Monday, July 24, 2017

The Black Community and the Trump Community

And reading such accounts leads me to a decidedly unoriginal conclusion.  We are seeing today some of the same pathology in the white rural working class community -- or, to avoid tarring with too broad a brush, what I will call the Trump community -- that we have seen in the black inner city community (and beyond it, to a degree), particularly from the late 1960's to the mid 1990's (though I will focus mostly on the tail end of it), though it began well before and continues to varying degrees today.

What pathology is that, crime and addiction?  Crime and addiction are parts of it.  And, for what it is worth, our current opiate addiction is worse than any prior addiction crisis because the drugs in question are legal and therefore much cheaper and easier to obtain.  Crime, on the other hand, is well short of rates in our black inner cities today, let alone at the height of the crack wave.  Still, the  article made some good points about rising crime rates in Grand Junction in particular and white rural communities in general. Felony killings have increased by 56% in the last three years, while overall homicide had doubled in a decade.  This is no more than should be expected in a community whose economic base it collapsing.  It also goes a long way to explaining the appeal of Trump calling America a hellscape of crime, even though overall crime rates have been falling for a quarter century. In the sort of rural communities where Trump did best, crime rates are rising.  If they are not as high there as in the black inner city -- well, overall trajectories affect people's perception more than absolute numbers.  Where crime rates are high but have been falling for a quarter century, people tend to look at the improvement and not panic.  Where crime rates are rising, alarm is reasonable.  If rates still fall well short of inner city rates, people may nonetheless look at inner city pathology as something to dread as a possible future.

But what I really mean here are other pathologies have troubled the black community -- celebration of indulgence of people's worst instincts as "authenticity;" estrangement against outsiders, who are seen enemies, with a tendency toward paranoia and conspiracy theories; and a tendency to rally behind any leader who comes under attack, no matter how deservedly so, because he is one of our own.  Certainly there was a time not so long ago when these were bases of serious complaint about the black community.  Besides high levels of addiction, crime, and single motherhood, rap artists  produced songs that were pure collections of profanity, misogyny, and violence.  Many people excused these works as "authentic" expressions of the real inner city experience.  A certain vile nihilism broke out, a gangster chic, that celebrated crime and misogyny and and pure indulgence of one's worst impulses and authenticity and mocked and sort of self-restraint as trying to be white and people who exercised it as "oreos." This viewpoint was profoundly anti-intellectual, seeing no point in education other that to find evidence of how oppressed black people were and castigating any love of learning and knowledge as "trying to be white."  It frequently retreated into paranoia, blaming the CIA for smuggling drugs into the inner cities, or claiming that the AIDS virus was genetically engineered in government labs to kill black people.  And whenever any black person of prominence was accused of a crime or misconduct -- Marion Barry (Mayor of Washington DC) of smoking cocaine, Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment of Anita Hill, O.J. Simpson of killing his wife and so forth -- black people were quick to rally to defend their own, no matter how obvious the evidence of guilt.  This applied even if the accused, like Thomas or Simpson, was widely seen as a sell-out or race traitor.

And doesn't the Trump community show some fairly obvious equivalent behaviors these days? Celebrating obnoxiousness (and worse) as "authenticity," praising ignorance as virtue, seeing knowledge and expertise as a "swamp" to be drained, measuring every action by the sole metric of how much it offends liberals and rallying to Trump no matter how outrageous his behavior just because the elite coastal media attacks him for it.  Not to mention the extraordinary churning of conspiracy theories, and that the fever swamps have actually found a politician they consider to be their own.

The Trump community has been primed for the past generation to distrust all mainstream sources and not believe anything unless it comes from an accepted right wing outlet. Trump is simply taking it a step further by denouncing any report he doesn't like as "Fake News."  His followers eat it up.  And there you have it.  As with the black community before, so with the Trump community today, no one on the outside is going to change minds.  And here is where I see a disturbing difference.

The black community, even in the darkest days of the crack epidemic, never lost its capacity for self-criticism.  Self-criticism was a veritable cottage industry in the black community of the time.  Exhorting one’s audiences to do better, to stay off drugs, to refrain from crime, to take responsibility for their children and so forth was a ritual virtually required of any black leader speaking to a black audience.  The "growing up in the 'hood" movie became almost a genre of its own, all by black directors, all urging their audience to stop dealing drugs and killing each other.  The comic strip Boondocks thoroughly mocked Riley, the younger brother who modeled himself on a gangster rapper. While Huey, the black militant hero of the strip had the author's sympathies, he came in for his share of ridicule as well and had to acknowledge many cultural identifiers (Kwanzaa, anyone?) were silly.

Well, one may say, that was the leadership.  What about ordinary folks?  But a leader necessarily requires followers.  If a would-be leader speaks out and attempts to lead but no one listens or follows, then by definition that person is not a leader.  Louis Farrakhan, the absolute embodiment of a white-hating black supremacist, called for a Million Man March that was all about personal responsibility and individual improvement.  He didn’t get a million, but the crowd was certainly in the high six figures – and might have been twice as large if women had been invited.  And it was all about self-criticism and personal responsibility.  Indeed, someone commented that self-criticism and exhortations to self-improvement were so common among black leaders and so regularly got a positive reception that only one conclusion was possible.  Black people obviously liked being lectured about better conduct, so long as the speaker was black. 

I don't see anything like that in the Trump community -- no warnings not live up to people's worst stereotypes, no looking inward at real problems with crime and drugs, no sense that anything goes so long as it pisses off the liberals is a warped viewpoint.   Imagine the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Steve Bannon criticizing their followers and urging them not to give in so readily to their worst impulses.  Seriously, imagine it!  And now try to imagine how their followers would react.  I think it safe to say it would not be a boon for ratings!

And do keep in mind that the black community's capacity for self-criticism has ultimately paid off.  No one is suggesting that all is well, but things really are better.  Crime rates in our inner cities have been falling for a quarter century.  Burned out ruins of core cities have revived.  In 1977, a blackout in New York City was met with a looting spree, and many people went so far as to defend the looters. No equivalent outbreak occurred with the blackout in 2003.  And during Hurricane Katrina, there was wide consensus across the racial and ideological spectrum that taking food, clean water, medicine and sanitary supplies was reasonable under the circumstances, stealing valuables was to be condemned. Mindless violence no longer seems cool, and even rap has toned it down.  If there has been any great rush to defend Bill Cosby I, for one, have not noticed it.  And Black Lives Matter, for all its violent fringe, is not a movement of pure, nihilistic anger and resentment, but an expression of clear and specific grievances about real and specific abuses.  Even when it broke out into riots, these riots have been -- so far -- short lived, scattered, and on a much smaller scale than the 1960's riots or the Rodney King riots.  (Let's keep it that way!)

And again, I can imagine the Trump community responding with fury.  They are nothing like the black community in the time of the crack epidemic and to even make such a suggestion is an outrage. But, again, the trajectory can be as important as the absolute condition.  Let pathology fester, praise it as "authenticity," reject any self-criticism, any unwelcome facts, and base all your values on opposition to the liberals, and things can get a whole lot worse before they get any better.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Trump's Appeal to Worst Instincts

This article, on Trump's appeal in rural America, specifically Grand Junction, Colorado is both disturbing and confirms some old impressions.

First of all, the author makes the point that Trump supporters are not always who you would expect. They include a woman who broke with the Religious Right because of their bigotry, a special ed teacher, a performance artist with a degree from Columbia University, and a Hispanic woman. Living in a town that was about 14% Hispanic (citizens and legal residents), with a sizable illegal population as well, they had no prejudice toward Hispanic neighbors and did not blame illegal immigrants for crime.  And while their community is in decline they can hardly blame Obama or the liberals since the decline began in 1982 (Reagan years!) when Exxon decided to abandon its oil shale mining operations.

