Curious Times

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Yes, that’s from Lewis Carroll, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – and yes, “curiouser” is not a word at all – but she can be forgiven. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was a serious mathematician – a master at logic – and the whole thing was an ironic play on logic. Alice was overwhelmed. Sometimes logic fails, and then it’s down the rabbit hole – “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

Get used to it. Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, says that sort of thing at those daily briefings, in response to this question or that from this reporter or that –”If what you say were true, that might be so, but it isn’t and it ain’t, and proof doesn’t matter, logically speaking.” Donald Trump was totally respectful in his conversation with the mother of that dead soldier, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. All those people must be lying – that’s only logical. Don’t you get it?

The reporters don’t get it. They’re as overwhelmed as Alice, even if none of them forget how to speak good English – with a few exceptions here and there. America has gone down the rabbit hole. Puerto Rico will not have electricity until next year, maybe, and people down there are drinking water from toxic waste sites – because there’s no real drinking water – but this was the most awesome and wonderful relief effort the world has ever seem – and the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were the largest that the world has ever seen – Sean Spicer was doing this before Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Don’t look at the evidence. Apply “logic.”

Lewis Carroll had fun with this sort of thing, even if there is the undying tone of a serious mathematician’s bitter irony to his tale. He created a funny and clever nightmare world where all real logic disappears. Still, he had fun, messing with his readers, and others can play that game, like this clever and ironic man:

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Americans to show more respect for their president in response to a question posed to him at the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday.

In his remarks, Putin called Americans’ disrespect for President Trump a “negative” feature of the American democratic system.

Vladimir Putin is messing with us:

The Russian leader told his audience that those who ascend to the highest office in the U.S. possess a “certain talent” that allows them to survive America’s bruising political process.

“I believe that the president of the United States does not need any advice because one has to possess certain talent and go through this trial to be elected, even without having the experience of such big administrative work. He [Trump] has done this,” the Russian leader said. “He won honestly.”

Vladimir Putin said Trump won honestly, probably with a big ironic grin on his face. Putin is the last person on earth that Donald Trump would want to say such a thing. There’s stuff like this:

Republicans are waiting to pass their tax-reform bill before they move to impeach Donald Trump, a former Republican member of Congress reportedly told a former US labor secretary.

In a Facebook post, Robert Reich said the former senator, an old friend of his, told him Republicans are “just praying Trump doesn’t do something really, really stupid before the tax bill.”

Speaking over the phone, Mr Reich said he asked his friend whether other Republican senators were preparing to follow Senator Bob Corker and “call it quits with Trump”.

His source told him: “Others are thinking about doing what Bob did – sounding the alarm. They think Trump’s nuts. Unfit. Dangerous.”

That makes Putin’s compliment the kiss of death, and Putin must know that, but irony is wonderful. Trump was so successful at business (cough, cough) that he must be good at everything (smirk) – all said in ironic deadpan, like the best stand-up comic might say such things. All those distraught Republicans now may be asked if they agree with Putin. Putin trapped them. Putin is a clever man.

On the other hand, there was this:

Putin’s comments about Trump came the same day that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused the Russian government of committing “warfare” against the United States.

“When a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare,” Haley said Thursday at the George W. Bush Institute.

“It really is, because you’re making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want, to giving out that misinformation,” she added.

Putin continues to deny any claims that Russia interfered in the election, of course, so who are you going to believe? This further isolates Trump’s base. They’re fine with Vladimir Putin. Putin is a religious man – a good Christian, even of the Russian Orthodox Church is a bit odd – a man who winks at those roaming bands of thugs who beat gay men and women to death in Russian cities. He did drive Pussy Riot out of the country after all – and he knows how to handle “fake news” like a real man. Reporters disappear. Reporters die. Donald Trump only hinted that might not be a big deal. Trump is a wimp. Katy Tur is still alive – at the moment. Putin would have taken care of her long ago – and now Trump says that Americans should “respect” Donald Trump.

This will inspire Trump’s base, no matter what Nikki Haley says. Everyone else will be disgusted. Donald Trump won’t know what to do. What can he say – “See, Putin likes me!” His base will love that. No one else will. He’s trapped. Putin is a clever man. He pushed us a bit further down that rabbit hole.

