Elon Musk on the Brink

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

In the last Jolt of the week: Elon Musk is a genius but is he pushing himself too hard?; remembering Aretha Franklin; and two takes on John Brennan’s security clearance.

Can a Silicon Valley Titan Spread Himself Too Thin?

Elon Musk is one of the most interesting people of our age. The South African–born inventor, investor, and business tycoon is a modern-day combination of Leonardo da Vinci and Andrew Carnegie (who may also have a touch of Howard Hughes in him). Musk has had a hand in some of the most innovative companies of the 21st century: PayPal, SpaceX, the Boring Company, and Tesla.

But on August 7, seemingly out of the blue, Musk tweeted a breathtaking announcement in the middle of Wall Street trading day:

Within hours, Tesla’s stock had shot up 7 percent, the Nasdaq stock exchange halted trading on the stock, and the company was scrambling to explain the situation.

Many speculated that Musk had been approached by the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund with a proposal to take the company private. It wasn’t that simple, however, because the Saudis had apparently never made a solid offer. There were even rumors that Musk’s $420-per-share price was a reference to cannabis. Musk denies this, though he has admitted to the use of recreational drugs in the past. So why did Musk tweet something so explosive and potentially put himself at risk for government action?

According to the New York Times:

[On August 8], investigators in the San Francisco office of the Securities and Exchange Commission asked Tesla for explanations. Ordinarily, such material information about a public company’s plans is laid out in detail after extensive internal preparation and issued through official channels. Board members, blindsided by the chief executive’s market-moving statement, were angry that they had not been briefed, two people familiar with the matter said. They scrambled to cobble together a public statement trying to defuse a mounting uproar over the seemingly haphazard communication. . . .

The S.E.C. investigation appears to be intensifying rapidly. Just days after the agency’s request for information, Tesla’s board and Mr. Musk received S.E.C. subpoenas, according to a person familiar with the matter. Board members and Mr. Musk are preparing to meet with S.E.C. officials as soon as next week, the person said.

In an interview with the Times, it’s clear that Musk is struggling under the pressure of running his several companies to the exacting, perfectionist, and secretive standards that he is accustomed to.

Mr. Musk alternated between laughter and tears.

He said he had been working up to 120 hours a week recently — echoing the reason he cited in a recent public apology to an analyst whom he had berated. In the interview, Mr. Musk said he had not taken time off of more than a week since 2001, when he was bedridden with malaria.

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” he said. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”

Mr. Musk stopped talking, seemingly overcome by emotion.

He turned 47 on June 28, and he said he spent the full 24 hours of his birthday at work. “All night — no friends, nothing,” he said, struggling to get the words out.

In the past, Tesla has periodically searched for a No. 2 executive that could take some of the load off of Musk — Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s name has even been floated. Musk is one of the best and brightest in America — let’s hope he gets some help before his star flames out:

Asked if the exhaustion was taking a toll on his physical health, Mr. Musk answered: “It’s not been great, actually. I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”

Aretha Franklin, RIP

Dan McLaughlin remembers the Queen of Soul:

Maybe the biggest thing Aretha changed was bringing the full, vigorous sound of the black church to mainstream popular music. She wasn’t the first popular music star with a gospel background, but singers such as Ray Charles and Billie Holliday were much more steeped in the secular R&B and blues sound, while traditional pop singers such as Ella Fitzgerald performed in a more restrained genre. Aretha was always firmly rooted in gospel and took you to church whenever she took the microphone. Her 1972 Amazing Grace album, a double-LP live recording of gospel standards, is one of the definitive records of her career. Like her country contemporary Johnny Cash, she was never shy about mingling songs of Christian faith with songs about the blues of life in the here and now.

Aretha was feminist in a way that was very unlike the white “women’s lib” of her time. She was a lover of men, not a hater: She followed in the footsteps of her famous preacher father, had a series of lovers including two husbands, and raised four sons. But men, and life, gave her plenty of blues to sing: Her mother (already separated from her father) died when she was 10, she got pregnant for the first time when she was only 12, and her first husband was physically abusive. She was, of course, not just a woman but a black woman in and of her time, with a childhood that took her from Memphis to Detroit, and a career that started in Jim Crow America and spanned performances at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968 and Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Her appearance at the latter was a kind of benediction, a powerful symbol of how far African-Americans had come in one lifetime.

I’ll second Dan’s assessment; it’s all true. But as for me, I’ll never forget Aretha’s performance in one of my favorite movies, The Blues Brothers:

You better think (think!)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think! Think!)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free

Was Trump Justified in Rescinding John Brennan’s Security Clearance?

Victor Davis Hanson:

When one collates Brennan’s politicized and often incoherent explanations on a number of key intelligence matters in various capacities between 2009 and 2016 (on the circumstances surrounding Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. the “underwear bomber,” his confusing and changing narratives surrounding the bin Laden raid, and his bizarre and careerist-inspired description of jihad: “Nor do we describe our enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community”), the portrait of a political contortionist rather than a professional and disinterested intelligence officer is confirmed.

All that can be said in condolence to John Brennan about losing his security clearance might be something along the lines of, “Try not to lie repeatedly to the U.S. Congress. Please do not allege that the current president of the United States is a traitor. And do not hire yourself out to partisans to issue near daily unproven invective, supposedly sanctified and monetized by your past tenure and present access to the highest level of covert U.S. intelligence.”

That was not too much to ask.

David French:

Generations of precedent suggest that the president does not possess entirely : authority over the substance of security-clearance determinations. Though he does enjoy broad discretion, it’s clearly bounded by limits, even if they haven’t yet been fully defined by the courts. One of those limits should be that presidents cannot dispense or revoke the security clearances of private citizens (such as contractors or former government employees) in retaliation for the exercise of constitutionally protected political expression, short of evidence of disloyalty to the United States, instability, or vulnerability to improper influence. A security clearance is not a reward for good political behavior, and treating it as such has negative consequences for American national security. Does anyone doubt that John Brennan would still have his security clearance if his Twitter comments were just as frothy and erratic, but were instead aimed at the so-called witch hunt rather than the Trump administration?

Read both takes in full.

ADDENDA: Thanks to all our Jolt readers for bearing with me today, and with Teddy, who pinch-hit Monday through Thursday this week. Jim will be back from vacation on Monday. It’s two weeks until the start of the college-football season. So always remember: Oklahoma invented championships.


The Media Strike Back

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Newspapers fight back against the president; Twitter is a message board; and an overlooked white-bashing story from a journalist.

Newspapers Unite

Today, newspapers across the country are running editorials against President Trump’s attacks on the press. To have a free press is to have a free society. Were Trump’s criticism of the press to elide into action to suppress its activity we would have a dire situation on our hands. Provided that this  situation hasn’t happened, though, isn’t this endeavor not just futile but counterproductive? Jack Shafer’s most-recent Politico column is convincing:

Most journalists agree that there’s a great need for Trump rebuttals. I’ve written my share. But this Globe-sponsored coordinated editorial response is sure to backfire: It will provide Trump with circumstantial evidence of the existence of a national press cabal that has been convened solely to oppose him. When the editorials roll off the press on Thursday, all singing from the same script, Trump will reap enough fresh material to whale on the media for at least a month. His forthcoming speeches almost write themselves: By colluding against me, the fake media proved once and for all, that they are in cahoots with the Democrats and have declared themselves to be my true political opposition . . .

The Globe’s anti-Trump project is also an exercise in redundancy, not to mention self-stroking. Most newspapers have already published a multitude of editorials and columns rebuking the president for his trash-talking of the press. Most major editorial boards opposed Trump’s election, according to this tally by Business Insider. The largest of the 19 newspapers to endorse Trump was the Las Vegas Review-Journal, owned by one of his faithful donors, Sheldon Adelson. More than 240 endorsed Hillary Clinton. Editorial-page sentiment against Trump remains largely unchanged since the election, making the call for a collective reprimand all the more pointless.

Another problem with a nationally coordinated pro-press catechism is that the audience likely to reap the greatest benefit from the haranguing — Trump and many in his base — tends not to read newspapers in the first place. While there’s always value in preaching to the choir — that’s why churches hold services every Sunday — the combined weight of 200 pro-press editorials is not likely to move the opinion needle or deter Trump from defaming and threatening reporters.

Twitter Is a Message Board

I wrote in “defense” of Alex Jones a little while back, about one week before he was swiftly banned from Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify. Put more accurately, I used Alex Jones’s case as the frame to argue that social-media companies cannot be trusted to exercise editorial judgment in kicking people off their platforms. Now he’s been put in “time-out” by Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO.

As a matter of preferential intensity I won’t be losing any sleep over Jones’s purging — especially because his harassment of Sandy Hook families may well turn out to be defamatory and libelous. What I care far more about is how social-media executives manage the gigantic platforms over which they preside. Facebook and Twitter, being advertising companies, want to increase their market share and so have waded into the news business. There’s a strong case that journalists indeed do have a social responsibility beyond that of simply maximizing value for their shareholders; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other executives have so far proven to be both adept at the latter and terrible stewards of The Discourse. Their slapdash, inconsistent content policies create a situation where nobody knows what the rules are, and everyone is trying to convince executives to marginalize their political enemies. It’s a bad soup.

At least in the case of Twitter, John Herrman compares Twitter to a forum, a message board of the sort that was common in the 2000s. It’s far from the first time this comparison has been made, but Herrman gives the subject its most sustained treatment to date. When news broke that conservatives were being “shadowbanned” on Twitter, it caught Herrman’s attention: Terms like that share roots in the web as it existed before the rise and dominance of mainstream social media.

‘Shadow banning’ was popularized on a niche-but-influential forum called Something Awful. Its administrators and moderators, dealing with often-unruly and trollish users, were breezy authoritarians, removing, punishing and humiliating users for violating the rules, or simply because they wanted to. . . .

The internet of old — composed largely of thousands of scattered communities populated by people who shared interests, identities, causes or hatreds — has been mostly paved over by the social-media giants. In this new landscape, basic intelligible concepts of community become alien: The member becomes the user; the peer becomes the follower; and the ban becomes not exile, but death. It is not surprising that the angriest spirits of the old web occasionally manifest in the new one. But what’s striking is how effectively they can haunt it, and how ill-equipped it is to deal with them. . . .

On Twitter, it may seem that you are talking to friends or peers, and that the space is controlled or even safe. But it’s not: It’s shared with and extremely vulnerable to those with a desire to disrupt or terrorize it. In order to function, Twitter must make its users feel at home in the most public space devised by humankind. The platform can’t easily say what smaller intentional forums can: “We don’t want this here; you’re violating the spirit of our community; go away.” It is too big, with too many people present for too many different reasons, to be a site for any one sort of conversation. It exercises absolute authority over its service, of course, but must pretend to do so carefully, sparingly and only when forced to.

This seems right to me. There used to be a decentralized constellation of bulletin-board forums where moderators could control the conversation as they saw fit and users knew why they were logged on: to discuss some topic of interest of them and participate in some discrete, almost tangible online community. Now there are a few websites that have cannibalized all this activity, and the folkways once inherent to smaller message boards have been massively scaled up. These message boards are professionalized, such that how you Tweet can make your career; they incentivize public shaming; the register of conversation on them is almost uniformly shrill. And the executives can’t stop it: They want as many users as possible, sure, but they also aren’t equipped to moderate such a large forum.

More on White-Bashing

We became acquainted with the practice and its utility during Jeonghazi, but another incident happened around the same time: Tech reporter Rani Molla had tweets of her own about a Washington Post story about working-class whites being marginalized by an emerging Hispanic majority in their workplace and town. “Oh shut the f*** up,” she wrote. “How does it feel to have every advantage and still be a whiny a**hole?”

Scientist Razib Khan writes eloquently on the subject:

There were literally two South Asian families (as opposed to international students, or an adoptee here and there) in the whole county where I grew up as an adolescent. So yes, I was part of a very distinct minority. But my father also had a doctorate in a physical science. I was known to be a highly sociable person, albeit on the nerdy side. I knew I would go to college. Almost everyone in my extended family went to college, even though many of them lived in a country where very few people went to college. I came from a family background where certain things were taken for granted, and tacit. Those things happen to put me in a good position for the 21st-century economy. . . .

There were other kids I grew up with and knew casually. They were all white because almost everyone else was white. They came from families where the father had been a logger, or worked on a ranch, but eventually that work disappeared. They in their own turn assumed they’d find some job in the valley, perhaps go work at a plant in Pendleton or John Day. Even twenty years ago we knew that something was going sideways. The logging jobs were disappearing. But there were families who had lived in the area for generations, and these were kids who didn’t want to move away. These were kids who were never academically oriented. But they were family oriented.

To be honest I felt sorry for them. I never thought they had “every advantage.” Yes, no one ever yelled racial slurs at them. But they didn’t come from stable homes, and they didn’t seem to have a stable future. These were kids who were lost in a world that was passing them by. If the aristocracy of white skin arose with Andrew Jackson’s America, by the 1990s that dream was fading rapidly.