They are fine, decent upstanding people.  But Trump is encouraging their worst impulses and offering scapegoats to target.  The scapegoats are not ethnic minorities (Grand Junction residents would be outraged at such a suggestion), but liberals, coastal (and Front Range) elitists, media, and the "swamp," roughly meaning all government.  When Trump held a rally, most issue -- e-mails, Benghazi, even the "swamp" -- drew no strong reaction, but cursing the "media" whipped the crowd up into a frenzy against the reporters covering the event, had them baying for blood.  One member even tried to climb over the barrier that separated journalists from the crowd.  When a local reporter described the rally on Facebook, the reaction was so vicious that she feared for her safety and took it down.  When Trump claimed the election was rigged, the County Clerk (a local resident, and a Republican, elected by her fellow citizens) got regular calls accusing her of destroying ballots and trying to rig the election.  Local Republican politicians discovered that they could defuse any criticism in the local newspaper simply by calling it "very liberal" and "fake news."  And a general move is underway to "drain the swamp" by defunding their local government.
Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.” 
After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office.
It seems a safe assumption that that it was not by accident that supporter being interviewed talked about someone killing rats rather than, say, fixing her roof or car.

The author also commented on local reaction to the "pussy" tape.  Yes, it was abhorrent, but that was less important than that coastal elites were attacking their leader for it so they had to defend him.  In other words, the content of Trump's actions are irrelevant, so long as he has the right enemies.

Anderson Cooper accused one Trump supporter of being willing to defend Trump if he took a dump on his desk.  Well, of course he would.  Trump supporters elected him to be obnoxious and offensive. What could be more obnoxious and offensive than taking a dump on his desk?  Trump supporters would soon decide that this was a mark of "authenticity" while toilet training was "elitist."  And it perfectly encapsulated exactly what they think about Washington, so of course they would applaud. Presumably their reaction would be rather different if Trump did it in their living rooms!  But Trump is a smart enough politician that he would never do such a thing, nor could his followers ever imagine it.

Cooper really should have gone with what Trump said himself -- that he could stand out in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes.  And yes, it seems fair to say that if Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, his supporters would dismiss it as fake news, applaud him for perfectly expressing what they think of coastal elitists, explain that murder is much more "authentic" than self-control, and/or rally behind their leader regardless of the merits of his actions because he was under attack by the elite coastal media and because his actions really pissed off the liberals.  Possibly all at once.  They would probably not react that way if Trump had shot someone in the middle of Main Street in Small Town, Iowa because that would be one of their own. But then again, Trump is a canny enough politician that he would never think of doing such a thing.

But maybe his followers should consider.  What does it say about Trump that his short hand for "in the most public and undeniable manner possible" is "in the middle of Fifth Avenue" instead of "in the middle of Main Street"?

Donald Trump's Flying Circus is Really a Russian Pee Pee Party

First of all, just to be clear, I have no idea whether the pee pee tape actually exists.  I have no idea whether Trump’s strong pro-Russian bent is the result of blackmail or something else.  But I am confident that if Trump is being blackmailed by the Russians, it must be over something a whole lot more serious than a piddling little pee pee tape.

That being said, Trump’s alleged Russian pee pee party is actually quite a good metaphor for his (and his followers’) approach to the Presidency.  The Steele memos claim that Trump hired a bunch of Russian prostitutes in the Moscow Ritz Carlton to whizz all over the bed Obama had slept in to show his contempt for the then-President.  This led to an obvious question – where did Trump sleep afterward?  Someone (no idea where to find link) got the schematics of the Moscow Ritz Carlton and determined that the room in question was actually a suite.  After the prostitutes had ruined Obama’s bed and gone home, Trump had another room where he could sleep.

Well, now Donald Trump is President and he (and, to a considerable extent, his followers) are treating the occasion as a giant pee pee party – a chance to whizz all over Obama’s achievements and ruin them.  In this they are running into an awkward fact --- in the real world, there is no other room that they can withdraw to when the party is over.  If they want to whizz all over Obama’s policy bed, they will have to sleep in it afterward. 

Healthcare is the most obvious example.   Trump is absolutely determined to repeal Obamacare, come hell or high water.  What is to replace it?  Trump doesn’t know and there is no evidence whatever that he cares.   All he knows is that it is an Obama policy achievement he is determined to whizz on.  If he can’t repeal Obamacare, he can at least sabotage the exchanges and crash them and thereby ruin Obama’s achievement.   What comes after concerns him less than knowing that he destroyed what Obama built.  Ordinary Americans, including many Obamacare opponents, and even many Republican members of Congress, are starting to have misgivings about whizzing all over the health insurance system and then having to continue to use it.  Confronted with the reality that some 20 to 30 million people could lose their health insurance (depending on whether Congress goes with repeal and replace or just repeal), a lot of people are starting to wonder whether that is worth doing just to spite Obama.

Less immediate to most Americans but no less serious is the Iran accord which seriously restricted Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.  Trump has called that the worst deal ever made and is determined to destroy it.   In this, it should be added, Trump is doing no more than follow in the footsteps of our last Republican President, George W. Bush.  Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, reached an agreement with North Korea whereby they would seal their plutonium reactor and admit international inspectors to their plutonium reprocessing plant in exchange for a wide range of energy assistance.  This arrangement was deeply offensive to hardline hawks because it amounted to paying protection money to an extortionist thug, but it did keep North Korea’s plutonium locked up and kept them from turning it into a nuclear bomb.  It did not prevent them from attempting to circumvent the deal by building a uranium centrifuge to build a uranium bomb. 

At this point it was somewhat understandable the Bush might be reluctant to repeat the whole business his predecessor had gone through – reach an agreement that gave the North Koreans further bribes for shutting down their next attempt.  It would have the unfortunate result of teaching North Koreans that attempts to build nuclear weapons would be rewarded.  On the other hand, there was a dearth of good options available.   Bill Clinton persuaded the North Koreans to deal on the nuclear reactor because he really was willing to go to war over it, or at least to bomb the plutonium reprocessing plant.  Bush, bent on starting a war in Iraq, did not want to be distracted by a war in North Korea.  And he was ideologically opposed to any diplomatic engagement because, as Vice President Dick Cheney said, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

So instead Bush withdrew from the non-proliferation agreement with North Korea.  He made clear that he wasn’t interested in talking and nothing would change his mind.  When the North Koreans announced their withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he refused to negotiate.  When they kicked out the UN inspectors, he refused to negotiate.  When they very publicly unsealed the plutonium reactor, he refused to negotiate.  And when they detonated an actual nuclear weapon – well, by then it was too late.  I could not say what the Bush Administration was thinking.  Maybe they thought refusal to negotiate would bring down the North Korean regime.   Maybe they thought invading Iraq would give the North Korean government pause.  Maybe they thought taking an unyielding stance was more important than whether North Korea actually got nukes or not.  Or maybe they just wanted to whizz all over whatever Bill Clinton had done.   But be that as it may, the North Koreans now have nuclear and weapons and missiles that can hit us, not exactly a great outcome.  

Trump seems incapable of considering whether something similar might happen if he scuttles the Iranian accord, or else he thinks a nuclear Iran is a small price to pay for whizzing all over Obama’s achievement.

Least apparent, but potential most catastrophic, are attempts by Republicans in general and Trump in particular, to wreck and attempt to fight global warming.   Cooking the planet is a small price to pay for wrecking Obama’s legacy.

When I am in one of my more cynical moods, I wonder if Republicans intend all these things.  By making clear to Democrats that they will go to any lengths to root out any Democratic policy initiative, no matter how great the damage to the larger society, they may be issuing a clear warning to Democrats next time they may hold the triple crown – don’t try to accomplish anything or we will destroy it, no matter how long it takes, or how much collateral damage it causes.

