notwithstanding the amount of work it takes to get out a substantial newsletter with any frequency. I want you to know that, during the summer break, we’ll be putting more content on Patreon than has been our custom—not just monovlogs about the future of the newsletter, but dialogues and maybe some experimental material. So stay tuned, and thanks again.

Retreat! Many thanks to readers who responded to last week’s reflections on my ten-day meditation retreat. I hope to get a chance to reply to some of the questions about retreats next week. Meanwhile, there’s this conversation about retreats, with meditation teacher and yoga teacher Josh Summers, that I recorded shortly after returning from the retreat and posted this week.


NPR traces the long history of the “go back to where you came from” message being deployed against newcomers, starting with Irish immigrants in the 1830s. The New York Times fact checks some of the claims Trump has made in depicting Ilhan Omar as hostile toward America.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she “strongly condemned” Trump’s attack on four congresswomen, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she “feels solidarity” with them. “People of very different nationalities have contributed to the strength of the American people,” Merkel said.

In a 2017 piece in the Forward, Yousef Munayyer wrote that #NeverTrump Republicans like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin helped pave the way for Trump and some of his tactics—including, Munayyer suggested this week, tactics Trump deployed against Ilhan Omar.

The New York Times reports on things that are making the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo hard to contain, such as rumors that the “virus was made up by government officials hoping to get rich on Western aid, that the vaccine is dangerous, and that bodies of those killed by the virus are being dissected and sold to practitioners of witchcraft.”

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, author Michael Benson writes in the New York Times about how science fiction writers helped fuel the exploration of outer space.

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who had one of the longest tenures in Supreme Court history, died on Tuesday at the age of 99. In Politico, Jeff Greenfield writes that Stevens leaves a “pessimistic” legacy, having argued after leaving the court that its conservative composition precludes realizing such progressive goals as abolishing the death penalty and regulating campaign finance without amending the Constitution.

Documents released by federal prosecutors investigating payments made in 2016 to alleged Trump mistresses Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal indicated that no further charges will be brought in the case. The investigation led Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney, to plead guilty last year to multiple crimes.

In the Verge, Josh Dzieza reports on a strike at an Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota on Amazon’s annual “Prime Day.” Workers are protesting what they call “inhumane conditions,” including grueling quotas and firing decisions they say are made by software.

Talia Lavin argues in GQ that Trump uses a supposed defense of Jews as cover for racist rhetoric, while at the same time treating American Jews as foreigners whose “true home” is Israel.

In Slate, Joshua Keating says that anti-war sentiment among House Democrats, as reflected in the recent passage of legislation that would constrain Trump’s power to wage war, is likely the result more of pressure from moderate military veterans than from left-wing pacifists.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO will give a “measured, defensive” response if Russia doesn’t return to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by August 2. Russia suspended its obligations under the treaty after Trump, claiming Russia was violating the treaty, announced that the US planned to suspend its obligations.

In Politico, Garrett M. Graff gives a critical account of the Border Patrol’s management. He says a “hiring surge” implemented more than a decade ago brought in thousands of underqualified and poorly vetted agents.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the administration plans to divert humanitarian aid meant for Central America to the US-backed opposition in Venezuela.


Birth rates and child populations in major American cities are falling for the first time in decades, a trend that may presage economic stagnation and further social fragmentation. In the Atlantic, Derek Thompson considers the causes and effects of “the childless city.” 

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Brian Merchant writes that tech companies’ widespread practice of speaking to journalists on background rather than on the record has allowed powerful firms to dodge accountability.

Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is developing tech aimed at allowing people to control computers directly with their brains. (One downside: for now the technique involves drilling holes in skulls.)

In 2006, Chris Hayes wrote a profile of seminal anti-immigration activist John Tanton, who died this week at the age of 85. Tanton was a practicing opthamologist living in a small town in Michigan who helped found such influential anti-immigration groups as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Hayes portrayed Tanton as a liberal environmentalist who became an activist to work against overpopulation and then embraced the hard right’s culture war arguments against immigration.

The DEA has released data that tracks every pain pill sold in the US, highlighting the legal distribution networks that have helped perpetuate the opioid crisis.

Citing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, the German state of Hesse has banned Microsoft Office 365 from schools because the cloud-based software might allow US officials to access the personal information of teachers and students.

Did the military try to use ticks as biological weapons between 1950 and 1975? Congress wants to know.

Tricycle breaks down meditation apps by the numbers with lists showing which ones bring in the most revenue, which ones leave users feeling happiest, and other metrics. (Spoiler: the Calm app does very well.)

Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein profiles Andy Ngo, the videographer who is identified with the “Intellectual Dark Web” and was beaten by members of antifa in Portland earlier this month. Bernstein portrays Ngo as the product of a media ecosystem that values sensational imagery and us-vs.-them narratives over nuanced reporting.

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

Rachel Lebwohl, Nikita Petrov, & Colleen Smith

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