I would only add that “white equals advantaged” is far too coarse-grained of a measure to capture the way that social relations affect our lives.

Economy & Business

Whodunit: The American Economy Edition

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: We dispel some fiction about the economy, give a quick rundown of the Omarosa news, and take a look at some worrisome higher-education trends.

Whose Numbers? Which Economy?

A political debate over which president deserves credit for the state of the economy has broken out. Last night, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted, incorrectly, that President Trump had tripled the number of jobs created for African Americans under Barack Obama; she later corrected herself on Twitter. But this has been a long-running debate among politicians and political advocates. Democrats downplay solid economic growth, controlled inflation, and record-low unemployment numbers, with the knowledge that last quarter’s 4.1 percent GDP growth was driven by idiosyncratic trade factors and that other measures such as sluggish wage growth show the economy still has a ways to go. They argue that Obama deserves credit for the expansion which Trump is bound to muck up. Republicans accuse liberals of ignoring the reality that President Trump is presiding over a continuing, robust expansion. They also insist that he deserves credit for the expansion, which, they might add, is far superior to the expansion begun under Obama, thanks to Trump’s policies of tax cuts and deregulation.

These are standard-issue political fights between standard-issue political fighters. They happen every presidency. Of course the party in power will take credit for what is generally a solid economy. Of course the party out of power will try to poke holes in that narrative. What is deeply exasperating about this argument is not its existence but that it has dragged in ostensibly disinterested observers and brought certain political journalists to pick sides when they do not have to.

Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael Strain are two journalists who do not fall into that category. In a recent print issue of National Review, they have an excellent article, “Trumponomics,” where they simply take a dispassionate look at the economic trends of the present expansion and meditate upon possible causal factors. The bottom line:

Republicans are talking more about the state of the economy than Democrats are — and they are taking credit for it, too. It is a tribute, they say, to Republican policies, and especially to the tax cut Republicans enacted at the end of last year and to the deregulatory actions that the Trump administration has taken.

This kind of boasting [from Republican politicians] is par for the course in politics. Many economists and many conservatives insist, however, that politicians and political commentators often overstate the extent to which a president affects an economy shaped by the decisions of millions of businesses and consumers. A disinterested look at the evidence — or, at least, the most disinterested one we can offer — suggests that in the case of the Trump administration there is some truth to both the Republican politicians’ and the economists’ views, but more to the latter. . . .

President Trump inherited an expanding economy. Republicans have implemented policies that should, on balance, make it modestly stronger over time. But that balance could change if the president does not restrain his worst impulses. In that case the credit Republicans are getting from voters could quickly turn to blame.

Current trends in unemployment or growth or inflation or labor-force participation did not start in 2016, though measures such as business and consumer confidence and productivity growth have indeed improved since Trump took office. Political operatives will continue to have this debate, but the rest of us don’t have to.

Don’t Tape Me, Bro

Since this is a morning newsletter, and Omarosa-related matters are currently dominating the news cycle, I suppose the time has come to address them. It’s a depressingly familiar ordeal. Recently ousted from the White House and selling her new book, Omarosa Manigault Newman says she has tapes of Donald Trump using the “n-word” on the set of The Apprentice. In the book, she says she heard of the tape’s existence; since publication, she has said in interviews that she heard the tape itself. The White House is sort of issuing non-denial denials — Huckabee Sanders said yesterday that she “can’t guarantee” the tape doesn’t exist but helpfully noted that Trump has never used the word around her — and Omarosa produced a recording of a conversation between her and two White House campaign aides from the time of the election in which Katrina Pierson declares, “He said it. He said it, and he’s embarrassed.”

I suppose we’ll see what happens if the tape is real. Or you will, anyway: If the tape comes out, I’ll be moving to Bend, Oregon, sans Internet-enabled devices to live an ascetic existence watching movies rented from the last Blockbuster in America for the rest of my days, blissfully unaware of the political news cycle.

The Return on Degrees Is Fading

The St. Louis Federal Reserve has concluded a three-part study on the economic advantages of college and graduate degrees. Having a degree has long been associated with higher family income and wealth, but over time, the monetary returns of college and graduate degrees have changed.

There is a significant disparity in earnings between those who do have college degrees and those who do not. The average family with a four-year degree earns 69 percent more than the average family without a degree, while the average family with a graduate degree earns double the non-degree average. In terms of accumulated wealth, the average family with a college degree has accumulated 201 percent more wealth than a non-degree family, while the average postgrad family has accumulated 242 percent more.

But the advantage is fading. Though the boost to income remains strong, it was higher among older generations. White families whose parents have either four-year or graduate degrees and were born in the 1980s enjoy less of a bump in income than families with older parents; black families enjoy the same boost to income as their older counterparts. But white and black families are having a far harder time building wealth. The numbers are stark.

I’ll have more on potential reasons later, most likely on the Corner. The most obvious would be the skyrocketing cost of college, another could be rising housing costs, another the proliferation of disciplines that do not teach students marketable skills. (Then again, I was a philosophy major.)


Crises in Turkey and the Labour Party

Turkish president President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Reuters photo: Sergei Karpukhin)

Making the click-through worthwhile: In today’s Jolt we take a look at unfolding crises in Turkey and the U.K.

Earth to Erdogan: Raise Rates

In one week, the Turkish lira has fallen by more than 20 percent against the U.S. dollar, and yields on Turkey’s sovereign debt have skyrocketed as investors demand greater compensation for the risk of holding Turkish bonds. Turkey is quickly approaching an outright financial crisis.

The trouble worsened, but did not start, in late July, when relations between the U.S. and Turkey soured over Turkey’s detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, on terrorism charges. (American observers agree the charges are baseless.) Diplomatic talks between American and Turkish officials failed to resolve the situation. Turkey began demanding that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, the leader of an eponymous dissident movement who currently resides in Pennsylvania, in exchange for Brunson. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, insists that Gulen is responsible for fomenting the failed 2016 military coup against the government, but Gulen is a longtime adversary of his and Erdogan has not produced compelling evidence to justify his assertion. So the U.S. abandoned its pursuit of a diplomatic solution and turned to economic measures to raise the pressure. “Relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” tweeted President Trump last week.

Trump doubled tariffs on Turkish metals last week, shaking markets and angering Erdogan. Today, the Turkish president announced that the country would boycott American electronics, temporarily saving the lira from its fall. Erdogan has accused Trump of intentionally sabotaging the Turkish economy, but if Erdogan wanted a stable domestic economy there are plenty of measures he could have taken on his own. Right now, inflation sits near 16 percent and the overnight interest rate at 17.75 percent. Erdogan has pressured the central bank to keep real rates low to stimulate the economy. This is an unsustainable recipe that was bound to curdle eventually. A significant rate hike could spell trouble for business activity, sustained as it has been by cheap credit. But it would help stop the lira’s free fall and, perhaps as important, it would convince observers that Erdogan is committed to avoiding a crisis.

Instead Erdogan has declared, “Interest rates are an exploitation tool that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.” This from the man who recently appointed his son-in-law to be finance minister, a position for which he was unqualified. It is no wonder investors have little faith in his government to manage its way out of a financial crisis.

What are the implications? Turkey’s economy is the 17th largest in the world. A default on its sovereign debt — a remote scenario, to be sure — would reverberate. A Bloomberg report runs through the exposure various emerging-market countries have to the Turkish economy, noting that while “fear that the Turkish meltdown will keep punishing emerging markets resurfaced Monday . . . many analysts say there are few fundamental reasons” that Turkey’s economy would sink the entire developing world. The risk to developed-world economies at this point seems attenuated.

But the crisis between the U.S. and Turkey is more consequential. Would a NATO ally long considered critical to the alliance turning East represent a major reordering of the world order, or simply be a lagging indicator of what has long been a reality? In a June 30 article in Foreign Affairs, Brookings Institution senior fellow Amanda Sloat noted that while the U.S. was likely to apply more pressure, “Turkey’s strategic geography, NATO membership, and centrality to several U.S. regional objectives make the relationship one worth preserving.” “As Russia and other U.S. rivals benefit from the rift with Turkey,” she argued, “it is ultimately not in the interest of the United States to turn away from its challenging ally.” Yet the episode has brought old, inconvenient questions about Turkey’s natural allies to the fore once again. Steven A. Cook wishes good riddance to the relationship in Foreign Policy, writing that the “Turkish government is ambivalent about the Atlantic alliance, has found common cause with extremist groups, and stirred up trouble in the Gulf, Jerusalem, and the Red Sea.” Regardless, Trump has a stronger hand than Erdogan, and no doubt wants to send a message that the spurious imprisonment of American citizens will not be tolerated, but the situation is delicate.

Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party

Sam Knight has a comprehensive account of “Jeremy Corbyn’s Anti-Semitism Crisis” in The New Yorker. A representative paragraph:

Chakrabarti’s forty-one-page report [commissioned after Ken Livingstone said Hitler supported Zionism] concluded that the Labour Party was “not overrun” by anti-Semitism, but noted an “occasionally toxic atmosphere” inside the Party. It recommended that members not use slurs such as “Zio,” or “Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons,” when talking about Israel and Palestine. Chakrabarti also called for a sense of proportion: inquiries of this kind should not automatically be reduced to a “witch-hunt” or a “white-wash.” She did not get her wish. At the press conference to announce the findings of the Chakrabarti report, in June, 2016, a pro-Corbyn activist accused Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish M.P. sitting in the audience, of working “hand in hand” with a right-wing newspaper to undermine the Party. Attacked with an anti-Semitic trope at an event intended to draw a line under anti-Semitism in the Party, Smeeth left the room in tears. Two months later, Chakrabarti accepted a peerage from Corbyn. The Board of Deputies of British Jews described her report as a “white-wash.”

Now Corbyn is back in the crosshairs after photos emerged of him attending a 2014 memorial service for Palestinians. Which Palestinians? Those killed in a 1985 Israel airstrike of Tunis. Oh, and members of terrorist group Black September who took hostage and murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Labour leader issued a statement that would have been better suited to denying teenage drug use than, say, honoring a group of terrorists: “I was present at that wreath-laying, I don’t think I was actually involved in it.” When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Corbyn for the photo, Corbyn responded that what really deserved condemnation was “the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March.”

Corbyn certainly seems disinclined to give an inch on this issue. This has led him to defend all sorts of actors within the party whose anti-Semitism appears undeniable. It has also, per Knight’s piece, produced anxiety among the U.K. Jewish community: Three Jewish newspapers took the unprecedented step of warning in a front-page editorial that a Corbyn-led government would pose “an existential threat” to Jewish life in Britain. The uncomfortable question lurking in the background is whether Corbyn is an anti-Semite. It seems arguable. But it also seems that every time the Labour party tries to prove it does not have an anti-Semitism problem, a new incident of anti-Semitism emerges. This demonstrates the truth of the charge, and I would argue that Corbyn has failed in his duty to clean up the party. Then again, maybe there really is a cabal of right-wing rabble-rousers in the U.K., and maybe they really are working hand in hand with Benjamin Netanyahu, and maybe the charges have been coordinated in an effort to undermine . . . oh, forget it.


A Look at the Alt-Right One Year after Charlottesville

((Jonathan Ernst/Reuters))

“Unite the Right 2,” the sequel to last year’s white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, happened yesterday in Washington, D.C. The rally — a pathetic gathering of about 30 people — generated plenty of counter-protests and media coverage, but not much else. There was none of the spectacle of hundreds of young men with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and none of the violence between fascists and Antifa which culminated in the murder of counter-protestor Heather Heyer by a white supremacist during last year’s rally. And there was none of the national disgrace brought on by President Trump’s initial response to the affair (though the president did write a tweet condemning “all types of racism” that left many cold).

What the rally did generate was plenty of retrospectives, some of which we’ll take a look at today. The first, by Jacob Siegel in Tablet, was published on Thursday and makes the following prediction: “The overwhelming likelihood is the counterprotesters will outnumber far-right attendees by an order of magnitude.” Check. Siegel argues that Charlottesville seemed to mark a high point for the alt-right as far as attention from the national media and the presidency are concerned. The alt-right as an organized political movement is dead, and while some form of white identity politics will continue to remain attractive to some Americans, it’s difficult to say exactly what form that will take.

Siegel has been writing original, penetrating coverage of the alt-right and assorted marginal political movements for years, and this conclusion runs counter to what he initially thought the movement might become. He recounts that on a podcast recorded shortly after Trump’s election, he argued: “Only a few years before no one had even heard of Spencer and now all of a sudden the president was tweeting alt-right memes and appealing to them as an influential opinion bloc.” While there was some risk of overreacting to the alt-right, “the opposite impulse, failing to take the new movement seriously, seemed to me the more salient risk.”