Donald Trump is rich, powerful, and 70 years old.  All that ultimately means he can afford another room in the suite, so to speak, after defiling the Obama bed.   If he wrecks the health insurance individual market and throws millions off Medicaid, he can still afford the best of care himself.  If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, he can drown out the development in a myriad tweets.  And if the planet cooks, he probably won’t live to see it.   He appears to consider all these things as well worth it, just to extend a big middle finger to the liberals.

The question is whether his supporters will ultimately agree.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Other Random Thoughts

A few more general thoughts on recent events.

Look, I have had mixed feelings about the whole Trump versus the intelligence community conflict.  On the one hand, I do believe that the "Deep State" should be subordinate to elective government and that applauding the intelligence community's efforts to undermine a duly elected President was troubling at best.  On the other hand, the President in question is Donald Trump.  But any misgivings I had vanished after the meeting with Vladimir Putin when Trump tweeted, "Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.."  This led to jokes that the fox and the rooster were putting together a joint security unit to guard the hen house.  He might as well tweet that he planned to commit treason.  When you suspect the President of having dubious loyalties and he then goes so far as to publicly proclaim that your are right, I wholeheartedly applaud the intelligence community's efforts to keep as much classified information as possible out of the hands of this man.

And speaking of Trump, I am at an utter loss as to why anyone would expect him to have any problems with Russian interference in our election.  The interference was to his benefit, after all. Why should he complain?  As to concerns about the next election, there is one simple way to get him to care.  Convince him that such interference will benefit the Democrats next time.

And assuming the Russians do interfere in the 2018 elections, who should I expect them to favor?  There is at least an argument for them favoring the Dems.  It would, after all, lead to chaos and conflict in our government, paralyze action, and keep us fighting among ourselves.  However, I am inclined to think they would favor the Republicans for a simple reason.  The Republicans thus far have been obstructing (or at least attempting to obstruct) any investigation into Trump collusion. Democrats, if they take command of either house of Congress, can be counted upon to investigate the issue in exhaustive detail, crawling up every orifice of the parties that they can find.  I would expect the Russians to back Republicans to prevent such an outcome.

And speaking of Republicans, I really don't understand what they think they can accomplish by passing their healthcare bill without a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score.  They want to conceal how many people will lose their health insurance and how many will see the price of a policy that actually covers anything spiral out of reach.  I get that.  But how exactly do they plan to conceal the results.  If the Senate passes a bill, who can doubt that the House will pass it unchanged and Trump will sign it and the Republicans will hold a party and throw confetti and proudly proclaim that the hated Obamacare is gone.  Then the next year (with a Congressional election coming up) people will suddenly seek their premiums spike and their subsidies diminish.  Trump voters will be disproportionately affected.  How do Republicans propose to conceal that?  And they can hardly blame the Democrats, since they passed a bill with such fanfare.

Then the year after that policies will either be cheap and worthless, or good and out of reach.  And the year after that, with the Presidential election coming up, Medicaid will start to shrink, people will be kicked off insurance, and states will experience fiscal crises.  How to they propose to conceal that?

The only conclusion I can reach is that they hope to wreck the whole system so badly that the Democrats can't possibly fix it.  Then they will reap the two-fold benefits of rolling back the welfare state and blaming Democrats for not fixing the mess they made.

The Meeting and Lawfare's Seven Theories

The meeting has led to reviews of this article offering seven theories of what might have happened way back on May 1, ancient history by now, and comments that the most innocent theories are no longer viable.

Theory 1, Coincidence:  Trump was pro-Russia and a number of pro-Russian operatives of various degrees of sleaziness worked for him, but their shady dealings were all totally unrelated.  Certainly there was no actual Russian influence on the Trump campaign.  This seemed far-fetched at the time, and given that we know know the Russian government had intermediaries approach the Trump campaign and make clear that the Russian government was pulling for Trump, I think we can safely rule it out.

Theory 2, Birds of a Feather:  Trump's pro-Russia views made him unacceptable to any establishment conservatives, so a bunch of shady pro-Russian operators flocked to him instead.  Trump, desperate for any team he could assemble, didn't ask too many questions about their backgrounds.  The Russian government, presumably because of all these pro-Russia players, was running interference for Trump, but the Trump campaign had nothing to do with it.  I believed this once.  Given that actual Russian agents approached Trump's very inner circle and let them know of Russia's support sort of rules this one out.

Theory 3, It Wasn't About Trump:  The goal was purely to hurt Hillary; any benefit to Trump was purely incidental and certainly not because of any pro-Russian operatives in his campaign.  Again, ruled out by Russian intermediaries telling his very inner circle that Russia was pulling for him.

Theory 4, OK, There Was Russian Infiltration, but Trump Didn't Know:  This view would see Manafort and/or Page and/or Flynn and/or Stone as Russian agents carrying on nefarious activities without the boss knowing.  OK, I have to concede that the presence of active Russian agents in Trump's camp remains speculative.  But we do know that now that Junior, Jared and Manafort all knew that Russia was aiding them.  Maybe Junior and Jared were so naive as to think the Russians were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but Manafort must have known they would want something in return.  And the only way for Dad not to have known what his own son, son-in-law, and campaign manager were doing was a deliberate effort to shield him from what was going on to allow plausible deniability.  Even this theory is starting to look too innocent to meet the facts.

Theory 5, Trump Knew or Should Have Known:  Trump was willfully blind to so many people's extremely sleazy ties to Russia.  Well, duh!  And, again, willful blindness is the most innocent thing to suppose about the meeting.

Theory 6, Kompromat: The Russians have something on Trump to force him to do their bidding.  Whether the Russians had anything at the outset of the campaign is a matter of pure speculation.  But they sure as hell do now.  Over time the collusion itself becomes the kompromat.  If this didn't happen at the June 9 meeting, it seems safe to assume that it happened shortly after.  Of course, that begs the question of why the Russian government wanted Trump to win in the first place.

Theory 7, Trump is a Russian Agent:  This is so mind-boggling that the authors refuse to take it seriously.  Yes, it is consistent with the facts.  It seem inconsistent with Trump's character.  He is a total loose canon who couldn't keep his mouth shut if you sutured it, and he doesn't want anyone to tell him what to do.  Doesn't seem like the sort of person anyone would want as an agent.  But I suppose you have to take the agents you have, not the agents you wish you had.

At the time, the authors commented that theories 1 and 7 seemed implausible, so they believed the plausible answers were 2-6.  It seems to me that by now 1-3 can be ruled out and 4 is giving Trump way more benefit of the doubt than he deserves.  That leave 5 as the most plausible theory, 6 as the second most plausible, and 7 as -- well, I am still willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt to that extent.  But not one inch more.

(PS: New label now, "Trump and Russia")

Reasons to Suspect "Systemic" and "Sustained" Collusion

OK, so we have met about half of Kellyann Conway's demand for "hard evidence of systemic, sustained, furtive collusion."  We have hard evidence now of furtive collusion, but any evidence that collusion was systemic or sustained is purely circumstantial and speculative.

All participants in the meeting with the Russians have either declined to discuss it, or said that not much happened. Donald, Jr. said that the Russians promised incriminating information on Hillary Clinton, had nothing of value to offer, and just wanted to discuss lifting the Magnitinsky Act, an early sanctions act specifically targeting Russian oligarchs.  Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian lobbyist who also attended the meeting, said that Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya presented documents that she said showed illegal contributions to the Democratic National Committee, but did not have sufficient evidence to support the allegations, and that nothing came of the meeting.  So why suspect that the meeting was the prelude to "systematic, sustained collusion"?