These are curious times, and that Sanders woman isn’t helping matters:

The White House on Friday told a journalist who asked about errors chief of staff John Kelly made Thursday that it would be “highly inappropriate” to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general.”

The militaristic language, used to refer to the civilian position in the White House occupied by the retired Marine general, came when the reporter pointed out that Kelly had inaccurately accused a congresswoman of claiming credit for securing funding for an FBI building in Miramar, Florida in 2015.

As video published Friday by the Sun Sentinel showed, the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), never claimed to have secured funding for the building. She did mention during her speech that she had led a congressional effort to name the building after two fallen FBI officials.

Oops. But wait. Don’t look at the evidence. Apply logic:

Sanders repeated a misleading statement regarding Kelly’s remarks in the press briefing Friday.

“As we say in the South, all hat, no cattle,” she added, a statement that could allude to the fact that Rep. Wilson is known to wear colorful hats.

The reporter pointed out that Kelly’s statement Thursday was misleading: Wilson didn’t discuss the building’s funding in her speech in 2015.

“She also had quite a few comments that day that weren’t part of that speech and weren’t part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there,” Sanders said, referring to “what Gen. Kelly referenced yesterday.”

That was a non-answer:

The reporter pressed: Would Kelly respond to reporting on his inaccurate statement?

“I think he’s addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday,” Sanders said.

“He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money,” the reporter countered.

“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that’s up to you,” Sanders said. “But I think that, if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”

That was curious, at least to one guy:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Friday pushed back against a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that it would be “highly inappropriate” for a reporter to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general.”

The general to whom she was referring is retired: White House chief of staff John Kelly. But generals and chiefs of staff alike are routinely subject to journalists’ questions in the United States.

After the briefing, a reporter asked Graham about Sanders’ comment.

“The White House press secretary today said it was highly inappropriate to get in a debate with a four-star general, do you agree with that?”

“No, not in America,” Graham said.

Lindsey Graham hasn’t gone down the rabbit hole, yet, and the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen explains that particular rabbit hole:

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination – all you had to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.

One of those arguments is this:

Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing – “a very, very good movie” – to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me” – in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.

Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”

The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans – specifically, fallen soldiers.

So it’s time to abandon logic:

The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

Maria Alexandrovna “Masha” Gessen is the exiled Russian journalist who’s not a fan of Putin or Trump – “Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist” who was “probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country” – so she has issues here, and she was not impressed with Kelly saying that the President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do:

Kelly went on a rambling explication of speaking to the President not once but twice about how to make the call to Myeshia Johnson. After Kelly’s son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the chief of staff recalled, his own best friend had consoled him by saying that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one per cent.” Trump apparently tried to replicate this message when he told Johnson that her husband, La David, had known what he was signing up for. The negative reaction to this comment, Kelly said, had “stunned” him.

A week earlier, Kelly had taken over the White House press briefing in an attempt to quash another scandal and ended up using the phrase “I was sent in,” twice, in reference to his job in the White House. Now he seemed to be saying that, since he was sent in to control the President and the President had, this time, more or less carried out his instructions, the President should not be criticized.

That sort of thing worries her, as does the idea that communication between the president and a military widow is no one’s business but theirs:

A day earlier, the Washington Post had quoted a White House official saying, “The president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.” The statement contained a classic Trumpian reversal: the President was claiming for himself the right to privacy that belonged to his interlocutor. But Myeshia Johnson had apparently voluntarily shared her conversation with her mother-in-law and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson by putting the President on speakerphone.

Now Kelly took it up a notch. Not only was he claiming that the President, communicating with a citizen in his official capacity, had a right to confidentiality – he was claiming that this right was “sacred.” Indeed, Kelly seemed to say, it was the last sacred thing in this country. He rattled off a litany of things that had lost their sanctity: women, life, religion, Gold Star families. The last of which had been profaned “in the convention over the summer,” said Kelly, although the debacle with a Gold Star family had been Trump’s doing. Now, Kelly seemed to say, we had descended into utter profanity, because the secrecy of the President’s phone call had been violated.

