‐ Clearly, any sportscaster named Nathan Forrest need not apply for a job at ESPN.
‐ Steve Bannon got the axe. He had alienated many of his co-workers through infighting and leaks, and White House chief of staff John Kelly reportedly (and understandably) regarded him as a destabilizing force. Bannon told a reporter that the heroic nationalist phase of the Trump presidency is over. If so, it is over before it began: The administration has not yet even drawn a design for its border wall. Bannon also dismissed white supremacists as a tiny and impotent fringe; but they are stronger than they were before he decided to give the alt-right, in his own words, a “platform.” Bannon is back at Breitbart.com, where we hope he listens to his better angels.
‐ Mitch McConnell complained that Trump had excessive expectations for how quickly Congress would move on legislation. Trump fired back, and then kept firing back. Both men have a point. Trump had said again and again how easy it would be to pass a health-care bill; but McConnell did have seven years to prepare one. Instead of allocating blame, perhaps they should spend their time trying to get a health-care bill passed?
‐ Last spring, Julius Krein, a young, Harvard-educated financier, launched American Affairs, a new policy journal that sought to lay a coherent intellectual foundation for an ascendant Trumpism. Now, in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial remarks about Charlottesville, Krein has renounced his support of, and his vote for, Donald Trump. “Not only has the president failed to make the course corrections necessary to save his administration,” Krein wrote in the New York Times, “but his increasingly appalling conduct will continue to repel anyone who might once have been inclined to work with him.” After finding much to admire in the “hazy outlines” of an insurgent campaign, Krein is now reduced to salvaging Trump’s agenda from “the wreckage of his presidency.” Given how fervently he supported Trump, only to quit on him less than a year into his presidency, one hopes he will undertake this new project with a new sense of modesty.
‐ Mitt Romney joined the critics of President Trump’s response to Charlottesville. There was much to criticize, especially Trump’s statement that “very fine people” had joined a march that was in truth undisguisedly anti-Semitic and racist. Romney, though, went with a less meritorious criticism: that Trump was wrong to call out left-wing protesters for their violence, since neo-Nazis were worse. Romney is right that Trump should choose his words more carefully; on this occasion, he should have done the same.
‐ The Republican primary for Jeff Sessions’s seat in the Senate has not shown Alabama Republicans in their best light. Luther Strange, the appointed incumbent, has spent the campaign arguing that none of his rivals can match his devotion to the president — although in truth he seems closer to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Mo Brooks, a conservative in the U.S. House who did not support Trump last year, spent his campaign obscuring the fact, and didn’t make the run-off. Now Strange faces Judge Roy Moore, who came in ahead of him in the first round. Moore is famous in state politics for putting his own interpretation of God’s law above the commands of higher courts. Is there some way to bring Sessions back to the Senate?
‐ A CBS News story reports that Iceland is currently leading the world in “eradicating Down syndrome births.” The country has not discovered an innovative treatment for the genetic disorder. Icelanders are simply killing babies with Down syndrome before birth, through a combination of prenatal testing and abortion. This testing is optional, but doctors encourage it and the vast majority of expectant mothers choose to receive it. Nearly 100 percent of Icelandic mothers who receive Down-syndrome diagnoses (which are sometimes false) have an abortion. The situation in the U.S. is not all that different. The West has made a moral rather than a medical breakthrough, and not a good one.
‐ All of a sudden, Senator Marco Rubio acquired a new security detail. Why? Apparently, because a leading player in the Venezuelan government ordered that he be assassinated. Senator Rubio is one of the world’s fiercest, and most specific, critics of the Venezuelan regime. He has particularly antagonized Diosdado Cabello, a veteran chavista believed to be in charge of the country’s security forces. It is Cabello who evidently ordered the hit. Any indication that the Venezuelan government has tried to follow through should be met with a fierce response.
‐ Donald Trump just can’t quit his favorite General John Pershing myth. After the Barcelona terror attacks, he tweeted: “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” This was an obvious reference to a story he told on the campaign trail. He claimed that Pershing, when he served in the Philippines, ordered the execution of dozens of prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. This brutal action, according to Trump, so demoralized Islamic terrorists that they were quiet for decades. There is no evidence to support Trump’s story. There is instead considerable evidence that General Pershing pursued more lenient policies than his predecessors in order to earn goodwill from Filipinos. It is hard to know which is worse: that Trump has libeled an American hero, or that he thinks he complimented him.