Well, for one thing, after extending the benefit of the doubt to the Trump campaign on the Russians, I have been burned often enough to refuse to do so any longer.  For another, things just don't smell right.

An experienced counter-intelligence investigator says that this sounds very much like a preliminary overture from Russian intelligence.  An offer of this type cannot generally be made without approval from the highest levels.  It would have been decidedly abnormal to offer anything of much value at so early a stage, by an intermediary who does not work directly for Russian intelligence, and on hostile soil (and, the author did not add but may be taken to imply, to such amateurs and Junior and Jared). What was important, from the Russian perspective, was that the Trump campaign did not indignantly refuse such a meeting and did not alert the authorities, but seemed open to collusion.

One highly suspicious circumstance, as many have noted, is that Junior and Goldstone arranged on June 7, 2016 for the meeting to take place on June 9.  Hour later, Trump Senior announced that, "[W]e’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting."  Monday was June 13, i.e., after the scheduled meeting.  The timing strongly suggests that Trump knew about the meeting scheduled and expected to get something juicy from it.

Other interpretations are possible, I suppose.  Maybe the threesome decided not to tell Dad about the meeting, but just that they anticipated some sort of big scoop.  If so, that would strongly suggest they were deliberately compartmentalizing and making information available on a "need to know" basis, something that would suggest they knew something sinister was afoot.  But then again, Junior and Jared were rank amateurs; only Manafort was likely to recognize just how explosive this was and what had to be done.  Or maybe Trump did not anticipate a major scoop and was just indulging his general tendency toward hyperbole.  In any event, he never did disclose any particularly scandalous information about Hillary.  This would seem to corroborate the participants' account that no useful information exchanged hands at the meeting.

Also significant:  The Russian hack of the DNC headquarters was not public knowledge at the time of the meeting.  There is no reason to believe that the Trump team so much as suspected it.  What was  public knowledge was that Hillary had sent State Department e-mails on a private server that was vulnerable to hacking and that she had deleted over 30,000 of them prior to the investigation.  Team Trump and a lot of other Republicans seem to have concluded that if Hillary's server was vulnerable to hacking and that she had deleted over 30,000 e-mails, then the Russians must have hacked her server and had her e-mails, which they were confident contained something terribly incriminating.  We have accounts of mid-level operative Peter Smith and some low-level operative in Florida attempting to get the missing e-mails from Russia, and of Trump publicly calling on Russia to disclose them.

In fact, the initial e-mail came in on June 3, the very day after Trump had specifically raised the issue of Hillary's missing e-mails and commented that e-mails cannot be erased.  It seems probably, then, that Junior and the others were expecting to receive the missing e-mails containing something highly incriminating and were bitterly disappointed when no such information was forthcoming.  It seems a safe assumption that the Russians did not hack Hillary's server and were therefore not able to deliver what the Trump campaign wanted most.

But what about the then-secret Russian hack of the DNC headquarters.  That became public knowledge on June 14, 2016, a mere five days after the meeting in an article that made clear that the Russians were the prime suspects. The first documents from the hack were published and  forwarded to Gawker the very next day.  Three days later, information on Democratic donors was posted.  Wikileaks started publishing DNC documents at the time of the Democratic convention in July, carefully timed to do maximum harm.  

So, we know that the Russians informed Team Trump that they were assisting the campaign and held a meeting about damaging information on Hillary.  We also know that members of Team Trump were eager to get the 30,000 e-mails deleted from Hillary's server and tried unsuccessfully to obtain them from the Russians.  We know that the Russians really did hack the DNC server and released the contents in a manner carefully calculated to do maximum harm to the Democrats.  And we know that Trump continued to deny that the Russian hacked the DNC in the face of all evidence that they had, and in spite of his eagerness to work with them, and believe that they had Hillary's missing e-mails. We also know that Trump and his team regularly quoted Russian sources. These were publicly available and did not require any inside track, but Team Trump seemed to follow them remarkably closely and quote them almost as soon as they came out.

None of this proves that the Russians ever informed Team Trump that they had hacked the DNC server or solicited information from them about how most effectively to deploy the information.  But given Team Trump's willingness to accept help, including hacked materials, from the Russians, it looks suspicious.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Hard Evidence of "Furtive" Collusion, But Not Yet "Systemic" or "Sustained"


OK, it's time for me to drop "But her emails" jokes.  We are well past that now.  We now have rock-solid proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in the form of (the delicious irony!) e-mails between Donald Trump, Jr. and a go-between with the Russian government.  I don't really have much to add to the topic because other people have said it all, but let me give it a shot anyhow.

Kellyann Conway has now gone on record demanding "hard evidence of systemic, sustained furtive collusion."  I'd say we are about halfway there.  The e-mail exchange rates as pretty hard evidence.  It shows Junior received a message from Rob Goldstone, a show biz publicist whose clients include Emin Agalarov, a popular Russian singer who does not appear to be of any importance himself, but is the son of a prominent Russian oligarch.  Goldstone wrote:
Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting.
The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. 
This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump—helped along by Aras and Emin. 
What do you think is the best way to handle this information and would you be able to speak to Emin about it directly?
"Crown prosecutor" is a British office not used in Russia.  The Russian term is apparently Prosecutor General and the American equivalent is the Attorney General.  In other words, this is a very high-ranking official in the Russian government -- and apparently he really is friends with the Agalarovs. But more to the point, Goldstone was nonchalantly speaking of "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," something he apparently expected Junior to know about.  He was also offering "very high level and sensitive information."  Junior's response was, "I love it."  From then on their e-mail exchanges bore the re line "Russia - Clinton - private and confidential."  The two clowns then attempted to set up a telephone conversation with Emin, but Emin apparently considered the matter too sensitive to discuss by phone and instead arranged a meeting with "The Russian government attorney."  Junior said that his brother-in-law (Jared Kushner) and campaign manager Paul Manafort would also attend.

So, we have an e-mail exchange in which Junior's awareness of Russian support for his father was taken for granted, and in which he showed himself eager to accept information from the Russian government.  We also have him introducing Trump's son-in-law and campaign manager to the information.  And we have it from the most unimpeachable source possible -- Junior himself.  In fact, a seasoned security expert has commented that if he had seen so damning an exchange from anyone else, he would have dismissed it as a forgery.  We also have confirmation from the participants that such a meeting did take place, even though the disagree about what happened.  I have also seen speculation that the Russians may have deliberately directed Goldstone to make such incriminating comments for purposes of possible future blackmail.  Presumably the possibility of Junior deliberately tweeting out the exchange on Twitter was not something the Russians had taken into account.

That looks like pretty hard evidence of collusion to me.  Also, given that all parties have kept this meeting secret until now, that Jared Kushner twice failed to disclose the meeting on his security form and that (by some rumors) even the FBI, CIA and NSA did not know about the meeting until it came out in the New York Times, I would say the meeting was pretty furtive.*

I will admit we are not to "systemic" or "sustained," at least not yet.  But circumstances are suspicious and after dismissing any thought of collusion as a far-fetched hypothetical and even "tinfoil hat territory," I am not willing to extend any further benefit of the doubt to Trump and company.

____________________________________________
*It also seems a reasonable assumption that the Russian actors knew that they were probable targets for NSA surveillance and for that reason did not directly communicate with Junior either by phone or e-mail, instead using as their intermediary a British show biz publicist, who was most unlikely to be any sort of a target.  

Trump-Proofing the Deep State

So, let's talk about Donald Trump and the "deep state."  There is no doubt that, while Republicans in Congress are not making much effort to restrain Trump, the federal bureaucracy is resisting and hobbling him.  To supporters, this seems terribly undemocratic.  Trump is, after all, our lawfully elected President.  As such he is in command of the Federal bureaucracy.  So why can't he issue commands to it and count on them being obeyed.  This leads to dark muttering against the "deep state."  The opposing viewpoint can be summed up in David Frum's pinned tweet, "Once you realize that 'deep state' is code for 'the rule of law,' you can translate their jibberish into English."