And there’s this:

Kelly’s last argument was his most striking. At the end of the briefing, he said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family. Considering that, a few minutes earlier, Kelly had said most Americans didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who belonged to the “one per cent,” he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans – or the journalists representing them – the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase “Semper Fi” – a literal loyalty oath – into his question.

And then Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that it would be “highly inappropriate” to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general” – so sit down and shut up. We have gone down that rabbit hole.

Slate’s William Saletan carries this further:

On Monday, Sen. John McCain denounced President Trump’s philosophy, agenda, and conduct. On Thursday, former President George W. Bush did the same thing. Neither mentioned Trump by name, but their target was clear. They echoed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spoke out against Trump last year. These three indictments, issued by the men who represented the GOP in the four elections leading up to Trump’s, are more than ghosts of a dead party. They point toward an alternative vision of conservatism.

You don’t have to love Bush, McCain, or Romney to heed their words. You don’t even have to be Republican. Maybe you think that the Iraq war was worse than anything Trump has done, or that McCain is a blowhard, or that Romney is a hypocrite for sucking up after Trump was elected. But there’s going to be a conservative party in this country, and some kinds of conservatism are better than others. At its best, conservatism stands for morality and freedom. Trump stands for neither. We’ll be a better country if our conservative party listens to Bush, McCain, and Romney, not to Trump.

In  short, we have gone down a rabbit hole here:

Trump speaks of Americans as a people who share a language, guard a border, and bleed the same blood. The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, two months ago parroted him – and the Third Reich – by chanting “blood and soil.” McCain sees us differently. “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” the senator argued.

Without mentioning anyone by name, McCain called the empty nationalism of Trump and Steve Bannon “spurious” and “unpatriotic.” The United States “wouldn’t deserve” to “thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent,” he said. Victory for our country, at the expense of its values, would be worthless.

It would also be illogical, but logic has long gone now:

The fundamental difference between Trump and the previous three GOP nominees isn’t that they misjudged Iraq. It’s that they believe in moral constraints, and he does not. “We don’t covet other people’s land and wealth,” McCain said four months ago, alluding to Trump’s lust for Iraqi oil. In his speech last year, Romney said of Trump: “He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists.” That’s one reason why Bush, McCain, and Romney recoil from Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin. Russia and China are trying to undermine “the norms and rules of the global order,” Bush pointed out. Trump would help them do so.

That means that something has really changed now:

When you define America by its ideals, they affect how you think about immigration. Trump thinks his job is to protect the people already here. That’s a normal assumption, if you live in an ordinary country. But America isn’t ordinary. It’s “the land of the immigrant’s dream,” said McCain. Bush lamented that his countrymen, possessed by “nationalism distorted into nativism,” have “forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” Even Romney, who once spoke of self-deportation, protested that Trump “scapegoats” Mexican immigrants.

The debate between blood, soil, and ideals doesn’t end with immigration. It colors how we view citizens who are already here. Understanding America as an idea “means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American,” said Bush. “It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” To Romney, this is personal. While Mormons see themselves as Christian, they know what it’s like to be treated as a religious minority. Three times in his speech, Romney condemned Trump for slandering and vilifying Muslims.

And then there’s Trump:

To Trump, the idea of an American creed is foreign. He sees Americans as a team competing against “the Chinese,” “the Persians,” and other rivals. In speeches, he reads scripted words about how we’re all one people, regardless of color. But in unscripted moments, he has no compunction about casting suspicion on Muslims, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, and Seventh-day Adventists. He identifies with the “very fine people” who rally on behalf of Confederate statues, even when the rally ends in racist violence.

So we get this:

In the absence of ideals, conservatism simply defends old arrangements. It shields prejudice and injustice. That’s the peril of Trump’s pledge to “make America great again.” After the crisis in Charlottesville, he defended Confederate monuments by invoking “culture” and “heritage.” But heritage can mean more than slavery, states’ rights, or cotton. The Constitution is part of our heritage. So are the words of the Declaration of Independence, even if they were dishonored for another century. What makes America great is its struggle to be greater, and the job of a principled conservative party is to explain how our inherited values can guide us. In his speech, McCain praised the United States not just for winning World War II, but for what it has done since: “We made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on Dec. 7, 1941.”