Here’s what I thought might happen. Spencer and his wing of the alt-right, which already had their own think tank and book publisher, would spread their ideas and influence through sympathetic elements in the new Trump administration. I never believed that a large, openly neo-Nazi movement had any chance of success in America but a more insidious and cleverly calibrated creep of fascist and racist ideas seemed to me a very real possibility.

That grim future where American officials cite briefs from the National Policy Institute did not come to pass. Siegel’s conclusion that Charlottesville was a kind of perverse apex for the alt-right qua the alt-right appears to be vindicated by the failure of yesterday’s rally. Other writers, however, took the occasion to argue that the alt-right has indeed managed to do what he feared it would. On Friday, Adam Serwer at The Atlantic argued that “the white nationalists are winning.” Matt Ford at The New Republic echoed the point. The Republican party under Trump, they argue, has become white nationalist in both rhetoric and policy; if the alt-right has disintegrated, it has nonetheless accomplished its goal of injecting white nationalism into the political mainstream.

Serwer has made a similar argument before. By his lights, the Trump coalition is primarily a white-nationalist coalition. The distinguishing feature of Trump’s 2016 victory is that a large subset of white voters supported him because they harbor white-nationalist motivations, which Trump fulfilled, but in a way that allowed them to maintain deniability.

Months ago, he made the empirical case. Here, he reiterates what follows from it. “The white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda,” argues Serwer. “As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. . . . [Charlottesville] and its aftermath ratified his calculation that his base would fervently defend any expression of bigotry against people of color.” Meanwhile, Ford points to the proliferation of extremist candidates who have managed to capture GOP nominations for statewide and national elections: from perennial kooks like Holocaust denier Arthur Jones, to former darling of and anti-Semite Paul Nehlen, to the Trump-endorsed apparent secessionist Corey Stewart.

What are we to make of this argument? I’ve argued previously that Serwer is too glib on the subject of Trump voters. More broadly, though, I’m inclined to think the broader question it attempts to answer — What will the role of white identity politics be in American politics in the coming decades? — is a tricky one. And this answer — it will be harbored in the Republican party because a majority of Republican voters are white identitarians who will vote for white identitarian candidates — strikes me as too neat. The GOP has been more deliberate and occasionally demagogic in its courtship of white voters, but as Ross Douthat argued Sunday this may not constitute a winning long-term strategy. In any case, it is a far cry from the alt-right’s dream to entrench a white majority via demographic engineering.

Graduate student Zachary Goldberg has found evidence that, pace Serwer’s thesis, plenty of Trump voters were motivated not by white nationalism but by class and more universalistic cultural concerns. Serwer cited an exit poll in service of his argument that whites of all income groups voted for Trump, but Goldberg locates two reliable data sources that say otherwise. Goldberg also argues that Serwer overstates the degree to which Trump voters are motivated by ethnic interests. Assimilationist concerns such as learning to speak English or adopting American customs, he finds, predicted support for limiting immigration, while white identitarianism and opposition to people of color did not. “Trump’s election had more to do with economic disquiet and the fear that America is trending towards a culturally balkanized . . . society,” he writes.

A more subtle explanation that nonetheless adds wrinkles to the neat account of Trump-as-white-tribune was given in May by Matt Grossman in a report for the Niskanen Center. Grossman finds a hidden consensus among Trump supporters: They “dislike group-based claims of structural disadvantage and the norms obligating their public recognition.” The high scores of Trump voters on variables such as racial resentment mask less sinister cultural attitudes that, what’s more, are widely shared among Americans of all ethnic groups. And “it is not clear that Trump’s direct statements were responsible for activating voters’ cultural views” at all, given the qualitatively negative reception — even among Republicans — of his language and attitudes toward racial minorities. Grossman ends with the admonition that “liberals . . . should stop assuming that Trump’s racist and sexist remarks directly won over racist and sexist voters.”

So the story with Trump and his base of supporters seems more complicated than Serwer and Ford are letting on, and the almost pitiable images from yesterday’s excuse for a rally seem to confirm Siegel’s observation that Charlottesville was a setback for white nationalism. Yet it seems blinkered to deny totally that white identity politics is a relevant force in contemporary American politics, or on the American Right. A recent study by political scientist George Hawley suggests that 5.6 percent of white Americans hold a combination of views that can be reasonably described as white-identitarian. Given what is generally agreed to be true about the alt-right, the data are surprising: Hawley finds that younger people are no more likely to hold these ideas than older people, that women (!) are slightly more likely than men to hold them, and that marital status is not predictive — except in the case of divorced men, who are significantly more likely to hold them.

White nationalism is a scourge, and Charlottesville was a tragedy that could come to mean many different things in time. The hope is that it will mark the last time raw white nationalism had any shot at becoming an influential political force. But it is sobering to consider that while that attempt to organize around an exclusionary white identity was unsuccessful, a latent constituency of millions of Americans with white identitarian views might exist. And plenty of people in the mainstream — Ezra Klein, Amy Chua — have observed that ongoing demographic change in the U.S. is affecting the political attitudes of white Americans, meaning that race will continue to be a salient political issue. All of this makes it all the more imperative to think carefully about these issues and how to address them effectively rather than using blunt, rhetorical instruments to try to litigate political fights.

White House

What to Expect This Autumn

President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for a motions hearing regarding evidence in his case at U.S. District Court in Washington, May 23, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Coming attractions for the big political news in the weeks to come; why we need to end the era of the celebrity presidential candidates; and football comes back . . . with all of the boring bumbling that preseason promises.

Think of This as a Coming-Attractions Trailer for Autumn’s News Headlines

I head out next week on vacation, and while “August is slow in Washington” is an often-inaccurate cliché, it does feel like the big political news is in a holding pattern.

What will happen in Paul Manafort’s trial? We don’t know, but either way, the charges against him don’t really relate to the 2016 presidential campaign. Lots of folks seem to think that proving Manafort got loans on false pretenses somehow begins the tumbling snowball that will turn into an avalanche that leads to Trump’s impeachment.

Our old friend Elaina Plott is covering the trial and writes bluntly about the gap between the expectations and the trial’s actual events:

Judge T. S. Ellis III adjourned his court just before 5:30 p.m. As I slid into the elevator, a blond woman noticed me holding my notebook. “What do you think the headline is? The secret affair?” she asked. Before I could answer, she said, more quietly, “I wonder if that’s the story of all this.” It seemed to be confirmation that in the end, the day’s trial, like the momentary hint of a “secret life,” had proved unsatisfying. As we descended, I began to wonder whether at the culmination of Mueller’s investigation, we would feel the same.

What does Robert Mueller have? We don’t know, but does this investigation look or sound like it’s ready to wrap up and issue a report anytime soon? It seems like a lot of plates are still spinning. This morning CNN notes that while there’s no official Department of Justice written rule about issuing final reports or making public announcements within 60 days of an election, there is a longstanding custom about not making big announcements relating to elected officials close to Election Day.

(Somewhere Hillary Clinton is wondering why this custom wasn’t honored by former FBI director Jim Comey, and George H. W. Bush and Caspar Weinberger are wondering why this custom wasn’t honored by Lawrence Walsh.)

If Mueller wants to avoid a public announcement in that 60-day window — a factor that is by no means guaranteed — he’s going to have to turn it in very soon. The 60-day window would begin September 6 or 7, and as noted earlier, Mueller turns in his completed report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has to go through and redact anything classified, or sensitive grand-jury discussions. Anything can happen, but it’s probably more likely that the public will see Mueller’s final report after the midterm elections than before them.

What will happen with the confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh? We don’t know, but this could very well be the least surprising confirmation battle in recent memory. We can expect just about every Senate Democrat who isn’t in a competitive race to vote “no.” Seven have already announced they will vote “no,” which makes their cries for the release of more documents from Kavanaugh a little cynical. (What, are you looking for some long-lost document that will make you suddenly change your mind and support him?) We can expect just about every Senate Republican to vote “yes.” Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski says she wants to take her time. Maine senator Susan Collins is making it clear that her vote is probably going to hinge on Kavanaugh’s answer to one big question about Roe v. Wade at the confirmation hearing:

“So what is important to me is does Judge Kavanaugh consider Roe to be settled law?” Collins said. “Does he believe it is established precedent on which people have relied that has now been incorporated into the fabric of our society as a recognized constitutional right?”

The Senate’s “state work period” ends the day after Labor Day, September 4. They’re not in session September 10-11. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley says the confirmation hearing will be “sometime in September.”

What will happen in the 2018 elections? We don’t know, but a motivated Democratic base and a less-than-fully motivated Trump-Republican base add up to a bad year for the GOP.

It’s Not Too Late to Argue That the Presidency Is Not Meant to Be Entertainment

In a better world, a significant portion of the people who encounter Michael Avenatti, the lawyer best known for representing porn star Stormy Daniels, would tell him, politely but directly, that he has no business running for president of the United States.

“I think there’s a huge appetite within the party for a fighter,” he said. “I think the party has yearned for a fighter — a fighter for good, if you will — for a significant period of time. And for many, I’m probably seen as that individual.”

See, no. The purpose of the president of the United States is not to be “a fighter.” It’s not about being pugnacious on cable news.

Every day the president of the United States wakes up and, presumably fairly early in the day, gets his daily briefing. Inside it, or during the briefing by intelligence officials, he’s (hopefully) kept up to date on every development and threat that could endanger U.S. interests. He may or may not have to sign off on covert operations, or the decision to put U.S. troops in harm’s way. He has to grapple with a lot of situations with no good options and plenty of bad ones. He has to carry the burden of knowing that some good men and women are likely to die because of his decisions.

He oversees a workforce of about 3 million employees — 2 million civilians, 1.3 million active-duty military. Any given day will bring problems that are complex — an Ebola outbreak, brinksmanship by Chinese or Russian military forces, a school shooting, natural disasters, tumultuous markets, some viral video of a police encounter with a minority stirring up racial tensions in an American city.

Amidst it all, he’s trying to get Congress to pass bills to enact his agenda and get his appointees confirmed. He’s meeting with foreign leaders, both friendly and hostile. There are pardons to consider. Organizations and special interests want attention and action on their agenda. The president’s party wants him to give speeches at fundraisers and rallies. The whole task involves a lot of management and negotiation — which is why for a long while, American voters preferred presidential candidates who were governors, who had run their own little mini-presidencies in Atlanta, Sacramento, Little Rock, and Austin.

There’s something fascinating about presidents who beat the tar out of each other on the campaign trail becoming friends later in life. Many presidents find that their predecessors who seemed so foolish and out of touch when they were mere candidates were doing the best they could in a difficult circumstance — and that they are among the few who really understand the burdens of the job.

And of course, the whole time, there’s relentless media scrutiny — speeches, interviews, press conferences. That last part bleeds into the concept of the president as a celebrity — appearing on late-night comedy shows, making NCAA bracket picks on ESPN, tweets and other social-media content — and it’s the least important aspect of the job in terms of the Constitution and governing . . . and yet somehow, it’s becoming one of the most important aspects of the job in the modern media environment.

A generation ago, a figure like Michael Avenatti announcing interest in running for president would be seen as roughly akin to Pat Paulsen. Now, Avenatti gets invited to Democratic party events in Iowa, has a Hillary Clinton staffer helping out, and gets credulous interviews in the Des Moines Register.

Football is Back! Kind of. Sort of.

It’s that glorious time of the year when fans who have endured a long off-season tune in, cheer “football is back!” . . . and then, after a few minutes, remember what an unbearable, unwatchable slog most preseason football is. False start. Time out. Offsides. Fumble. Pass to empty space, because the receiver who’s not going to make the team ran the wrong route, and the third-string quarterback didn’t look at where he was running.

Still, the year has already brought some surprises. What, were the Cleveland Browns helmets too exciting? It’s bad enough that they’re not, you know, brown, that they have no logo, but now they take off the stripes? They look like a bunch of neon-orange golf balls. Apparently the stripes return for the regular season, when the final roster has “earned their stripes.”

But hey, Baker Mayfield looks good for the Browns, and Saquon Barkley looks like he’ll be exciting for the Giants, and even the Bills’ Josh Allen had some rocket throws against the third (fourth? fifth?) string defenders of the Carolina Panthers. Hope springs eternal for every team who hasn’t already had a critical player get knocked out for the season with an ACL.

ADDENDA: It’s bad enough that Democratic congressman Steve Cohen said, “The big orange president . . . He’s going to come down here and he is going to endorse Marsha Blackburn, because Marsha Blackburn, if he says, ‘Jump off the Harahan Bridge,’ she’ll jump off the Harahan Bridge.”

But to do it at a community prayer breakfast?

Come on, man.


Unite the Right 2: Electric Boogaloo

White supremacists carry a shield and Confederate flag at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., August 12. /(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Washington, D.C., and the state of Virginia prepare for a weekend white-nationalist rally in front of the White House; another once-trusted Trump aide reveals secret recordings of their conversations; and the Academy Awards creates a special category for films that audiences actually watched.