The term is apparently a translation of a Turkish expression that originated in the early Cold War.  During that time Turkey maintained the outward forms of democracy, but real power lay in the hands of a "deep state" -- a sinister conspiracy of military officers and retired officers dedicated to maintaining the status quo of power and not afraid to murder, state false flags, engineer riots, and collaborate with drug traffickers to achieve its aims.

Do we have anything like that?  Well, we clearly have a federal bureaucracy, made up of unelected officials.  This bureaucracy includes the military, the intelligence services, law enforcement, the border patrol, as well as regulatory agencies, government services, the IRS, etc. One can argue for the courts since federal judges have life tenure, but let's stick to the executive branch, since that is where the President's power is supposed to lie.

We want a system of democratic accountability.  Does that make it alarming that we have a large, unelected, technocratic bureaucracy acting as a constraint on the President, and should we subordinate it to the President who is, after all, the people's choice (sort of)?  Why can't the President, as our duly elected head of government, just give orders to the federal bureaucracy and count on having them obeyed?

The answer to that is straightforward.  It isn't safe to give the President total command over the Deep State.  We know that because we have tried, through actual experimentation in the field, giving the President complete control over the federal bureaucracy, and it hasn't gone well.  Best known is the case of Presidents wiretapping political opponents beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930's and ending with Congress imposing a strict warrant procedure in the 1970's.  But abuse of the Deep State did not begin in the 1930's and did not end in the 1970's.  It might be more accurate to say that the taming of the deep state is an endless and ongoing project.

To give a brief thumbnail sketch, during pre-Civil War times, the U.S. did not have much of a deep state, a thing we could get away with because the U.S. didn't have much of a state.  We did have a small army guarding the frontier with the Indians, a navy, a Coast Guard fighting smuggling, and ministers (not ambassadors) sent abroad. Ports of entry also had customs inspectors.  Frontier communities had a land claim office.  But for ordinary Americans, the U.S. state mostly just meant the postal service.*  Civilian offices operated on a spoils system, with each President firing his predecessors' whole body of postal clerks, port inspectors, and other civilian employees and replacing them with his own.  The President's ability to reward supporters with appointments was a major source of his power.  It was also a major way he controlled his party -- by accepting or rejecting recommendations from members of his party in Congress he gave or denied them the ability to offer patronage to constituents.**  People given patronage appointments were expected to return the favor by making campaign contributions, a major source of party funding.

After the Civil War, as the U.S. state grew, this system became less and less acceptable and pressure for a regular civil service grew.  There were two main reasons.  One was the need for continuity in personnel if the federal bureaucracy was actually going to be a functioning system.  The other was that the spoils system was becoming egregiously corrupt.  Indeed, the creation of a regulatory bureaucracy carried the risk of "systematic corruption," i.e., the danger of regulation being applied as a form of political favoritism, unless the bureaucracy was sheltered to some degree from political influence.  A federal civil service act creating a federal bureaucracy immune to partisan firing was passed in 1883.  The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), tasked with regulating rail road rates was created in 1887.  This was the first federal regulatory agency.  Many others would follow.

The dangers of allowing elective officials unrestrained power over the growing federal bureaucracy soon became apparent.  In an interesting tidbit I learned from David Frum, it would appear that the famous Teapot Dome Scandal under Warren G. Harding was not limited to the Department of the Interior.  In an attempt to quash the scandal, Harding's Attorney General and Director of the Bureau of Investigations (precursor to the FBI) dug for dirt on investigating members of Congress, fabricated some, and even tried to intimidate newspapers.  Better known are the abuses of surveillance by FDR in the 1930's, continuing under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, escalating under Kennedy and Johnson, and culminating under Nixon with Watergate the the Ellsberg break-in.

So, does that mean that we should free the federal bureaucracy from elective officials and allow it to run itself?  Most definitely not!  Just as elective officials, given unchecked authority to use the "deep state" as they please will abuse it against their personal opponents, the deep state, left to itself, will either become "systematically corrupt" or go rogue, or both.  Frum praises J. Edgar Hoover for depoliticizing the FBI, but under Hoover the FBI famously became a rogue agency, spying on the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, stealing and fabricating evidence, and blackmailing elective officials.  This was also the time of the rogue CIA engaging in assassination attempts, false flags, and MKUltra.  Much of Americans' frequent paranoia about their government stems from the revelation of very real abuses in the 1970's.

So, if elective officials cannot be entrusted to control the deep state and the deep state cannot be trusted to control itself, what does that leave us?  Many libertarians would say, abolish the deep state. But invariably what they end up abolishing is government in its mommy functions (the ones that can be used in a "systematically corrupt" manner") but leaving intact many if not most of its daddy functions, i.e., the ones that can make a true police state.

No, what is needed is to subject the deep state to the rule of law.  That means enacting specific statutes governing what it is and is not allowed to do; it means establishing procedures that it must follow to afford due process; it means subjecting the deep state to democratic oversight and accountability, it means making it means making the deep state sueable in court; it means subjecting the deep state to Freedom of Information Act requests so far as national security allows, and so forth. These things constrain both what an elective leader can do with the deep state and what the deep state can do with itself.

And, it should be added, people like me can easily fall into one of two errors.  One is assuming that the Church Committee investigation tamed the deep state once and for all and that we no longer have to worry about it.  Ever since the Bush Administration's experiments in warrantless surveillance and torture, I think we have no such illusions on that score.

But the other error is to assume that dramatic Church Committee hearings and legislation and a highly visible victory, with corresponding humiliation, is the only way to reign in the deep state.  Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush and resigned over excesses in surveillance, argues that even without such dramatic exposures and legislation, measures have been put in place that make the sort of warrantless surveillance, indefinite detention, and torture that took place under Bush unlikely under Trump:
A persistent theme in American history is that when Presidents act aggressively to curtail civil liberties at the dawn of a war or an emergency in a way that is later regretted, those regrets are remembered in the next war or emergency and are not repeated. No President has replicated Lincoln’s indiscriminate suspension of the writ of habeas corpus or his military trials for civilians in the United States. We have never again seen loyalty prosecutions as in World War I, or anything like the World War II exclusion of Japanese-Americans. The public criticism, regret, and ostracism that followed these practices stigmatized them and prevented their repetition. The same is likely true for officially sanctioned waterboarding.
Specifically compared to the Bush Administration in the wake of 9-11, Goldsmith argues that many of the Bush Administration's alarming decisions were the result of excessive executive branch secrecy that cannot be replicated today, and that Intelligence Community lawyers currently work under greater restrictions.  He also believes that simply the adverse publicity and public embarrassment attending revelation of Bush-era practices is enough to intimidate the military and the intelligence community from repeating them.***

And, just for the record, the armies, police and intelligence services are not the only parts of the Deep State that have needed reigning in.  Greater safeguards have been enacted, for instance, on the IRS, with more procedural due process requirements on its ability to audit.  Greater safeguards have been needed at times for regulatory agencies to prevent them from acting arbitrarily, or without due process.

The taming of the deep state is a constant, ongoing process, one that began when the deep state began, and will continue so long as the Deep State continues to find new avenues to act.  Power tends to be abused, particularly when it is arbitrary and without oversight.  The taming of the Deep State is a constant, ongoing process since the first civil service reform in the 1880's.  The Deep State will never be fully tamed, but progress can be made.  And the question now is, have we gone far enough in taming to Deep State to make it safe in the hands of Donald Trump?  

Interestingly enough, there have been two main challenges.  One is a claim by Trump of abuses by his predecessor; the other is a clear sign of abuse by Trump.