‐ Two presidential councils composed of high-profile business executives — one dedicated to economic strategy, the other to manufacturing — were dissolved after an executive exodus that began with the resignation of Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who quit in protest of the president’s clumsy response to the murder and mayhem in Charlottesville. He was soon joined by the heads of Walmart, 3M, Intel, and others, and the strategy board decided to dissolve. Trump’s first response, as it often is, was to take to Twitter to savage his critics: He accused Frazier of keeping pharmaceutical prices high in a “ripoff” of American consumers. But as it became clear that Trump was on the losing end of that fight, he decided to claim he had decided to dissolve the advisory boards himself. The councils themselves are no great loss, inasmuch as they seldom met and would have, at most, offered careful advice to a president who truly listens only to a tight circle of confidants. For quite some time now, Republicans have been losing support in the business world even as their reputation for slavish fealty to business interests stayed intact. The first trend, at least, seems to be accelerating in the Trump era.
‐ The American Civil Liberties Union has proven itself half-commendable in recent weeks. On the plus side, the outfit has assiduously ignored calls to drop its staunch commitment to the First Amendment — even when the amendment protects neo-Nazis. But then along came some men who elected to exercise two rights at once, and the ACLU’s resolve failed. Henceforth, the group explained, it would not be defending the speech right of those who “hate” if they are simultaneously carrying firearms. Hostility to the Second Amendment trumped devotion to the First. Should gun owners be denied their Miranda readings or deprived of an attorney if arrested while carrying a weapon? The ACLU’s version of the Constitution is evolving before our eyes.
‐ Few organizations in the United States enjoy more undeserved respect than the Southern Poverty Law Center. Formed in 1971 to oppose white supremacists in the South, it has since morphed into a particularly dangerous and disingenuous far-left activist and fundraising organization. Its current specialty is classifying and tracking so-called hate groups, and it has created a list only a university radical should love. It lumps together true white supremacists with Christian organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council (FRC). It tracks hate-group leaders and also calls American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray a “white nationalist.” It has, in other words, become unhinged, and other unhinged people have used its lists to abet their acts of violence. In 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins tried to massacre FRC employees after seeing the group’s name on the SPLC list. In 2016, student radicals referred to the SPLC to justify physical attacks against Murray. It is thus a genuine shame that corporations such as Apple and JPMorgan Chase chose to respond to the alt-right march and terror attack in Charlottesville by giving money to the SPLC. It has demonstrated time and again that it exacerbates American divisions and intentionally blurs the lines between genuine Nazis and mainstream conservatives. The SPLC is a cancer on the American body politic and deserves no one’s support, especially not support from two of America’s most powerful and respected corporations.
‐ If you’re traveling to Seattle, bring a lead umbrella. Since 1984, a law has prevented the Washington state government from conducting preparations for, or setting out an evacuation plan in case of, a nuclear attack. During the Cold War, Washington legislators wanted to demonstrate their confidence in Russian nonaggression and deescalate first-strike tensions. The legislators wanted to go even further: Nuclear preparations are imprudent, reads a vetoed section of the bill, because they give citizens a false sense of security in an emergency situation where there are almost no survivors. The law was then forgotten until May, and a bill with bipartisan support now awaits a committee hearing in the state senate. North Korea has concentrated the mind . . . sort of: The committee will have to wait until January to discuss the bill.
‐ The deadly terror attacks in Spain remind us, if we needed a reminder, that Europe has a terrible new normal. It’s now expected that every few weeks or — at most — few months, a terrorist will strike somewhere, usually in the heart of one of Western Europe’s greatest cities. The attack in Barcelona was just as heinous as we’ve come to expect, with the driver reportedly maneuvering to strike as many people as possible in the middle of one of the city’s favorite pedestrian gathering-places. Spanish security forces had developed a reputation for effectiveness after the horrific Madrid train bombing in 2004, but as the saying goes, the police have to be effective every time, while the terrorists do not. The attack heightens the urgency of the continued offensive against ISIS. It’s vital not just to destroy the inspiration for terrorist violence but also to stabilize the Middle East and stanch the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe. Otherwise, expect the new normal to get worse still.