The Weekend Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of White Nationalism

Hearing police discuss their plans to keep the peace during a white-nationalist rally and counterprotest in Washington, D.C. this Sunday sounds a little ominous . . . but at least they’re preparing, and perhaps the country will be spared a rerun of the appalling scenes of violence in Charlottesville last year.

Up to 1,000 counterdemonstrators are expected at Freedom Plaza between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday for the DC United Against Hate rally and march, according to a permit issued by the National Park Service on Wednesday afternoon. Two other permits are pending for other counterdemonstrators.

After the rally, the group plans to march about five blocks to Lafeyette Park, the site where between 200 and 300 white supremacists have proposed to rally. The permit for that rally is pending, a National Park Service spokesperson says.

D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham says officers will do whatever is necessary to keep Unite the Right rally attendees separate from counterdemonstrators.

In fact, the whole state of Virginia is battening down the hatches.

“We are treating this as a statewide event,” said Jeffrey Stern, coordinator of emergency management for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “We will be in support both of the city and [Albemarle] County here, as well as Fairfax County and other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and our partners across the Potomac [River] in Washington, D.C., for the events on Saturday and Sunday.”

More than 1,000 federal, state and local law enforcement members are expected in the area over the weekend. Officials said roughly 700 members of the Virginia State Police would be in the area and about 300 Virginia National Guard members would be on standby.

Both Market Street Park, where last year’s rally was held, and Court Square Park will be completely fenced off, according to city spokesman Brian Wheeler.

They’re going to set up pedestrian checkpoints in downtown Charlottesville.

Hopefully this all passes without serious incident, but one can’t help but suspect that the most odious white nationalists walked away from last year’s display with a sense of accomplishment. The violence brought weeks of national attention to their ideas, and those who are willing to march under a Nazi flag aren’t deterred by negative media coverage. They probably hunger for it and relish it, believing that some segment of the audience will be attracted to their agenda. And their plan is to rally in front of the White House this weekend.

Who Wasn’t Secretly Recording Trump?

Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the former Apprentice star who President Trump brought to the White House to work as “assistant to the president and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison,” secretly recorded conversations with him, marking the second time in a few weeks that we’ve learned that a longtime associate of Trump’s was secretly recording their conversations.

At this rate, the only party that will turn out to have not wiretapped Trump Tower will be the Obama administration.

Manigault-Newman apparently showcased the tapes while shopping her forthcoming book, Unhinged, which she says will offer a deeply critical portrait of Trump, claiming he is in “mental decline.”

This seems like a good moment to remind Omarosa that back in September 2016 she was declaring that everyone who ever criticized Trump will be forced to bow down to him once he won: “Every critic, every detractor will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” (If a candidate is battling accusations of being a narcissistic, power-mad aspiring autocrat, comments such as that one do not help.)

Just what could Trump say in a secretly recorded conversation that would be all that surprising or scandalous, considering what he says in public?

President Trump takes great pride in his belief that he is an impeccable judge of character and talent. Back in 2016, he said, “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people. We want top of the line professionals. I really don’t want publicity seekers who want to be on magazines or who are out for themselves.” At the 2016 Republican Convention, Ivanka Trump assured us, “he hires the best person for the job, period.” (Then again, you might feel that way, too, if he kept asking your spouse to handle every important responsibility.)

Whether Trump sees it or not, he attracts and seems to prefer sycophants, who often turn out to be grifters eager to cash in on their connections to him. That person in our life who speaks too bluntly and rubs us the wrong way can sometimes be doing us a favor.

‘And the Award For ‘Best Film that Audiences Actually Watched’ Goes To . . . ’

The Academy Awards are adding a special category for “outstanding achievement in popular film”. . . in other words, an Oscar category for films that audiences actually watched.

At least as important, in terms of improving the ratings of the Oscars telecast for ABC, the Academy also said in its letter that it “will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” in time for the 91st Oscars, adding that “[e]ligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” Some will complain that adding such a category cheapens the prestige of the Oscars, making it more like the People’s Choice Awards or MTV Movie & TV Awards, but that is old-world thinking. More than the length of the telecast or the name of the host, Oscar ratings have been shown to correlate with the popularity of the nominated films among the general public. And the gulf between what the public buys tickets to see and what the Academy nominates and awards has never been greater.

You could argue that by nominating the lesser-known, smaller-release films, the Academy was urging audiences to take a look at films they otherwise might never encounter or consider. Perhaps the embrace of more obscure and smaller films in recent years reflected an exhaustion with the old criteria of “Oscar bait”: sweeping historical dramas, war films that suggest conflict between nations is meaningless, intense performances of tragic historical figures, actors embracing extreme weight gain or weight loss for a role, actors playing characters with mental or physical handicaps, and heavy-handed message movies.

The speech that Anton Ego, snooty Parisian food critic, gives in the Pixar film Ratatouille has a lot of truth in it:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations; the new needs friends.

But let’s throw in a few kind words for negative criticism, or at least acknowledge the occasional need for it. Sometimes a movie, television show, or book just doesn’t work out. The audience isn’t thrilled, and, like taking apart a malfunctioning machine, it’s useful to see where it went wrong, what part isn’t working, what concepts could have been interesting but just never developed quite right. (Ideally, this sort of rigorous evaluation and editing goes on during the creative process, instead of after the final product is presented to an audience.)

Face it, Hollywood in particular is a cynical business. Studios seem to think audiences will buy tickets to watch anything. Giant companies envision the toy line and merchandising first, and the story second.

The negative critic can be the equivalent of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Sometimes everyone wants a project to succeed and convinces themselves that it is working when it isn’t.

For example, someone might ask, “How could Batman v. Superman fail? It’s got two of the most popular comic-book characters of all time!” And as hordes of bloggers and YouTube-show hosts have observed, besides the exceptionally dark vision of the characters, sometimes a movie just tries to do too much. Batman v. Superman tries to be a sequel to a preceding Superman movie, introduce a new Batman, introduce a new Lex Luthor, introduce Wonder Woman and set up a plot point for her own forthcoming movie, set up an adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman, introduce Doomsday and set up a storyline inspired by “The Death of Superman” storyline from the comics, introduce images that evoke the climactic fight from “The Dark Knight Returns,” offer teases of the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, continue the commentary on whether today’s modern world would trust a figure like Superman, set up a philosophical and ideological clash between the title characters, as well as the physical battle . . .  it’s just too much. Few of those goals are achieved well at all. Really handling all of those points, characters, plot points, and ideas would have probably required something closer to a ten to twelve-hour miniseries.

At the heart of a lot of negative feedback is the hope that the next effort will avoid the same mistake and be better.

ADDENDA: Sonny Bunch with a point that many on the left won’t want to hear:

If you create a world in which you appeal to principles and then weaponize these principles in such a way that only one side of the fight is hurt — a world in which Kevin D. Williamson is canned from the Atlantic while Sarah Jeong maintains her position at the New York Times; a world in which right-wing YouTubers are demonetized while left-wing videos skate by; a world in which conservative voices see their tweets disappear while liberal voices flourish — you encourage people to abandon their principles altogether. (That’s why conservative provocateurs tweet about following “new rules”: They see principles as a weakness, and in a total cultural war, they might not be wrong.)


Ohio’s Election Results Are Too Close for Comfort

Troy Balderson with President Trump (REUTERS/Leah Millis )

Making the click-through worthwhile: The Ohio special election shows Democrats don’t have to worry about their get-out-the-vote efforts in 2018, a stunning report about who’s getting farm subsidies and from where, and some deep thoughts about the “Deep State” and why Americans perceive sinister foreign influences in their political debates.

The Ohio House Result Should Make Republicans Nervous

The morning brings news that Republican Troy Balderson edged out Democrat Danny O’Connor in the special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district. President Trump immediately boasted that he turned around the race.

This is whistling past the graveyard. Ohio’s 12th, which includes communities north and east of Columbus, has been a traditionally heavily Republican district; Trump won it by eleven in 2016, and previous incumbent Pat Tiberi usually won by a two-to-one margin. Balderson and O’Connor will meet in a rematch in November.

You’re going to hear a lot of breathless analysis of this special House election, but the basic outlines of November haven’t changed much since what we saw in Virginia and New Jersey last November. The Democratic base is roused. They will come out to vote. A side effect of that “own the libs!” “Democratic tears are delicious!” antagonism is that it does the job of Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts for them. Maybe it’s worth it.

Look at it this way. In 2016, 112,638 turned out in this district to vote for the Democratic congressional candidate, Ed Albertson. Yesterday, 99,820 voted for Democrat O’Connor. Democrats got roughly nine out of every ten Democratic-leaning presidential-election-year voters to come out for a mid-August special election!

By comparison, a whopping 251,266 voted for Tiberi in 2016, and just 101,574 voted for Balderson last night — meaning about four out of every ten GOP-leaning presidential-election-year voters came out for the special election. Balderson hung on just because of the district’s demographics.

Right now, you’d have to conclude that the Democratic base just wants it more than the Republican one. If that pattern keeps up, forget it. There will be no drama on Election Night 2018. It’s just a question of the size of the new Democratic House majority.

This isn’t the result of some great new micro-targeting gizmo, or a jarring advertising campaign, even a particularly great crop of Democratic candidates. This is primarily driven by a Republican president who is in the headlines every single day and who finds some new way to jab and poke at voters who didn’t vote for him in 2016 and voters who have spent his presidency convinced he is Beelzebub.

There’s a great irony to this: Remember when conservatives thought Trump might be eager to work with Democrats on an infrastructure bill, imposing tariffs, raising the debt ceiling, and other areas where they thought his agenda might overlap with the Democrats? Maybe some working-class whites are drifting over to the GOP, but a lot of suburban women are heading to the Democrats. Chuck Schumer boasted at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016 that his party would come out the winner in that trade, but it didn’t work out the way he expected. But maybe those Trump voters aren’t so motivated if he isn’t on the ballot.

Can Republicans have an okay 2018? Sure, but a highly-motivated Democratic base, and a president who alienates demographics that had once been open to the GOP means there just isn’t much room for error.

Oh, and early voting starts in Minnesota in 44 days.

You Won’t Believe Who’s Receiving Taxpayer-Funded Farm Subsidies . . .

Who wants to read about farm subsidies?

Scratch that — who wants to read about farm subsidies going to residents . . . of America’s most densely populated cities? has collected all of the data about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm subsidies in a new report, and . . .

[Residents of America’s five largest cities] received nearly $17 million in farm subsidies over a three year period, including Chicago ($7.7 million), Miami ($4.5 million), New York City ($2.8 million), Los Angeles ($1.6 million), and Philadelphia ($309,000). In Washington, D.C., more than 350 recipients received $1.7 million in fiscal year 2017 farm subsidies.

Some of this stems from the legal owners of farms residing in cities far from their actual agricultural operations. But at some point, it seems fair to ask that if you’re living comfortably, or well beyond comfortably, why do you need the taxpayer money to help keep your operation going?

The report found that in fiscal year 2017, “$4.8 million in farm subsidies flowed to the upper-middle class elites in America’s most expensive zip codes. Recipients in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood received $139,080 and $94,090 over the last three years, respectively . . . Billionaire businessman Glen Taylor — the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA team — received $116,502 in federal farm subsidies for his egg and dairy farm in Iowa. Additionally, twelve members of Congress collected up to $637,059 in subsidy payments last year alone.”

Back in 2015, then–Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department would be cracking down on subsidies to landowners who aren’t really farmers.

“The reality is that this has been a loophole that has been utilized by folks in [business] partnerships to allow for many, many, many people to qualify as actively engaged [in farming] when in fact they might only be engaged in a conference call or in a very narrow sense participating in decision-making in a farming operation,” Vilsack said. “We will close that loophole to the extent that we can.”

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office pointed to one common, troublesome practice: As much as $590 million was being paid in farm subsidies annually to so-called general partnerships, in which multiple individuals could claim to participate in the management of a single farm.

“I think you’ll probably see a lot of folks who in the past have been in an office in, say, a big city who had an interest in a farming operation for tax purposes who will not be getting the benefits that they got before,” Vilsack said.

The OpenTheBooks report found . . . Vilsack received $14,324 in fiscal 2017 through the Crop Rental Program.

Deep Thoughts about the Deep State

Ever since the “Deep State” entered the American-political lexicon, I’ve chuckled a bit because it was commonplace in discussions about Turkish politics back when I lived there from 2005 to 2007. And for what it was worth, from my limited understanding of the Turkish government and politics during that time, it was a pretty valid concept. Both the Turkish government and its political parties had a lot of secret factions and shifting alliances and hidden agreements and forces operating behind the scenes.