The Trump Administration has expressed obvious hypocritical civil libertarian concerns about abuses of "unmasking," i.e., revealing the names of U.S. citizens when picked up in NSA surveillance.  Currently, if the NSA inadvertently picks up the name of a U.S. person, it will mask it (simply referring to the individual as "USP" or, if more than one are mentioned, USP and an number) before passing the report on to White House officials.  If White House officials see the need to know the names of the US Person(s) in question, they submit the request to the NSA.  While the NSA has internal regulations on unmasking, such regulations can be changed.  There are no statutes on the subject.  How confident this makes you depends on how far you trust the NSA to self-regulate and how far you trust the integrity of the individuals in question.  So, if you are really worried about abuses of unmasking, let's see you put your money where your mouth is.  Propose  some amendment to current FISA legislation setting forth specific rules on when unmasking is allowed and perhaps require an "unmasking warrant" before it can be done.  But face facts and acknowledge that there will be times when unmasking is reasonable.  Say, if the Russian Ambassador reports that USP-1 and USP-2 have asked to evade US intelligence by sending messages from the Russia embassy over Russian secure lines, it looks like you have a pair of spies in your midst and finding out who they are is altogether in order.

Thus far (and anything can happen in the future, but thus far) Trump has not proven to be the nightmare of repression many of us feared, with one notable exception.  The most menacing part of the Deep State now under Trump is the part tasked with immigration enforcement -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Immigration and Border Patrol (IBP).  These agencies have launched a broad, arbitrary crackdown on illegal immigration, leaving almost unlimited discretion to the individual agents -- a formula for abuse.  As one commentator has remarked, giving unlimited discretion to the every individual at the street level (as this Administration has done on immigration enforcement) is an invitation to abuses of all kinds.  There is amble room to debate how many immigrants to allow in and under what conditions, but deportation actions now (like the workplace raids under GWB) are clear signs that parts of the Deep State remain dangerous as ever.  But we need greater procedural safeguards that can allow enforcement without abuse, regardless of the substantive policy.


Elective officials and unelected bureaucrats are both inclined to abuse their power unless reigned in by laws, procedural safeguards, and public oversight.  The unrestricted power of the Deep State is not safe in the hands of anyone, whether democratically elected or meritocratically elevated.  We can think of every single reform undertaken to date as mere preparation for making the Deep State safe in the hands of Donald Trump.  The next few years will play out how safe it is.  But the Deep State will never be entirely safe.  The taming and reform of it is a constant, never-ending process.

___________________________________________
*Admittedly in those days before electronic communications, the post office was a lot more important than it is now.  It was the only form of communication other than privately carried letters. Post offices in small towns were often major social centers.  And postal stages and steamboats were among the main forms of public transportation.
**Which makes an important point about the movie Lincoln, in which he bribes Congressional Democrats to support the Thirteenth Amendment with offers of appointment to office.  What made his actions scandalous and in violation of accepted political terms was not that he was using appointments to office as a bribe; that was business as usual.  It was that he was bribing members of the opposing party, a unheard-of thing.
***Much the same apparently applies to Iran-Contra, in effect, an attempt to evade Congressional scrutiny by creating a secret covert operations slush fund.  Subsequent investigations did not really have the condemning and purging effect that people like me would have liked to see, but it apparently did have the effect of discouraging a repeat performance for fear of adverse publicity.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What Should Obama Have Done?

All right, I am a little late to the game, but let me post my thoughts on the Washington Post article  about what Obama knew about the Russian hacking and why he didn't do anything about it.

As for what he knew, the big news is that he received a top secret report in August, 2016 that the Russians were interfering in the election, that they were doing so at Putin's direction, and that they were trying to get Trump elected.  This was at first top secret, known only to the President and three advisers, then to four others, the head of the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, and the head of the FBI.  Later Vice President Biden and various Cabinet secretaries were let in on the secret, and eventually the Gang of Eight -- the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House and the chairs and ranking Democrats from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Obama's conversations with the Eight have been known for some time.  The Republicans in the group resisted going public with the information and Mitch McConnell expressed outright disbelief.  The article relates other details that had not been disclosed before.

Obama contacted state Secretaries of State to warn that Russians were meddling in the election and found none of them convinced.  He also considered and rejected various measures against Russia and rejected them largely for fear of retaliation.  Expelling Russian diplomats was rejected on the grounds that the Russians might retaliate against our diplomats (many of whom, as with the Russians and with all countries, are really spies).  A cyber attack against Russia was rejected because it would expose how and where the US had penetrated the Russian networks.  Releasing embarrassing information on Putin was rejected because it looked too much like doing what we were condemning.  Economic sanctions were rejected on the grounds that they might harm Russia's European trading partners. And, of course, with Republicans refusing to back him, Obama decided not to go public for fear of appearing partisan.

It is this last decision that has been the subject of the most controversy, and that I am prepared to defend, although my response may seem a bit strange and self-contradictory.

Some people have defended Obama's decision not to go public for fear that such an announcement would and played into Trump's narrative that the election was "rigged" against him and might even have sparked an armed rebellion by Trump supporters and led to blood in the streets.  This is just plain nuts. First of all, no, there would not have been an armed rebellion.  Maybe a few terrorist outburst here and there, but certainly nothing large enough to be menacing.

And in any event, as I have discussed many times before, any free and democratic government that allows itself to be intimidated by men with guns is abdicating its duties and will end up abdicating democracy as well.  And no, guns are not the way to uphold the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority.  To allow a veto to anyone with a large enough arsenal is to surrender the rule of law in favor of the law of the jungle.  After all, if you don't dare come forward with evidence of Russian interference in the election for fear of an armed response by the alt-right, you might as well just agree to throw the whole election for fear of revolt by the alt-right.  And hell, why not agree never to have another Democratic President at all if certain people might consider it grounds for armed rebellion?

Political violence is a serious threat to a democratic order.  It should be dealt with firmly, whether it comes from the alt-right or from black-clad antifa.

But there were other reasons for Obama not to go public with the information without Republican buy-in.  He had a legitimate fear of appearing partisan.  I realize many people's response to that would be to say, of course he was partisan, the Presidency is a partisan office.  He was out openly campaigning for Hillary.  Why shouldn't he appear partisan?

But this is conflating two different things.  The President of the United States, as an individual, has the same right as anyone to favor a candidate for the office and campaign for her.  As head of his party, he may use the party apparatus for her.  But as head of state, he must not use the power of the state -- the "deep" state, if you will -- to sway the outcome.  Any question of the President using the power of the state to sway an election is a very, very serious matter.  Without bipartisan support, it was reasonable of Obama to want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

"What?" you may say.  Are you seriously saying that Obama should not have kept quiet for fear of blood in the street, but should have kept quiet for fear of creating the appearance of impropriety? How does that make any sense?

But I guess my answer has to be that in the end, Obama had no control over how the alt-right might react to his actions.  He could only control what he did, and if what he did created the appearance that he was using the power of the state to sway an election, it would have been a serious matter.

So what options did that leave?  I can only suggest, that he take action against Russia whose purpose would be clear to Putin and others who were interfering, but not go public with the reasons, except perhaps to say that it was retaliation for cyber action without saying what sort of cyber action.  Of course, in that case Republicans would have dismissed such action as mere posturing, trying to look tough ahead of the election to win votes for Hillary, but so what?  Tough posturing ahead of an election to win votes, and accusations of such posturing, are politics as usual.  Our democracy would have survived it, as it has survived many such instances.  And, after all, the Republicans could hardly have come forward and say that Obama was only taking such actions against the Russians because they were trying to help Republicans win the election.