‐ ISIS is committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, the State Department reiterated in August, in its annual report on international religious freedom. Last year, under pressure, the Obama administration finally designated the crisis genocide, following unanimous votes to the same effect in the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament. The word “genocide” has consequences: America and 142 other countries have signed the U.N. Genocide Convention, which obliges them “to undertake to prevent” the abomination and to “punish it.” The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq has made progress at least toward preventing it from continuing in Mosul. Meanwhile, more words, but the right words: In addition to prioritizing genocide victims for aid and asylum, a bill passed by the House, though stalled in the Senate, enjoins the State and Justice Departments to help foreign governments identify and prosecute genocidaires where possible.
‐ The U.S. government is facing what seems a great and terrible mystery. Several of our diplomats have returned home from Cuba, to seek medical treatment. In Cuba, they were deafened — by some sort of sonic device, apparently. The same happened to Canadian diplomats. Who did this? The Castro dictatorship? That would seem unlikely. For decades, our diplomats have been in Cuba, unmolested. Why would the dictatorship molest them now, when full diplomatic relations have been established? Also, would not an attack on U.S. diplomats be reckless in the extreme? Possibly suicidal, for the Cuban government? Moreover, the government of Justin Trudeau has very warm relations with Havana. So, who did this, and why? Let’s hope that these questions do not remain mysteries.
‐ Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy an exemption: to be an island of democracy and liberalism, attached to a one-party dictatorship (with a gulag). That exemption has proved chimerical. The government has now jailed three students who have led democracy protests. The judge in the case said that the sentences were necessary to deter a “sick trend”: namely the belief of some Chinese that they should live in a democracy. Such thinking is “arrogant and self-righteous,” said the judge. One of the students — Joshua Wong — said, “You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds! We want democracy in Hong Kong. And we will not give up.”
‐ Robert Mugabe is the dictator of Zimbabwe, 93 years old. His wife, Grace, is his former secretary, and a mere girl at 52. The dictator is set to run in one of his sham elections next year. If he dies, Grace has vowed, the ruling party will run his corpse. Mrs. M. is a fit partner for the dictator. In South Africa recently, she beat the hell out of a young woman — a 20-year-old model — who had been spending time with two of the Mugabe sons. Mrs. Mugabe’s weapon of choice was an extension cord. “She flipped,” reported the model, “and just kept beating me with the plug. Over and over.” The model was left a bloody mess. The government of South Africa has smoothed over the incident, allowing Mrs. Mugabe to return to Zimbabwe, where life goes on as normal. Mrs. M. has assaulted people before — particularly photographers. But that is nothing compared with what her husband has done to the country at large.
‐ Colin Kaepernick will be featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a division of the Smithsonian Institution. An exhibit on Black Lives Matter will include shoes, a game-worn jersey, and other items belonging to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. His knee, not his arm, earned Kaepernick most of his fame. He spent much of the 2016 season kneeling during the pregame national anthem to protest, he said, police brutality. The world is deluged with political opinions. The gridiron promises refuge from them, and Kaepernick knocked a hole in the canopy. He ended up drawing more attention to himself than to his cause, during those brief moments reserved for athletes and spectators on both sides to face in the same direction and agree about something. The museum can honor whom it wishes.
‐ With its wave of statue vandalism, the alt-left delivered a crude rebuke to Robert E. Lee. Now they have added “. . . and the horse you rode in on.” Students at the University of Southern California are calling USC’s horse mascot, Traveler, racist because his name is similar to that of Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller. The origins of the mascot’s name are unclear, but the first horse to use it at USC was a Hollywood veteran who had appeared in a girl-with-horse movie called “Snowfire” and been a regular on the Lone Ranger series (at USC, even the mascot is a movie star). Over the years (the current incumbent is Traveler IX), the horse’s name and image have been trademarked, and his care and housing are paid for with an endowment that a comp-lit professor can only envy, so Traveler isn’t going anywhere. (Admittedly, all the Travelers have been white males, though the original was half Arabian, if that’s any help.)
‐ As the USS Indianapolis steamed from Guam to the Philippines on July 30, 1945, the bombing of Hiroshima was only a week away. The ship’s 1,196 crewmen didn’t know that, of course, even though they had just delivered a secret cargo, later revealed to be enriched uranium, to the island of Tinian, where the bomb was being assembled. Most of them did not even live to see the end of the war — because shortly after midnight, two Japanese torpedoes sank the Indianapolis, killing a quarter of the crew immediately and leaving the rest exposed for several days, until a Navy patrol plane happened to spot the site of the sinking. Of those who survived the initial blast, only 321 were still alive when rescue craft arrived; the rest drowned or succumbed to hypothermia, seawater poisoning, or sharks. It was the largest loss of life at sea from a single ship in the history of the U.S. Navy. Now Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, has located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the floor of the Philippine Sea. It’s an impressive technical feat that we hope may provide a measure of closure for the families of those who died and the 22 remaining survivors — and prompt renewed gratitude from the rest of us.