Today in NRO, Bruno Maçães, a senior nonresident fellow at the Hudson Institute, argues that over the past decade, American politics has grown to resemble that of these not-quite-Third-World not-quite-First-World countries:

What has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2016 elections would look strikingly familiar to Turks or Egyptians. Some episode or other of foreign involvement in the democratic process is reported. That is bad enough as far as it goes, but it gets worse. Once the fatal virus of suspicion enters the political bloodstream, it will never leave. Foreign involvement as such becomes a political strategy. The different sides in the political contest will strive to win not by developing better policies but by turning their opponents into traitors and quislings.

If you think the problem is Trump, think again. The forbidden fruit has been bitten. How could we go back? Why would Republicans refrain from lobbing the same accusations of foreign meddling against Democrats in the future? And why would foreign powers not attempt the same tactics again, now that they have seen how easy it is to sow chaos and discord? Trump did not bring this situation with him. He is in fact the product of a new world where voters in the U.S. feel increasingly vulnerable to influences from the outside — influences which can no longer be managed or controlled as they were in the past.

The thing is, we already had accusations that “shadowy foreigners are influencing the presidential candidate,” from Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign and Chinese money, to the claim that the Bushes were too close to the Saudi royal family. We remember all of the accusations that “neocons” and their Israeli allies were dictating foreign policy in the modern Republican party. In 2008, the Obama campaign website allowed donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards, raising questions about whether foreign citizens were donating to his vast campaign war chest. “Manchurian Candidate” is one of the most tired attack lines against any presidential candidate.

At some point, a candidate’s having a different perspective became synonymous with it being a suspiciously foreign perspective.

ADDENDA: Watching late-night comedy shows can leave you dumber, as last night Stephen Colbert called Jonah Goldberg a “Trump ally.”


Should Alex Jones Be Banned from Social Media?

(REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo )

Yesterday, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Spotify erased most of the posts and videos on their services from raving lunatic/radio- and web-show host Alex Jones.

Today, our David French pops up in the New York Times, offering the tech companies a better, clearer standard for when they can and should bar users, grounded in decades of established law.

Tech companies don’t have to rely on vague, malleable and hotly contested definitions of hate speech to deal with conspiracy theorists like Mr. Jones. The far better option would be to prohibit libel or slander on their platforms.

To be sure, this would tie their hands more: Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.

It’s a high bar. But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas, avoids the politically charged battle over ever-shifting norms in language and culture and provides protection for aggrieved parties. Nor do tech companies have to wait for sometimes yearslong legal processes to work themselves out. They can use their greater degree of freedom to conduct their own investigations. Those investigations would rightly be based on concrete legal standards, not wholly subjective measures of offensiveness.

Yesterday afternoon’s Twitter brawl amounted to anti-Jones voices accusing free-speech advocates of coming to Jones’s aid and defending everything he’s ever said and done, and free-speech advocates accusing Jones’s critics giving the tech billionaires veto power over public discourse and taking a chainsaw to the First Amendment.

A lot of the discussion about this on social media amounts to, “I don’t trust Facebook.” And that’s a reasonable position! Facebook has given a lot of people a lot of reasons to doubt its word and impartiality! None of the people who run these companies are constitutional scholars specializing in First Amendment cases, nor did they ever aspire to be in that role. They set up and joined these companies to make money — and now they’re in the weird position of American Public Discourse Police.

But right now, Alex Jones is fighting a defamation lawsuit from the parents of a six-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. The parents’ suit alleges that Jones showed his audience their personal information and maps to addresses associated with the family, leading to years of threats and harassment from Jones followers who claimed the shooting was a hoax. As this Wired article lays out, the ruling may depend on whether the judge and jury think Jones intended for the parents to be harassed.

A few shock jocks on talk radio have successfully deflected defamation cases by arguing that no one took their comments seriously. But even if Jones wins that argument, he might lose against Pozner and De La Rosa’s claims that he intentionally inflicted emotional distress. See, the tale of the shock jock cuts both ways: According to Baron, shock jocks were the only defendants she ever saw lose to that argument, because their behavior — while performative — was considered so outside any form of civilized norm. Might harassing (and doxing) the parents of a murdered child qualify? It’s apparently not outside the internet’s moral code. [In real life], it’ll depend on the judge, and the jury.

Your mileage may vary, but I think the argument about whether online platforms should ban Jones looks really different if a judge and jury determine, after hearing all of the arguments, that he said something literally indefensible. If you don’t think Facebook or YouTube or other platforms should ban Alex Jones after he’s lost a defamation lawsuit over what he’s posted on their websites, you more or less are arguing that they should never ban anyone.

And if you want that to be the rule, fine. Ironically, that’s close to how the tech companies saw themselves for a long time: as technology companies, not as media companies, and thus no more responsible for what gets written on Facebook than the people who build bathroom stall walls are for someone writing, “For a good time call Jenny at 867-5309.”

But as I pointed out a little while back, the bathroom-stall wall doesn’t delete messages it deems inappropriate, meaning that Facebook has already subtly acknowledged some responsibility for what ends up written on the site.

Imagine you invent a new social-media platform, and just as you’re about to launch it, someone tells you that it’s going to be used by neo-Nazis, Columbiners, gang members, child abusers, and so on. You might recoil in horror and hesitate about whether you actually want to offer that product to the world. At the very least, you would want to be able to deny those folks you find unacceptable from using it.

The don’t-ban-anyone crowd is arguing that Facebook and other social-media platforms are something like public utilities, something that should be available and accessible to everyone, no matter the circumstances. Public utilities are either run by the government or by heavily regulated by a public commission. Do we really prefer that path?

The Book Is Closed on a Horrific Event, with Less-Than-Satisfying Answers

It was easy to miss the announcement last week from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office that they had closed the case on the October 2017 deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas and concluded that they could not find a clear motive.

There will be some who will be able to shrug it off with, “He was crazy,” and no doubt on some level he was. But it was the kind of crazy that didn’t interfere with him meticulously planning this over a long time — researching open-air concert venues, Las Vegas SWAT tactics, weapons and explosives, and purchasing more than 55 weapons between October 2016 and September 2017. Casinos are filled with security guards and cameras, and he managed to bring an arsenal into a room and launch the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Somewhere ISIS is asking, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

If the shooter had made a statement of allegiance to ISIS or some other extremist group, this would at least have been easier to understand. But police said there was “no evidence of radicalization or ideology to support any theory that [the shooter] supported or followed any hate group or any domestic or foreign terrorist organization.” Some wondered whether the selection of a country-music festival represented a deliberate target — a crowd that probably represented Trump voters or perhaps some other demographic that the shooter hated.

But police found evidence he had also considered targeting another music festival, with a different style, in a different city: a reservation for a hotel during the Lollapalooza music festival held at Grant Park in Chicago during the month of August: “Like the Route 91 Harvest music festival, the Lollapalooza festival was held in an open-air venue. Paddock specifically requested a room overlooking the venue when he made the reservation. That reservation was cancelled two days prior to the check-in date.”

The police report offers a theory that is quite chilling, quoting the shooter’s brother, Eric.

Eric believed [the shooter] may have conducted the attack because he had done everything in the world he wanted to do and was bored with everything. If so, [the shooter] would have planned the attack to kill a large amount of people because he would want to be known as having the largest casualty count. [the shooter] always wanted to be the best and known to everyone. 

[The shooter] would not have cared about the people he killed. It would not matter their race, religion or sex. [the shooter] was described by Eric as a “narcissist” and only cared for people that could benefit him in some way. Eric stated [the shooter] needed to be seen as important and needed to be catered to.

It seems unimaginable: Today, 58 people are dead and more than 800 are recovering from injuries, with thousands more traumatized, because some gambler got bored with his life and this was the only way he could conceive to end that boredom.

Speaking of Mass Shootings . . .

A change has come to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office:

Capt. Chris Mulligan, a military veteran and sheriff’s office employee for 19 years, will replace Capt. Jan. Jordan.

Parkland city officials asked the Sheriff’s Office to replace Jordan after complaints about her leadership during the shooting Feb. 14.

Among the criticisms: A Coral Springs deputy fire chief repeatedly asked her for permission to send his medics into the school but was rebuffed. At the time, the shooter hadn’t been caught and only a handful of specially trained SWAT paramedics were in the school.

Jordan told the deputy fire chief she’d have to check before letting more medics enter, he said. By the time the whole building was deemed safe, there was no need — everyone had been brought out by police or was dead.

Any chance that the sheriff who went on CNN and demonized Dana Loesch, knowing that the officer at the school didn’t engage the shooter, can go with her?

ADDENDA: Think of this closing note as a crossover with The Remnant: It’s a shame to see Arthur Brooks of AEI so shamelessly echoing “Bear Propaganda.” Surely Jonah will remain vigilant.

Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren: Our Justice System Is ‘Racist, All the Way, Front to Back.’

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., October 24, 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

You think you have a tough job this morning? Imagine being the guy who has to organize “Cops for Warren 2020” in a year or so.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking at Dillard University in New Orleans this weekend:

“Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system,” she railed. “It’s racist. It is. And when I say our system, I mean all the way. I mean front to back. This is not just sentencing reform we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the front end on what you declare to be illegal on how you enforce it, on who gets arrested.”

“Racist all the way, front to back,” is a really surprising and troubling thing to hear about a system that was, until 18 months ago, effectively headed by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and before her, Eric Holder, appointed and accountable to the nation’s first African-American president. A system that has 214 African-American federal judges, 125 of Latino or Hispanic heritage, 41 Asian-Americans, and three Native Americans. A system that has at least 400 black prosecutors (although far too few elected ones).  A system where 27 percent of the officers and police personnel are members of minority groups, as of 2013, the most recent year data are available. Do all of these people feel like they are cogs in the “racist all the way, front to back” machine?

Does she think her potential rival, former Massachusetts governor and assistant attorney general Deval Patrick was part of a racist system? How about former district attorney and state attorney general Kamala Harris?

Wait a minute . . .  Holder, Patrick, and Harris have all made noise about running for president. Say, Warren’s across-the-board denunciation of the entire American criminal justice system wouldn’t be a subtle early attempt to paint all of three potential African-American rivals as suspect, having spent long chunks of their careers in this system, would it?

It’s not like Elizabeth Warren ever said or did something cynical about race to get ahead, right?

If Warren believes what she’s saying, and this isn’t just careless incendiary rhetoric, the only logical conclusion is that all of the prosecutions and incarcerations in recent memory are at least suspect and likely unjust.

Trouble’s Coming to Washington This Weekend

Give us all a moment to choke on the irony that one of the plans to avoid violence at next week’s white-nationalist rally in Washington, D.C., was to take the city’s subway and institute a system that seems uncomfortably close to . . . separate but equal:

Metro is no longer considering running separate trains for protesters participating in the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” white nationalists rally in the District, the transit agency’s board chairman said Saturday.

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans had previously said that running a separate train was among options being weighed by officials.

“Metro will not be providing a special train or special car for anyone next Sunday,” Evans said.

Word about the possibility of the service for rally-goers spread quickly Friday and Saturday, drawing condemnation from those who decried “special treatment” for white nationalist groups, which are focused on the goal of achieving a whites-only state or the separation of whites from other groups. Others thought the possible move to constitute a form of segregation.

The separate-trains idea more or less gives these creeps what they want, doesn’t it?

Still, you have to sympathize with Metro officials and every other government authority in D.C., because in all likelihood, trouble is coming to Washington this coming weekend. Some of those white nationalists are probably spoiling for a fight and/or looking for an opportunity play the victim. Plenty of angry local residents will be outraged by the sight of the white nationalists, and some are probably itching to demonstrate their opposition to fascism by physically assaulting someone for holding fascist opinions, oblivious to the irony. There are probably some angry voices licking their lips in anticipation — eager to argue that the marching buffoons representing the hidden malevolent souls of many more white Americans, and genuine racists will no doubt see the controversy surrounding any clash as recruiting opportunity.

Good luck, Washington.

The review of the city government and police handling of the Charlottesville rally was scathing, an absolute failure to protect the public in a dangerous situation that is simply mind-boggling. One white-nationalist protester literally pulled out a gun and fired at the ground near a counter-protester with a torch, and this didn’t bring the police running. There was a line of state troopers behind a nearby barricade!

This weekend, Portland, Ore., saw a rally and small-scale clash between the “Patriot Prayer” group and counter-protesters.

 Portland’s police chief on Sunday acknowledged allegations of injuries suffered a day earlier as officers cleared streets and fired various crowd-control munitions near crowds of protesters.

Chief Danielle Outlaw said any complaints would be forwarded to the Office of Independent Police Review.

The police bureau said Saturday that three people were treated by Portland Fire medics, and one was taken by ambulance to a local hospital with a non-life-threatening injury. None of those injuries were the result of police actions, police spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley said.