The main danger I would see was that sooner or later the truth comes out on this sort of thing.  Right now, as any number of people have commented, the truth is coming out at unprecedented speed as the intelligence community leaks like never before.  But sooner or later it would have become known that the reason for Obama's mysterious actions against the Russians was that they were attempting to sway the election against Hillary.  Would that have delegitimized her her victory?  Would it have led to endless Republican investigations into the Obama Administration's true motives in taking anti-Russian action and major scandals?

Quite possibly so.  But attempts to expose the Obama Administration's true motives would also have led to revealing what the Russians were really up to all the while.  I can only hope that such knowledge would have vindicated Obama's actions in the eyes of loyal Americans everywhere.

A Quick Update on North Korea

The bad news: North Korea now has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's) capable of hitting Alaska.

The good news: They don't appear to have the technology to attach a nuclear warhead to their missiles.

The bad news:  Yet.

The good news:  The world has survived nuclear weapons in the hands of a madman before.  Stalin had nukes.  Mao had nukes.  Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il had nukes.  And yet here we all are. Amazing!

The bad news: Nuclear weapons in the hands of two madmen at once is an experiment we have not yet tried.  Buckle your seat belts, folks.

And now for the just plain bizarre.  Donald Trump responded by tweeting, "North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"  Yeah!  Why can't he watch TV and spew nonsensical comments about in on Twitter like any normal person?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Trump Administration is Clearly Showing the Flaws of Ignorance as Virtue

Republicans have a long-standing habit of anti-intellectualism, of dismissing expertise and even knowledge as "elitist" and "inauthentic," and praising ignorance and "authentic," close to regular folks and therefore (presumably) good.  Sarah Palin was the extreme example of the tendency until Trump came along.

Speaking as one who blog posts acting much more knowledgeable about many subjects than I actually am, I can kind of, sort of understand it.  After all, the experts disagree on a lot of things.  And they also make mistakes.  (See the Iraq War and their determination to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome). So if experts can disagree on matters of public policy and make mistakes, why shouldn't regular folks be allowed to weigh in with an opinion?

To which I suppose I would answer, nothing wrong with regular folks having an opinion.  But regular folks' opinion is going to be extremely vague and general, not getting into the weeds.  Which is fine. There is no reason for regular folks to go into the weeds. Getting into the weeds on policy is not regular folk's job, and the details are deathly dull, so why should some guy on a bar stool or in front of a TV set have any more than a superficial knowledge and opinion.

But there are professional policy makers, and professional policy makers really do need to get into the weeds to work out the details.

Healthcare is an obvious place to start.  No one is very happy with Obamacare.  The main reason for the discontent is that premiums and deductibles are high.  Regular folks want better healthcare at lower costs.  Well, here is a very basic concept that regular folks should understand.  If insurance companies charge less for a policy, it will be a skimpy policy and make you pay more out of pocket. If insurance companies cover more and charge less out of pocket, policies will cost more.  And if government wants to mitigate this tradeoff by offering subsidies, it will make taxes go higher.  All this is just basic math.  Where this tradeoff should be drawn is absolutely something regular folks and -- and should -- weigh in on.  These are policy decisions with no technocratic answer that should be democratically reached based public opinion.

But public opinion is worth listening to only if it recognizes the basic math involved.*  And we need experts to work out the details.  Giving the job to people who don't know anything about healthcare policy and just want to boast that we did it leads to proposed bills that will strip 20 million or more of their health insurance.

The Qatar crisis is another good example.  Saudi Arabia and its satellites are blockading Qatar and making outrageous ultimatums to lift the blockade, a clear act of war.  Trump, whether because he gave pre-approval to the Saudis (as his tweets suggest), or just out of impulse has been siding with Saudi Arabia.  Then it turns out there is a little complication there.  We have an air base in Qatar that has been vital to our fight against ISIS.  This is probably not the sort of detail your average person on the street would know.  Nor is there any real reason your average person on the street should know it. But it is kind of important that the President of the US know it before heedlessly plunging into a possible war against Qatar.

I think the basic premise of right wing anti-intellectualism is not just that people who hold to it want leaders who aren't snooty enough to know more than regular folks and go with their gut.  It is the basic view that gut-level intuition is superior to knowledge and expertise.  Presumably no one wants a leader who goes with the gut, only for it turn out to be a disaster.  What right wing anti-intellectuals want is a leader whose gut-level instincts are right and prove better than expert opinion. And that can happen, after all.  People who spend their time staring down the microscope do have a certain tunnel vision and can miss something outside their limited range.  But expecting a leader whose gut-level instincts are consistently better than expert opinion, and who doesn't need experts even to work out the fine details, is utterly unrealistic.

It also really isn't conservative, at least not if you define conservatism as the belief that people should work hard and earn what they have.  Well, guess what.  Knowledge, was well as money, must be worked for and earned.  David Frum was brilliant in explaining this in the context of Jewish opposition to Sarah Palin:
Jews do think that knowledge is important to a president. They do think a president should be able to think clearly and to distinguish between true information and wishful delusions. I feel sure most Americans of all faiths would agree.

. . . . . . . .

Ignorance is bad. But we all start ignorant. Jews – again like other people, only more so – expect their leaders to start early and to work hard to remedy their ignorance, by learning things. People who don’t, won’t or can’t learn – whose followers disparage the value or need to learn – are going to forfeit Jewish support, and not only Jewish support.
And if that is not enough to convince Trump supporters of the value of knowledge, maybe they should consider another point.  Hillary Clinton sent State Department e-mails on a private server because of her lack of tech knowledge.

_____________________________________
*Admittedly, it is our leaders' responsibility to explain the basic math to the public.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Not Quite Collusion, but Attempted Collusion

So, the Wall Street Journal has come out with two blockbuster stories which I can't access behind their pay wall and only know second hand.  The gist of the story appears to be that Peter W. Smith, a long-time Republican operative sought hacked e-mails from the Russians, while claiming to act on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior members of the Trump campaign.

A few things should be noted here.  First of all, Smith might be called an upper-middle level Republican operative.  He was an investment banker rich enough to bankroll investigations, but Richard Mellon Scaife rich, Sheldon Adelson rich, or Koch brothers rich.  He was not part of the Trump campaign inner circle, but he had access to the inner circle and understood its workings.  Oh, yes, and he can't give any further account because he is now dead.  (Don't get suspicious; he was 81 years old).

Second, although I have not read the second article (and can no longer access the first), the story seems to be extremely well sourced.  No question that this is legit.  Smith apparently talked freely to the Wall Street Journal and showed them e-mails and other documents to support his account.  Their story was backed by intelligence community intercepts showing the Russian intelligence services looking for a way to release e-mails to Flynn through an intermediary.  And a key source in the story has come forward  with his own account, giving greater details, but also saying that he did not understand the big picture of what was happening until he read the story.

Third, the story does not report any actual collusion.  It may better be described as willingness to collude or attempted collusion.

To understand what was going on, one must remember that there were two separate and unrelated scandals underway (or, arguably, two twin scandals and a separate and unrelated one) that got conflated in the public mind, and possibly even in the mind of Trump's inner circle, because they both involved Hillary Clinton and e-mails.

One was Hillary's use of a private server to send State Department e-mails.  There were two parts to this scandal.  One was that she sent State Department e-mails over her personal server that was not properly secured and was therefore vulnerable to hacking, although there is no evidence that it was actually hacked.