‐ Arthur Finkelstein was one of the most famous, most effective, and most notorious Republican consultants. He mastered many arts, including negative campaigning. He was a Jewish, gay libertarian willing to run combative hard-right campaigns. He believed that government had grown too big and helped to elect politicians who would deal with this trend. He also had an important insight: that there were Democrats more conservative than their party who would vote for Republicans, if those Republicans were pitched to them in the right way. We take particular satisfaction in one election: that of 1970 in which James L. Buckley became the “sainted junior senator from New York” (as his brother WFB would call him). Arthur Finkelstein had a virtuous hand in that election. He has died at 72. R.I.P.
‐ The son of parents in small-time show biz, Joseph (or Jerome, sources vary) Levitch hit the big time in his early twenties, starring with Dean Martin in nightclub comedy acts and on national television, which in the late 1940s was new. Movies followed. America knew him as Jerry Lewis. He played a twitchy younger-brother type, fast to jump but slow to comprehend — and boyishly awkward, like early Woody Allen but without the philosophy jokes. At age 33, Lewis wrote, directed, and starred in The Bellboy, a vehicle for his slapstick and sight gags. A few years later he repeated the feat with The Nutty Professor, his favorite. He appeared in more than 60 films. French critics lionized his creative genius. Americans were slower to take him seriously, although by now his influence on comedy is not much disputed. He began hosting the annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1966 and raised more than $2.6 billion for it over the course of more than 40 years. Dead at 91. R.I.P.
‐ Hugh Hefner caught Dick Gregory doing standup comedy in Chicago in 1961 and hired him to work the Playboy Club. Gregory’s career took off overnight, helped by a profile in Time magazine and an appearance on The Tonight Show. Integrating wit and social commentary à la Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Gregory established himself as a specialist in observations on black–white social tensions during the civil-rights era. He went to Selma in 1963 to support a voter-registration drive and ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967. The following year he ran for president, as a write-in candidate. He went on hunger strikes to protest the Vietnam War and then to oppose or support causes ranging from South African apartheid to American Indian rights. His comedy career by now abandoned, he turned ever more ascetic, preaching against drugs and advocating better nutrition for the poor. He denounced abortion as a form of black genocide. Full of interlocking conspiracy theories, which he thundered about with passion in later years, he was an enigmatic man whose excesses tended sometimes toward the oddball but often toward the righteous. Dead at 84. R.I.P.
Trump’s Afghan Escalation
President Trump, thank goodness, doesn’t want to lose a war on his watch. He had a choice. On the one hand, he could follow his instinct to pull out of Afghanistan, act on his many bumptious calls to abandon the war, and please his most fervent supporters. On the other, he could acknowledge the disaster that would result in Afghanistan and potentially the region if he followed this course and instead work toward a more responsible policy. He rightly picked the latter option and spoke to the nation about his new strategy.
If President Obama had been as willing to examine his political promises and ideological predispositions in the light of reality, he would not have pulled out of Iraq, creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS and for overwhelming Iranian influence in that country. Obama’s foolish choice, as Trump said, informed his more sober-minded decision on Afghanistan.
Trump’s strategy will involve the deployment of an unspecified number of additional troops, looser rules of engagement, and pressure on our supposed ally Pakistan, which continues to play a dangerous double game by harboring our enemies. Any future drawdowns will be based on an evaluation of conditions in the country and region, not arbitrary deadlines. This is all to the good, and better than a precipitous total withdrawal. But cautions are in order.
First, if we have established anything in Afghanistan over the last 16 years, it is that victory will be extremely difficult to achieve given the limited social capital in that tragic, war-torn, highly tribal country. Anything recognizable as success will be impossible without a commitment much larger than the American public is, understandably, willing to contemplate. So, for all of Trump’s stalwart talk about winning, the realistic choice is between a holding action and defeat.
It’s not clear that Trump will have the appetite for this difficult, twilight war over the longer term, and his natural predilections confused how he talked about the strategy. He said we aren’t going to engage in nation-building, but if the course of the war is dependent on the performance of the Afghan military and government — this, presumably, is what the conditions are about — we will need to try to foster the development of Afghan national institutions, i.e., engage in some nation-building.