Police were stationed in large numbers in downtown Portland on Saturday in anticipation of a face-off between the right-wing group Patriot Prayer and groups of counter-protesters. Police lined Southwest Naito Parkway in an effort to keep the groups separated.

Around 2 p.m., officers ordered a group of counter-protesters near the intersection of Southwest Naito Parkway and Southwest Columbia Street to disperse. When the group didn’t immediately leave, police fired dozens of flash-bang grenades other crowd-control munitions. Officers rushed toward the crowd, shoving some protesters out of the street.

Police said protesters had thrown a “chemical agent” and other objects at officers.

All of that represents something of an improvement for Portland law enforcement, because earlier this summer they basically refused to help control protesters outside an ICE office:

 A mob surrounded ICE’s office in Southwest Portland June 19. They barricaded the exits and blocked the driveway. They sent “guards” to patrol the doors, trapping workers inside. At night they laid on the street, stopping traffic at a critical junction near a hospital. Police stayed away. “At this time I am denying your request for additional resources,” the Portland Police Bureau’s deputy chief, Robert Day, wrote to federal officers pleading for help. Hours later, the remaining ICE workers were finally evacuated by a small federal police team. The facility shut down for more than a week.

Ah, That Neutral Civil Service!

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, in a column contending that the Trump administration is harming America’s tradition of a “neutral civil service”:

Think about whether you want your water’s cleanliness to be measured by an expert or by someone’s cousin. Think about whether you want your tax forms read by people looking for information they can use as a political tool against you. There are reasons a neutral, professional civil service, as well as one that is small and efficient, is intimately connected to any definition of good government.

Yes, a bunch of political partisans at the IRS would indeed be terrible! Good thing nothing like that ever happened!

Applebaum also writes, “I was once told of an Asian country in which people pay hefty fees to the foreign minister to become ambassadors,” which seems strangely oblivious of the long, bipartisan American tradition of American presidents making big campaign donors ambassadors. (Is it better if someone writes a check to a presidential campaign instead of writing one to the foreign minister?)

ADDENDA: The National Pizza Museum is going to Chicago, and suddenly the country’s divide over New York–style vs. Chicago-style has turned them into the Sunni and the Shia.

Politics & Policy

There Are a Lot of Reasons to Feel Optimistic about America’s Future

(Chip East/Reuters)

After Wednesday’s gloom, here are a few thoughts about reasons for optimism for the future . . .

We groan that we’re governed by crooks, incompetents, and morons, but we’ve actually done a pretty good job of solving the problems that faced this country a generation ago.

Crime rates? Way down from the 1990s. Drunk-driving rates? They hit a new all-time low a few years ago. Air travel keeps getting safer and cheaper.

Teen-pregnancy rates? Steadily declining. The abortion rate? The lowest since Roe v. Wade passed. Our infant-mortality rate is low and getting even lower.

High-school graduation rates? Highest level ever. With the exception of marijuana, teen drug use is down dramatically. Very few teenagers are succumbing to the national opioid-abuse epidemic. Teenage binge drinking is way lower than in the 1990s.

Slightly more than a third of American adults have a four-year college degree, the highest level ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. College enrollment has dropped by 2.4 million since 2011 . . . but one might interpret that as a customer base rejecting an overpriced product.

You’ve heard about the low unemployment rate. When Vice President Mike Pence boasts that more Americans are working than ever before, skeptics scoff that it simply reflects that the American population is larger than ever before. But there are now more job openings than unemployed workers. The all-time high in the employment-to-population ratio was 64.7 percent in April 2000; we’re currently at 60.4 percent. It got as low as 58.2 in 2010. (Census Bureau figures indicate that 4.4 percent of those 85 or older are still working!)

Census Bureau data indicate that the median U.S. household income in 2016 was $59,039 — and that the past two years combined have shown the fastest growth since the 1960s. The poverty rate is 12.7 percent, almost but not quite to pre–Great Recession levels. Yes, we would like to see some better numbers for wage growth, but separate Labor Department data just released days ago showed workers’ wages and salaries increased 2.8 percent over the past year. The Federal Reserve and Wall Street economic forecasters feel confident for the future.

We fear terrorism, but one of the reasons that terrorism and asymmetrical warfare is rising is because conventional war is growing rarer. We don’t have many country-vs.-country wars anymore, and that’s a blessing. We have Russia’s small-scale war against Ukraine. We have civil wars — Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Mexico’s struggle against the cartels. (Even in these cases, on a global scale, the number of casualties is declining, although it’s fair to wonder how accurately they can count the dead in places like Syria.) But you don’t see tanks and artillery crossing borders the way you used to — and that’s a blessing.

Every day since 9/11, the jihadists have wanted to execute the most spectacular attack they could. Most days they achieve nothing. Some days they launch attacks in places most Americans have never heard of, and once in a great while, they launch an attack on American soil with a fraction of the casualties of 9/11. We live in a world where most Americans don’t think about terrorism every day, a condition that was unthinkable 17 years ago.

Osama bin Laden is dead. Mullah Omar’s dead too. The Islamic State doesn’t control any territory anymore, and we don’t hear from Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi much. Considering where we were, and what we feared would follow 9/11, the jihad against the United States must be classified as a catastrophic failure so far.

Coalition military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are down dramatically in the past five years.

Yes, we live in an era of serious challenges to American military superiority. But we still have some pretty ingenious minds giving us an edge. DARPA is developing drones that will never need to land or refuel; space planes; swarms of tiny flying robots, IED-proof vehicles that don’t need windows; and guided rounds capable of zeroing in on a target, enabling novice shooters to hit moving targets. (That’s right: Someday soon, we’ll be able to shoot around corners.) Lockheed Martin is developing hypersonic weapons, missiles that travel at Mach 5, roughly one mile per second. No wonder no one wants to get into conventional wars with us anymore.

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably thought AIDS would be the scourge of the 21st century. New drugs and treatment drove the HIV mortality rate down in the United States by more than 80 percent, and the number of new infections is down by two-thirds. In the 15 years since the Bush administration enacted PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — the program has saved 14 million lives.

One of the laments on Wednesday was the ever-growing economic power of Amazon. Still, the company largely earned its way to the top with a revolutionary service. Think about it: You can get just about any book, movie, DVD set, toy, article of clothing, or gadget ever created delivered to your door for a pretty modest price. This is a gift of knowledge, art, and literature on a scale that was inconceivable for most of human history. Just a generation ago, readers were limited to what the manager of their local bookstore or B. Dalton thought was a good title.

Whatever old toy or knickknack you loved as a child can probably still be found on eBay.

The flip side of my fear about too much escapism into virtual reality and immersive gaming is that you, the consumer, have never had more options for entertainment. Thanks to computer graphics, there is really no great novel, comic book, historical era, or idea that would be impossible or too expensive to film.

As a creator — whether it’s writing, the visual arts, music, filmmaking — you’ve never had an easier time bringing what you create to a vast audience. This doesn’t guarantee that your work will find an audience, but the old gatekeepers separating you from your potential audience don’t function in that role anymore. Self-published books can turn into big Hollywood movies.

The Internet and modern technology have eliminated a lot of those little annoyances of life from a generation ago. Need to find out where to go? Use the map app on your phone. Think about how much less frequently people get lost compared to before the Internet era.

I lamented Americans’ excessive use of 911 on Wednesday, but let’s face it — we’re all probably safer knowing that at the site of any car accident, fire, or crime, somebody can dial 911 with their cell phone. Think about all the phone-recorded video that has exposed wrongdoing.

Do you need to fix something in your house? There’s a good chance there’s a YouTube video showing you how to do it. Did you lose the instruction manual for that so-called easy-to-assemble furniture? There’s a good chance the manufacturer posted it online for download.

Your local supermarket probably has way more varieties of food, of better quality, than it did a generation ago. You can find six-packs from small breweries and craft beers in supermarkets now. You could go to a place like Total Wine and never run out of new options. If you have food allergies, or practice religious dietary restrictions, or are vegetarian or vegan, lactose intolerant or gluten-free, most restaurants understand and will try to accommodate you.

Think about how rarely you get stuck behind someone at the grocery line paying for everything with a check. Yes, your email inbox gets a lot of spam, but you have quicker access to more people than ever before and the important stuff is much less likely to get “lost in the mail.” We gripe about Facebook, but now we know what happened to all of those old classmates, neighbors, and friends from earlier chapters of our lives.

Think about the many pictures you take now for which you don’t have to buy and develop film.

Think about how much more you know about your health thanks to your FitBit or other wearable health-monitoring devices. Think about how many people are going to have their lives saved now that defibrillators are getting more common in public places.

Think about how many people don’t die in car accidents, now that most cars on the road have airbags and crumple zones. Advances in steel allow engineers to design structures that can dissipate and redirect the force of the crash.

If, as Yuval Levin says, conservatism begins with gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then striving to build on it, we can and should be thankful to be living in this moment, and in this society — even with all of its flaws and the daily screaming headlines of bad news.

Two Countries That Have a Bit of a Troubled History When They Team Up

A right-of-center foreign-policy analyst called my attention to this quote from Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, during a speech in Tokyo a little more than a week ago:

“In this geopolitical situation we need Germany and Japan to close ranks,” Maas said. “Alone, it will be tough for us to be a ‘rule maker’ in this multipolar world. When we combine our powers, we can perhaps become something like a ‘rule shaper’ — designers and motors of the international order.”

Germany and Japan, getting back together and combining their powers to design a new international order. Gee, if only there was some sort of nifty nickname we could give this alliance, like they’re trying to get the world to spin on a new axis . . . If this guy starts talking about inviting Italy to the party, watch the skies over Hawaii.

Paraphrasing an old Dennis Miller joke, I look at a new Germany–Japan alliance the same way I look at a Hall & Oates reunion tour. I wasn’t a fan of their old work together, and I’m not all that eager to see the new stuff.

ADDENDA: Friday’s a good day to remind you to consider joining NRPlus — get full access to the entire NR archives, way fewer ads when you’re visiting the website, participate in the members-only Facebook group (which is probably at least 99.9 percent free of foreign intelligence services attempting to manipulate us with images of Bernie Sanders as a bodybuilder), and get early invitations and discounts to NR events.


Look Who Else Was Making Ten Grand a Day Working for a Ukrainian Politician!

Former Bernie Sanders aide Tad Devine meets with reporters in Burlington, Vermont, March 2, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

When I knock somebody for being not that different from Paul Manafort, in their eagerness to do the bidding of shady or unsavory overseas regimes for cold hard cash, that’s not a defense of Manafort. (It’s pretty revealing that some insist it must be that.) It’s an attempt to further illustrate that most people’s concept of “corruption” aligns perfectly with “political figures and institutions I don’t like.” Looking too closely at the big-name consultants on their side of the aisle disrupts their reassuring worldview that their party is the good guys and the other party is the bad guys.

The Manafort trial has already produced one bombshell that’s hitting an unexpected political source. The New York Times reports this morning:

It also revealed bipartisan largess. One 2014 email presented in court on Tuesday showed the Democratic consultant Thomas A. Devine proposing a “day rate” of $10,000 to do work in Ukraine on behalf of Mr. Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned former president who was a longtime client of Mr. Manafort.

“You would need to make the travel arrangements, and transfer the $50G before the trip,” he wrote to Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s partner for the Ukraine work. “If you want me to come on Monday and leave Thursday it would be $40G.”

Mr. Devine, who is known as Tad, went on to become the chief strategist for the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.

Yanukovych is the Ukrainian leader who fled to Russia with the help of Russian troops in 2014. The entire Democratic party has become born-again Russia hawks, but no one is bothered by the fact that Bernie Sanders’s longtime top aide was working for this guy for $10,000 per day?

Remember, Devine is the guy who was saying in interviews in 2016 that the Sanders campaign was about “what is holding a rigged economy in America in place today . . . He believes that and I think he’s right.” Do those $10,000-per-day contracts with foreign leaders get exempted from the Sanders definition of a “rigged economy”?

Devine has known Sanders for 20 years and considers him a friend. In 2016, the Sanders campaign paid Devine’s firm $4.8 million for video and media production services, $438,403 for legal services, and Devine’s firm “shared at least $10 million in commissions through the end of May.”

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank spits hot fire over Devine’s hypocrisy.

[Devine] repeatedly echoed the Sanders message that “our economy is rigged,” that “special interests” buy politicians, that “all of the new wealth is going to the top of America,” that there is a “corrupt system of campaign finance” of which Hillary Clinton offered an “egregious” example. Sanders, by contrast, “supported the little guy.”

Those who heard Devine’s interviews and watched his Sanders TV ads therefore may be surprised to know that, in the years and months leading up to the Sanders presidential campaign, Devine was making gobs of money to secure the election of one of the world’s most corrupt political figures and then his allies…

Devine produced a memo of advice for Yanukovych’s party in 2012, even though by then Yanukovych had thrown the leading opposition politician in jail and had built a $100 million mansion — complete with zoo, helipad, golf course and replica galleon on an artificial lake — while his people were, in Devine’s own words, struggling with “joblessness, hunger and the general despair.”