The other was that, when Congress ordered her to turn over her e-mails, she deleted some 33,000 that she said were "personal" -- about half of the total.  In Hillary's defense, she gave the order to delete her personal e-mails before they were subpoenaed, but it was not actually done until after.  She also had the e-mails "bleached" and destroyed two phones (apparently to protect classified data in them, but it looks bad).  Many Republicans, Trump among them, suspected that Hillary had deleted her "personal" e-mails because they contained something incriminating.  Trump regularly taunted her over this on the campaign trail.  He said, for instance, that he would release his tax returns when she released her e-mails -- knowing perfectly well that it was impossible because she had destroyed them. It was also in this context that Trump famously said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

The other scandal, also backdrop to Trump's comment inviting the Russians to release Hillary's e-mails was that they Russians really had hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server and published their e-mails through Wikileaks.  The DNC server contained neither classified information nor public records; its contents were private exchanges among private citizens, albeit ones engaged in a public campaign.  But since both scandals involved Hillary Clinton and e-mails, they tended to run together in public perception.

Enter Matt Tait, a British cyber security expert who tweets under the pseudonym of Pwn All the Things.  Tait studied released Clinton e-mails and posted what he considered significant, especially to issues of cyber security.  Smith apparently noticed his posts and (incorrectly) took them to mean that Tait was hostile to Clinton and eager to work as a Trump consultant.  Tait also took an interest in the Russian hack of the DNC (and clearly differentiated between the two events).

About the time of the first Wikileaks document dump, and about the time Trump called on the Russians to find Hillary's missing e-mails, Smith approached Tait to discuss the Clinton e-mails.  Tait assumed that, like so many others, Smith was conflating the two events.  But he was not.  He wanted to find those missing Clinton e-mails because he was convinced that they contained something sinister.  And Smith had, in fact, been contacted by someone on the "Dark Web" who claimed to have the missing e-mails.  Smith wanted Tait to examine them and see if they were authentic.  He apparently had no moral compunctions about publishing fake documents, but feared the bad publicity if he published something that turned out to be fake.  Tait warned Smith that anyone with the missing e-mails might be a front for Russian intelligence.  Smith did not care so long has the e-mails were genuine and hurt Hillary's chances.

Tait was also attempting to set up an "independent" company to do dirty work on behalf of the Trump campaign, operating as closely to it as the law allowed without actually being a part of it.  (Such arrangements are common and the laws governing them are monstrously complex).  It would include members of the Trump inner circle, including some who were not well-known at the time but would become so.  Overall, Smith impressed Tait with his knowledge of the workings of Trump's inner circle -- including some less than flattering information, such as that Flynn might not be confirmable the Senate and head of the CIA and would have to be National Security Adviser (a position not requiring confirmation) instead, and that Trump often tended just to repeat whatever he heard from the last person to talk to him.

And, it must be noted, none of this had to do with the actual, verified Russian hack on the DNC server.  All of it was an attempt to run down the missing Clinton e-mails.  And, although the Russians hacked just about everything else, there is no evidence that they ever breached Hillary's private server.  (Go figure).  Despite all Smith's efforts, her e-mails were never revealed.

I can see three possibilities here.  (1) The Russians never hacked Hillary's server.  (2) The hacked it, but decided to withhold the contents for possible future blackmail.  (3) They hacked it, but the deleted e-mails were so innocuous as not to be worth publishing.

That last seems unlikely.  In a trove of 33,000 e-mails, it surpasses belief that none of them could even be taken out of context to harm her.  (See spirit cooking, for instance).  The second is possible, I guess, but given that the Russians were throwing everything they could find at Hillary (see spirit cooking again), I am inclined to go with (1), the Russians never hacked Hillary's server and did not have her missing e-mails.  (That also matches with the absence of evidence of such a hack).  Which means that whoever was peddling the missing e-mails on the "Dark Web" was just a conman seeking to part a fool from his money.  (Serves him right).  Which means (circling back to the beginning) that these articles do not prove collusion, only attempted collusion and intent to collude.

But it also shows something else.  Remember Trump's challenge to the Russians to hack Hillary and find her missing e-mails?  Ever since he has defended it as a joke.  This article makes clear that he was deadly serious.

But Then Again . . .

I did see a post proposing another explanation of what the Russians have on Trump to make him so eager to please.

The trouble with any sort of blackmail is that it is an attempt to shame the shameless.  I see nothing in Trump's emotional makeup that would suggest he considers himself capable of doing wrong.*  A person who thinks he can do no wrong can be extremely difficult to blackmail, no matter what he does.

As an alternative, that person suggested that maybe the Russians loaned Trump a great deal of money are are in a  position to bankrupt him by calling it in.  No moral judgment there, no fear of exposure, strictly business and the fear of losing money.  This is pure speculation, of course, but it seems in character.

_______________________________
*Admittedly there is the pussy tape.  Even Trump tried to distance himself from that one.

Second Thoughts on the Salacious Parts

I appear, on second thoughts, to have been wrong in my views on the really salacious parts of the Steele memorandum.  The alleged pee pee tape, like covfefe, was good for some jokes, but ultimately a distraction from more serious matters.

The more serious matters fell victim to the Story of O factor.  In other words, the Steele dossier contained a lot of accounts of Trump campaign figures only dimly at the edge of most Americans' consciousness meeting with Russian officials most Americans have never heard of -- and Trump being blackmailed over a pee pee tape.  The meetings all run together; the tape stands out.

This is understandable, but it creates the misleading impression that it is all just about a pee pee tape and that without it, the Russians would have nothing on Trump.  I think it safe to say whether the tape exists or not, we are well past the pee pee tapes point by now.

Hiring prostitutes is a petty misdemeanor.  And besides, it took place in Russia, which is beyond the power of anyone in the US to prosecute.  At worst, it will be embarrassing, but hardly surprising given all that we know of Trump's conduct.

Then consider all the things Trump and his associates have been accused of.  Failing to disclose foreign contacts while applying for security clearance.  (Perjury).  Obstruction of justice.  Money laundering for the Russian mob.  Collusion with a foreign intelligence service in hacking an opponent.  Attempts to send secret messages from the Russian embassy over secure Russian lines. Revealing top secret classified information to a Russian delegation.

All of this is a whole lot more significant than some piddling little pee pee tape.

But then again, at least Trump has not been accused of the worst crime possible.  Sending State Department e-mails over a private server.

Trump Tries Blackmail, Fails at That, Too

It's easy to dismiss Donald Trump's latest spat with Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski as so much fluff, feuding among our elite that belongs in gossip magazines, not serious publications.  And yeah, there is a great deal to that.  But there actually is something serious going on here.

Joe Scarborough is an independent conservative commentator on the liberal MSNBC, so Trump apparently believed that the show should give him unqualified support.  In presumable retaliation, the National Enquirer, a clear Trump ally, publishes a story (true) that they were having an affair while both married to someone else.  It would further appear that (unnamed) persons in the Trump Administration called, trying to get them to apologize for criticizing Trump and give more favorable coverage in the future and they would drop the story.  And not just once.  Apparently they made repeated calls to the hosts, and calls to their friends and children as well.  Apparently these were frequent, ongoing calls that sound like clear harassment.  Scarborough apparently has the texts and phone records to prove all this.

All of which might have been kept quiet if Trump had not, in one of his endless unforced errors, tweeted, "[L]ow I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came … to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"  For reasons I do not really understand, Republicans decided that this time Trump had gone too far and condemned him.  And then then whole story came out.

So, yes, in many ways it looks like so much fluff, a gossipy piece for the National Inquirer, but certainly nothing worth wasting time on when the Senate is trying to figure out how to strip 20 million people of their health insurance, Congress still hasn't figures out how to write a budget or raise the debt ceiling, we are getting drawn into a Syrian quagmire, Saudi Arabia is driving Qatar into the arms of of Iran, and evidence is mounting that the Trump campaign really did collude with the Russians.

But this really is significant and not just fluff.  On the campaign trail, Trump talked about using the power of the Presidency to punish journalists and newspapers that criticized him.  Up till now, it has all been empty talk.  But this is his first attempt to do just that.