As for Pakistan, Trump’s tough rhetoric was welcome. His warm words about India, in particular, probably concentrated minds in Islamabad. But Pakistan won’t easily be pressured out of a policy of maintaining strategic depth in Afghanistan via the Taliban that it has pursued for decades out of a sense of its national interest. Wrenching it into a different strategic orientation is a major diplomatic undertaking at a time when Rex Tillerson’s understaffed State Department appears to be held together with duct tape and baling wire.
All that said, Trump’s approach is better than the alternative. If the Taliban were going to (at least in its propaganda version) expel us from Afghanistan, it would vastly increase its prestige, and if it were to take over the country, it wouldn’t be long until fanatics began using its territory to plot against us. This was our experience in Iraq. Obama’s pullout hastened that country’s downward slide and the day we had to send troops back in. Trump is right not to want to repeat the cycle in Afghanistan.
The Charlottesville Melee
There’s no putting a happy face on President Trump’s ham-fisted and equivocal response to the mayhem and murder in Charlottesville, where white supremacists staged a march and rally during which one of their number murdered a young woman and injured 19 others when he drove his car through a crowd of counter-demonstrators.
The president started on the day of the violence with an oddly vague condemnation of hatred “on many sides.” Then, under extreme political pressure, he came back two days later and more specifically denounced the neo-Nazis and their allies. If he had left it at that, the media might have still carped at his tardiness, but no one would have been able to criticize the content of his final statement on the matter. Instead, he held a press conference the next day where, clearly angry at the criticism of his remarks, he let loose as only this president can. In an instantly notorious line, he said there were “fine people” marching on both sides.
Good people disagree about a great many things, including the propriety of maintaining Confederate monuments in public places. But that is not what Charlottesville was about. Charlottesville was host to a torchlight parade organized by white supremacists who were chanting slogans against Jews, flying swastika banners, and demanding racial separatism. There are no good people in that parade. These ideas are not merely mistaken but evil, and the president of these United States ought to have said as much in the plainest terms possible.
It is true, as the president said, that there was violence on both sides in Charlottesville. But the neo-Nazis were the instigators via their idiot march, and they had a murderer in their midst. They must get the lion’s share of the blame. This shouldn’t mean turning away from the depredations of antifa. It, too, came spoiling for a fight. In fact, during much of the violence it was hard to tell which helmet-wearing, pole-wielding, punch-throwing side was which. Antifa is, contrary to its name, a genuinely fascistic movement, and the same people on the left who are lambasting President Trump for his lack of moral clarity need to demonstrate some of their own by forthrightly denouncing the violent fanatics on their side.
The extremes of the two sides feed off energy and attention they derive from street fights, and there will probably be more Charlottesvilles. Next time we hope Trump finds the words necessary to the moment.
The Confederates and Us
President Trump asked a reasonable question about Confederate statues: “Where does it stop?” Charlottesville, Va., voted to take down its statue of General Robert E. Lee; will statues of George Washington be next? He too owned slaves. There are voices on the left who want to prove Trump right: They have Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus in their crosshairs. Since this controversy heated up, even statues of Joan of Arc have not been safe from hostile graffiti.
There are answers to Trump’s question, but they all involve — although the word these days may require a trigger warning — discrimination. A flag honoring the Confederate fallen in a cemetery is not the same as a statue honoring the president of the Confederacy in a public thoroughfare. A monument erected to celebrate a white-supremacist riot, which New Orleans had until earlier this year, is not the same as a memorial to the father of our country. And a public decision to alter a city’s historical markers is not the same as a private act of vandalism. Those who take it upon themselves to deface or take down monuments should be prosecuted.
Many of the Confederate memorials were put up not just to commemorate the dead, celebrate the achievement of peace, or teach the facts of our history: They were put up to make statements of support for the Confederate cause or of defiance against desegregation. It is no surprise that they are taken as such by many people, including neo-Nazis. In these cases, to put statues in a museum, or to add explanatory plaques, is not to erase history but to undo its distortion.
In considering the past, we should be clear-eyed about both historical evils and human fallibility. Not everyone who abhors slavery today would have abhorred it had they been whites in 1850s Georgia. Yet time and place do not efface right and wrong. General Lee was given a choice in 1861, and made the wrong one. Admiral Farragut made a better one. Is our country capable of making the necessary distinctions, or even discussing them intelligently? Our debate may concern judgments of our past, but our conduct of it will render a judgment on our present.