The difference between Paul Manafort and Tad Devine is that Manafort allegedly tried to hide all of the money he was making overseas and Devine filed all the right paperwork and paid all the appropriate taxes.

Look, I realize we live in a world where politicians of both parties are going to give speeches denouncing America’s corporations as greedy and eager to work with oppressive, exploitative regimes in pursuit of profits. But it’s pretty galling when the guy shaping that message is doing the same darn thing behind the scenes.

Oh, and there may be more revelations in this realm:

Mr. Mueller’s team pursued three other investigations into lawyers and lobbyists who did work in Ukraine.

The cases involve Gregory B. Craig, who served as the White House counsel under President Barack Obama before leaving to work for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Tony Podesta, an influential Washington lobbyist whose brother, John D. Podesta, was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; and former Representative Vin Weber, Republican of Minnesota, who joined the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs after leaving Congress.

None have been charged with any crimes. Mr. Mueller’s referral of those cases several months ago to federal prosecutors in New York was revealed in news reports on Tuesday.

Making Up Stories about Criminal Conspiracies Is Bad, Right?

This QAnon stuff — basically, “son of Pizzagate” — is deranged nonsense on stilts.

And political leaders who spread wild, false rumors and claiming their opponents are involved in vast criminal conspiracies ought to be driven out of leadership for making moves like that. It’s morally wrong, toxic to our system of government, and thoroughly un-American.

I just . . . don’t remember there being much of a widespread, bipartisan denunciation of this sort of behavior back when Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid was spreading the rumor that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for ten years.

Is the idea that the governor of Massachusetts, two-time presidential candidate, and one of the richest guys in the country could escape scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service for not paying any taxes for a decade really that much more farfetched than the vast celebrity criminal conspiracies alleged by the QAnon crowd?

But Harry Reid didn’t suffer any real consequence for telling that shameless lie. Sure, there were a few tsk-tsk columns, but no Democratic party figure spoke out against him. Barack Obama and Joe Biden certainly didn’t speak out against him — never mind all that talk about inspiring people and how the American public deserved better. No Senate Democrat argued that he no longer was fit to lead the party in the chamber. No Nevada Democrat announced a primary challenge, arguing that Reid had disgraced his office and forfeited his right to represent the state.

No, the Democratic party as a whole decided that even if they found the tactic unsavory, Harry Reid was doing what was needed to win — and the end justified the means. When you decide that anything is justified in the pursuit of political victory, don’t be surprised when the other side adopts that philosophy, too!

Democratic Clerks For Kavanaugh

Meanwhile, in the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the Judicial Crisis Network is launching two new ads — one featuring a Democratic clerk for Kavanaugh, Kathryn Cherry, which will air on MSNBC and the other featuring J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.

Since July 9, JCN has spent $4.3 million highlighting what it calls “Judge Kavanaugh’s incredible record on the bench”; $2.1 million of that total spend has been in Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Alabama.

JCN’s chief counsel Carrie Severino: “These ads underscore the fact that those who know Judge Kavanaugh best know him to be a good man, a fair and independent judge with a long track record of basing his decisions on the law and the Constitution. He will be another great justice on the Supreme Court.”

ADDENDA: I’m scheduled to talk about yesterday’s column with Glenn Beck this morning, around 10:30 a.m. eastern.


The End Is Nigh

American flags fly on National Mall as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, March 2, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a survey of fears of American decline that might keep you up at night, Trump officials speak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for his new book and hope for the best, and Google chooses a side in China.

What Thoughts Keep You Up at Night?

Tyler Cowen tries to envision American decline, slowing economic growth, increasing addiction rates, declining infrastructure maintenance, a vicious cycle of tax hikes to protect entitlements, a diminished U.S. military, and a globally dominant China.

A few fears he missed, or doesn’t share, or hasn’t thought of yet . . .

What happens if virtual reality, immersive gaming, and other forms of “feels real and interactive” entertainment make living in a virtual world a lot more fun and interesting than the real world?

What percentage of our fellow citizens would grow obsessed with spending time in some technology-enabled virtual Shangri-La, where everything is easy, everyone is beautiful, and nothing is boring? What happens if some demagogue or exploitative corporation comes along with a cynical understanding of how many people are willing to trade away their freedom in exchange for unlimited access to their full-HD Paradise VR hookup?

What happens to our society if the traditional virtues of adulthood — growing up, getting a real job, getting married, and having children — get increasingly perceived as a sucker’s deal? What happens when spending your adult years living like an adolescent becomes normal, and the already shrinking birthrate plummets as marriage and family become perceived as luxury goods?

One of the hardest lessons of my lifetime is that problems that seem faraway and small, such as a bunch of lunatic guys in a cave who claim to have declared war on the United States, can suddenly change the world one morning. On the evening of September 10, 2001, very few Americans knew much or cared about al-Qaeda. Our quasi-isolationist impulses make us reluctant to worry about or pay much attention to every anarchic corner and extremist group on the planet. Al-Qaeda is largely defeated, and ISIS has been hit hard, but what if they get replaced by extremists from every destabilized region of the globe, all convinced that the world will bend to their demands — or at least stop ignoring them — if they pull off a spectacular enough attack on a Western city? What if terrorism becomes perceived as the most effective form of political action?

The online rumor mill and Facebook posts helped set off violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. And then Sinhalese-language Facebook groups did something similar in Sri Lanka. Similar threats and violence arose in Indonesia, India, and Mexico, all with the same formula: poor neighborhoods, ethnic divisions, a mistrusted government that lead to riots, lynch mobs, ransacked stores, arson. Is this a third-world problem? How far are we from this with our own homegrown ISIS wannabes, the alt-right and the Charlottesville nut-jobs, “Incels,” and “Columbiners”? The world has never had a shortage of angry young men with an endless list of grievances against the world for not being fair to them. What if technology is making it easier to recruit them to extremist causes?

The world said “never again,” but genocides keep happening — the Balkans, Rwanda, Darfur. We found a reason to not intervene in Syria; international organizations stopped counting the dead in 2016. Outside organizations think it’s more than half a million dead now. How do the world’s dictators, warlords, brutes, and militias respond when they know nobody’s coming to keep the peace? Do you think future waves of refugees will be larger or smaller than in the past?

What if the fallout from a terrible terror attack — nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological — breaks down our traditional idea of a free society? The police-state fears — cops on street corners asking to see your identification — are bad enough, but our society inadvertently taught “stranger danger” to children. What happens when Americans start seeing every stranger as a potential threat? We already have citizens calling 911 over children selling water in the street.

In the economic realm, just how far away are we from the cyberpunk concept of global corporations becoming more powerful than governments? In the competition for Amazon’s new headquarters, Fresno offered Amazon partial control over 85 percent of the tax revenue it would generate, and Chicago offered to divert between 50 and 100 percent of the taxes paid by Amazon employees back to the company. Some elected officials are perfectly comfortable giving corporate entities powers that are traditionally reserved for governments.

In Peter Thiel’s book, he noted that we’re already in an era of de facto monopolies, particularly in the technology realm. Yes, there are other search engines besides Google, but none count as true competitors. There are plenty of online-shopping sites, but Amazon is by far the king. Facebook and Twitter are similar but distinct and only really compete with each other. Disney now controls a good chunk of America’s childhood; it owns its own characters, Pixar, “Star Wars,” Marvel Studios, and just purchased a big chunk of Fox’s intellectual property. ABC television, ESPN, Hulu, A&E, History, Lifetime . . . it’s all part of one big corporation.

What happens when all of that power over what Americans watch, shop for, find in web searches, and see gets concentrated in one executive suite?

What happens if enough Americans convince themselves that socialism and/or Communism will give them a better quality of life, and that these belief systems have nothing to do with the gulags, the secret police, the Stasi, forced resettlement, the Red Terror, the Cultural Revolution, Holodomor, the Great Purge, the Katyn Massacre, the Great Leap Forward, the Cambodian Genocide or North Korea’s prison camps, and that “this time it will be different”? What if they conclude that it’s simply coincidence that socialist countries produced Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge, and Nicolae Ceaușescu?

After Obama’s election and the instant — and intense — adoration of figures like Obama and Sarah Palin, I debated writing a book about cults of personality in politics. What happens when people stop seeing politics and governance as being contests of ideas, policies, and philosophies, and it starts being a battle of mortal demi-gods? What if — having so thoroughly left behind the concept of a divine redeemer — Americans turn to a series of secular saviors, ambitious narcissists who promise the world and seek scapegoats when they fail to deliver?

Our current political moment features a lot of tension between the Left and the Right, but also perhaps even more tension between those who paid attention in civics and history classes and those who didn’t. One in six Americans expresses approval of “having the army rule” and more than 40 percent of wealthy Americans support the idea of “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” Polling reveals only half of Americans know that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. Half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be, based upon the Constitution; the other half of us are arguing what the laws ought to be based upon how our gut feels that day. The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from erratic changes in public opinion by making the Constitution difficult to change. But they couldn’t make it difficult to ignore.

Anyway, have a good Wednesday!

Wait, What Image Is Woodward’s New Book Going to Shatter?

It’s Fire and Fury all over again, but with a reliable reporter this time:

The result is what often happens in Trump world: Senior officials, acting as lone wolves concerned with preserving their own reputations, spoke to [Bob] Woodward on their own — with some granting him hours of their time out of a fear of being the last person in the room to offer his or her viewpoint.

As one former administration official put it: “He hooked somebody, and that put the fear of God in everyone else.”

Another former official added: “It’s gonna be killer. Everyone talked with Woodward.”

Woodward has written similar books about every White House since Clinton’s presidency, and they’ve all had the same unwritten rule: individuals who talk to him come across better than individuals who don’t. He gets a lot of “if only they had listened to me” anecdotes.

Still, one wonders if this book’s cavalcade of anecdotes will really be that damaging. What’s that, you say? The staff is infighting and leaking? What else is new?

Does anyone look at this White House and see a unified, methodical, well-oiled machine? They’ve got the turnover rate of Spinal Tap’s drummer position, the president’s daily statements are heavily shaped by what he sees on Fox & Friends in the morning, the president regularly tosses his written text and ad-libs his speeches, and well-meaning messaging efforts like “Infrastructure Week” get overtaken by events.

The Woodward book brand is usually “despite the placid, carefully-managed image, this White House is deeply divided between warring factions, each convinced the president is being led down the wrong path.” Is the public as interested when there is no placid, carefully-managed image to shatter?

Google, Helping China Censor More Effectively

This week, you’ll hear a lot of people expressing well-earned disgust at Paul Manafort’s willingness to do the bidding of overseas oppressive regimes in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Of course, America’s big tech companies aren’t that different.

Documents seen by The Intercept, marked “Google confidential,” say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that “some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.” Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The search app will also “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.

Remember when people said the internet would jeopardize the rule of autocratic regimes?

ADDENDUM: The first Jewish speaker of the House in American history is . . . Paul Ryan! Technically. Ten generations back.

Just think about how much work this creates for all of the anti-Semitic nutjobs who have to update their conspiracy charts.

White House

The Trump-Koch Alliance of Convenience Starts to Split

Businessman David Koch (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The functional alliance between the Koch network and the Trump administration always ran on good policy outcomes, and once that ended, a split was inevitable; Washington’s lobbyists and bureaucrats live down to their worst reputations; and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes makes a revealing comment about the audience’s interest in climate change.

The Trump-Koch Alliance of Convenience Starts to Split Apart

President Trump began his morning fuming about the Koch brothers:

The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas. They love my Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judicial picks & more. I made them richer. Their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn. They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!

It’s hard to be “highly overrated” when you win most of your battles. In 2016, seven of eight Koch-backed Senate Republicans and 96 percent of all Koch-backed candidates nationwide won on Election Day. The Koch network spent $250 million in that cycle but effectively sat out the presidential race, as Charles Koch summarized the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the choice between “cancer or a heart attack.”

What probably has Trump so irked, besides the past criticism, is the network’s announcement that they would not support GOP representative Kevin Cramer in his race to unseat vulnerable Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. The network is upset that Cramer supported a $1.3 trillion spending measure in March, he’s taken a very measured tone in his discussion of the administration’s trade tariffs, and earlier this month he “commended the President for instructing the USDA to give our farmers a safety net during this short term uncertainty” — in other words, more government spending.

Let’s get real. North Dakota is one of the cheapest states to run a Senate campaign. In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp and Rick Berg spent a combined $11.7 million. In 2012, the average winner alone spent $10.2 million. The only poll since February put Cramer up by four. This isn’t likely to hurt Cramer that much, nor alter the odds of Republicans controlling the Senate significantly. This is the lowest-cost, minimally consequential “shot across the bow” that the Koch network can throw at the Republican party.

One of the things that separates the Koch network from other political groups is that they don’t just swoop in with television advertising in the closing months of a campaign. At their twice-yearly conferences, they like to tout their “permanent grassroots infrastructure in 36 states.” Americans for Prosperity is the most visible arm of the network, but in recent years others have sprung up: the Libre Initiative, aimed at America’s Latino communities; Generation Opportunity, which focuses on Millennials; Concerned Veterans for America, which addresses veterans’ issues; and Stand Together, which endeavors to build social capital.

One of my recurring irritations with coverage of the Koch network is that a lot of correspondents don’t really understand the Koch network philosophy, which will overlap with the Trump administration’s on issues such as taxes and regulation but have massive differences on trade and immigration. As I put it earlier this year, the Kochs are libertarians, and a particular kind of communitarian libertarian, if that doesn’t seem too contradictory. Their passions are for reducing the size of government, promoting entrepreneurship, solving social problems through community organizations, and, particularly this year, criminal-justice reform and anti-recidivism programs in prisons.

Some traditional libertarian causes aren’t really on their radar screen because not all donors share the Kochs’ libertarianism. At their conferences, you won’t hear much about government surveillance, the joys of legal drugs or the Second Amendment; those topics just aren’t their thing. It’s also not clear how uniformly socially conservative their donors are; if you drew a Venn diagram of the Koch-network donors and the attendees of, say, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual meeting, you probably wouldn’t see a huge overlap.

Back in January, I wrote that the Koch agenda and Trump administration agenda were aligning more than either side expected — lower taxes, rolling back regulations, excellent judicial nominations. But a lot can change in six months. The administration has charged full speed ahead on tariffs and trade wars and is talking up $12 billion in aid to farmers. The deficit is likely to hit $1 trillion this year and for several years to come, a spending habit that we had hoped to have left behind in the early Obama years. The hopes for any immigration reform are pretty much kaput, and the separation of children from parents at the border doesn’t align with the Koch hope for an immigration policy that “treats everyone with dignity.” Entitlement reform is off the table, and congressional Republicans show little appetite for a broad-based reform agenda. At their meetings, most members of the network make clear that they find nothing to like in Trump’s incendiary comments and Twitter tirades. Good policy kept them on board, not his style.

In February, I wrote “Trump and the Kochs aren’t friends, they’re allies of convenience. And if the Kochs start to believe Trump endangers their vision of a society of maximized freedom and minimal barriers to pursuing the American dream, that alliance will break quickly.”

Well . . . here we are.

Lobbyists and Bureaucrats, Living Down to Their Reputation

This morning brings two more stories that illustrate why Washington is still a swamp, and why the disdain from the rest of the country is well-earned.

A comment from Politico’s morning newsletter, about the incentives for top-tier lobbyists, as revealed by the Paul Manafort indictment:

Blue chip clients — Fortune 500 companies, and the like — used to shell out massive retainers to lobbyists for basic government-relations work. No longer. So many lobbyists who want to keep up their high-flying lifestyle or make their corporate overlords happy have gone overseas to represent despots and strongmen who are willing to pay piles of dough because they have massive reputational problems and have a hard time finding someone willing to take up their cause in the U.S.

FOREIGN CLIENTS are often willing to pay ten times the fees for a sliver of the work. That’s created a skewed incentive structure that encourages operatives to take work from unsavory figures.

— WHILE UNSAVORY, IT’S ATTRACTIVE WORK. Countries fly American lobbyists all over the world in first class. They pay huge sums. They treat these influence peddlers like royalty. Tony Podesta saw himself as a man about the globe. Who wouldn’t like that?

Who wouldn’t like that? Oh, I don’t know, anybody with enough of a functioning conscience to be troubled by working for infamous dictators and brutal regimes? I mean, if the Islamic State had wanted a lobbyist and offered to finance a “man about the globe” lifestyle, would you take the money? “You have to see the luxury condo in Raqqa that they’re offering!”

Meanwhile, over in the civil service . . .

The personnel chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — who resigned just weeks ago — is under investigation after being accused of creating an atmosphere of widespread sexual harassment over years in which women were hired as possible sexual partners for male employees, the agency’s leader said Monday.

Your tax dollars at work! Notice this is a guy hired in 2011 from the U.S. Secret Service, and the alleged repulsive behavior goes back to 2015; the article quotes officials as saying, “Many of the men and women Coleman hired were unqualified yet are still at the agency.” (Lots of unqualified workers at FEMA? Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?)

This is not a Trump scandal; this is not an Obama scandal. This is a “federal workers behaving badly, for a long time, in a way that a lot of people know and can see, with zero accountability” scandal.

Gee, if only someone had written a book about why the federal bureaucracy is the way it is . . . and if only the Trump appointees, so full of hopes to overhaul how government works, had read it.

A Revealing Quote about Climate-Change Coverage

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, discussing coverage of climate change and global warming: “Almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered [it], it’s been a palpable ratings killer.” Now, just think, this is an MSNBC audience, which presumably agrees with the arguments and believes in climate change. This is the television-news audience most inclined to watch segments discussing the issue. And Chris Hayes sees a “palpable” change in his ratings over it.

I could be wrong, but I suspect it’s because a lot of climate-change coverage offers the same predictable and usually deeply depressing themes, even if you agree with the scientific consensus: 1) The situation is terrible and it’s too late to really make any meaningful difference. 2) It’s all the fault of those people — those who drive SUVs, eat Big Macs, the Trump administration, coal miners. Environmental coverage rarely emphasizes that the wealthy elites in the audience — say, people who fly on airplanes frequently — add to carbon emissions.

I notice we don’t see a lot of cable news segments about the ticking time bomb of entitlement programs, and too many retirees and not enough workers. So maybe it’s just that television-news viewers don’t like hearing about problems that they think won’t affect them for a long while.

ADDENDUM: Bloomberg serves up a map showcasing how the United States uses its land, and inadvertently reveals the awesome power of Big Maple Syrup.

White House

The Liberal Faith in the Inevitability of Impeachment

A woman holds signs against Steve Bannon and encouraging the impeachment of Trump and Pence during a protest of Donald Trump’s travel ban at the International terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, January 28, 2017. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

I would inform you that President Trump is raging about special counsel Robert Mueller on Twitter again, but then you would shrug and conclude that the news is in reruns this morning.

This is the 440th day of the Mueller investigation. No doubt, the former FBI director is working the highest of high-stakes investigations, with enormous consequences for everything from the presidency to U.S.–Russian relations to Silicon Valley, and sorting all of that out will take time. There’s little to no room for error; the president and his allies will seize on any mistake, misstep, unsupported assertion, or legal setback. No one outside the investigation really knows whether it’s wrapping up or whether there’s still a lot of work ahead, and no one knows whether Mueller will turn in his final report before or after the midterm elections.

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s trial starts Tuesday. USA Today summarizes the charges:

The multicount indictment against Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, alleges two kinds of crimes: 1) hiding from U.S. authorities, including the IRS, millions of dollars in payments for work on behalf of the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and then-President Viktor Yanukovych; and 2) falsifying applications for loans from banks after Yanukovych was deposed and Manafort’s income plunged precipitously, imperiling his extravagant lifestyle.

You notice that all of that . . . doesn’t really involve Trump, other than the egregious judgment to hire someone involved in that sort of muck, and we’ve been making fun of Trump’s “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people” since the days of Corey Lewandowski, Omarosa Manigault, and Steve Bannon.

Former U.S. attorney Harry Litman writes that a conviction of Manafort would undermine Trump’s “witch hunt” argument, but . . . let’s face it, people’s opinions of Mueller are more or less determined by their opinions of Trump. There aren’t a lot of fierce Trump critics who don’t approve of Mueller, and there aren’t many enthusiastic Trump fans who think Mueller’s doing a fine job.

A few weeks ago, CBS late night host James Corden did a funny little sketch and song parody playing Mueller, and singer Shaggy played Trump — with parody lyrics to Shaggy’s song, “It Wasn’t Me,” an ode to implausible denials of cheating.

(I didn’t realize until now that Shaggy is a Marine who served in the Persian Gulf War. Thank you for your service, Shaggy.)

It ends with Corden-as-Mueller singing, “They may say I take too long, and my probe is a giant fail, but stay tuned, my investigation’s putting Donald Trump in jail,” and the sketch concludes with FBI agents taking Trump away in handcuffs.

I wonder how many people — particularly the not-tuned-in Trump haters — think that is how this is going to work. Mueller enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the FBI, taking over the bureau a week before 9/11, but he barely permeated the public consciousness in that role. Now he’s being portrayed as the ultimate no-nonsense tough guy by Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live. How many Americans think that once Mueller issues his final report, this will be resolved quickly and neatly like a Scooby-Doo episode, with a mask being pulled off and everyone gasping, “It was Old Man Putin all along!”

For what it’s worth, back in April, the Washington Post reported that Mueller informed President Trump’s attorneys that he was a “subject” of the investigation but not a “target.” And remember that Mueller’s report is not public information — at least not at first. Mueller turns it in to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — you know, the guy that a faction of House Republicans want to impeach — and then Rosenstein has to decide what to do with it. He also has to make decisions about redactions of classified materials and grand-jury proceedings that are, traditionally, not released to the public. Mueller’s report is not likely to be short, and the decisions about what to redact are not likely to be simple or undisputed.

And all of this is just to get to the public disclosure of what Mueller found. To actually remove President Trump from office, his foes would need a majority of votes in the House — not so difficult if Democrats win control in the midterm elections — but then they would need two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to vote to remove Trump from office. Maybe some Senate Republicans would vote to impeach Trump if Mueller presents an airtight, scathing, absolutely indisputable account of criminal behavior on the part of Trump himself.

(Can we all agree that if Mueller doesn’t come back with airtight, scathing, absolutely indisputable evidence of crimes by Trump, it doesn’t exist? Does anyone want to argue that Mueller is rushing the job, or leaving stones unturned? De Niro is playing Mueller as U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard right now; I don’t want to see arguments that Mueller is really Inspector Clouseau or Mister Magoo if he disappoints liberals.)

Short of that indisputable evidence, most GOP senators are not going to go along with what their grassroots supporters see as an attempt to undo the 2016 presidential election.

In other words, short of that airtight case, an impeachment vote in the Senate is likely to fail, offering something similar to the Clinton impeachment — a case where the president’s critics are convinced he committed crimes and escaped serious consequence, and the president’s supporters are convinced he was unfairly targeted by a partisan vendetta and a prosecutor who was determined to claim a scalp.

Corden’s audience laughed and applauded as “Trump” was taken away in handcuffs — but how do liberals react when they realize that their long-awaited, elaborately fantasized dream scenario won’t happen?

We’ve been here before. From 2005 to 2008, there were plenty of furious liberal voices who believed that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and adviser Karl Rove would all be arrested for terrible crimes. Vermont Democratic senator Patrick Leahy argued that the United States needed a post-Apartheid South Africa–style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to review the cavalcade of alleged crimes and horrors of the Bush years. In May, The New Republic ran a cover story calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the Trump years.

In the minds of many liberals, every Republican presidency ranks among history’s greatest injustices and terrors.

Mercy, Mercy Me

Former attorney general and potential 2020 presidential candidate Eric Holder weighed in on the issue of separating illegal-immigrant children from their parents at the border again, posting on Twitter an image of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the quote, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

It’s a powerful quotation from the former president, as long as you avert your eyes from the 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during the Second World War or the thousands of Jewish refugees turned away and forced to return to Europe.

It’s time for government to be kind, says the attorney general whose Department of Justice oversaw the Fast and Furious scandal, subpoenaed the phone records of reporters, named reporters co-conspirators in leak cases, and approved a drone strike on a U.S. citizen. (Anwar al-Awlaki had it coming, but using military force to execute an American citizen without a trial is a pretty dangerous precedent to set.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your 2020 Fundraising Engines

Michael Scherer of the Washington Post looks at the shadow fundraising campaign among Democrats thinking of a 2020 bid and finds this revealing quote from a former Obama official:

“I would say you have to have a path to raising at least $15 [million] or $20 million in that first quarter,” said Julianna Smoot, a Democratic consultant who oversaw then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 fundraising effort. “And I think there may be four or five who will be able to do that.”

The first quarter of the 2020 cycle is March 31, 2019 . . . 245 days from now, about eight months. This means a serious Democratic candidate will need to raise about $2 million a month, starting now.

Except . . . the Democrats will have a lot of not-so-serious candidates, and for that matter, you may see some not-so-serious Republican challengers to Trump, and not-so-serious independent or third-party bids.

ADDENDA: A new poll from CBS News finds that two-thirds of Republicans support federal payments to farmers adversely affected by tariff disputes, while 78 percent of Democrats oppose them.

So if I don’t want more big-spending government entitlement programs . . . am I a Democrat now?

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