So welcome to the curious upside-down nightmare we have now:

A country built on values can lose them. Trump “cheers assaults on protesters,” Romney warned in his address last year. “He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.”

The danger of Trump, and a ruling party that follows his path, isn’t that America will lose to China. It’s that we’ll win, but we’ll no longer be America.

At that point we will have gone down the rabbit hole to its dark bottom. Expect the Cheshire Cat – that mysterious ironic cat that slowly disappears until only that cat’s stupid grin is left. Maybe that’s Vladimir Putin. Or expect Tweedledum and Tweedledee – Trump and Pence – those odd twins saying the same nothings to each other all day long, and never really understanding what they’re saying. We live in curious times – but Lewis Carroll never imagined this.

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An Emergency Presidents Day

fEveryone knows a Trump supporter or two, someone from high school, so long ago, who posts on Facebook that Obama tore the country apart and now, finally, Donald Trump is putting the country back together again, because he’s a uniter, not a divider. After all, Donald Trump has united the country against Muslims and “Mexicans” and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and “Hollywood” – whatever that means – and against anyone who doesn’t consider Jesus Christ his or her personal savior – with the exception of a few Jewish folks – for now. Trump’s son-in-law is Jewish. His daughter converted – and Israel is where Jesus was born, so those folks get a pass too. But no one else gets a pass. The country is finally united on that.

That’s the argument, along with the assertion that Trump has brought dignity back the office – but of course dignity is tricky concept. Donald Trump is not an elegant man. He doesn’t want to be an elegant man. He wants to be an angry man:

Toughness, more than any other attribute, is what Mr. Trump has sought to project during his short and successful political career – and he believes his behavior makes him look tougher, no matter what the press thinks.

As a presidential candidate, he wanted to look dour, and vetoed any campaign imagery that so much as hinted at weakness, aides said. That is why every self-selected snapshot – down to the squinty-eyed scowl attached to his Twitter account features a tough-guy sourpuss. “Like Churchill,” is what Mr. Trump would tell staffers when asked what look he was going for.

He may have been going for Churchill but everyone saw the classic Mussolini sneer – and that’s been a bit unsettling. But his sneers have served him well, and he told America to sneer at the rest of the world – to get angry and get tough. So perhaps anger is dignity – or it’s the paranoia of damaged and deeply insecure man who panics when anyone dares to giggle at him – the man who hits back ten times harder at even the slightest slight that doesn’t really matter much at all. He takes no shit from anyone. Trump supporters call that maintaining dignity – demanding it, as he should. Others see a damaged and deeply insecure man – a dangerous man.

Trump supporters mat be in the minority now, and there a growing consensus that this is a damaged and deeply insecure and dangerous man:

Republicans are waiting to pass their tax-reform bill before they move to impeach Donald Trump, a former Republican member of Congress reportedly told a former US labor secretary.

In a Facebook post, Robert Reich said the former senator, an old friend of his, told him Republicans are “just praying Trump doesn’t do something really, really stupid before the tax bill.”

Speaking over the phone, Mr Reich said he asked his friend whether other Republican senators were preparing to follow Senator Bob Corker and “call it quits with Trump”.

His source told him: “Others are thinking about doing what Bob did – sounding the alarm. They think Trump’s nuts. Unfit. Dangerous.”

They are worried:

Reich said the US President’s personal attacks on his own staff “got them to notice all the other things,” such as his threats about North Korea.

“Tillerson would leave tomorrow if he wasn’t so worried Trump would go nuclear, literally,” he added.

“Who knows what’s in his head? But I can tell you this. He’s not listening to anyone. Not a soul. He’s got the nuclear codes and, well, it scares the hell out of me. It’s starting to scare all of them. That’s really why Bob spoke up.”

This will not end well:

When asked what was going to happen, Reich said: “You got me. I’m just glad I’m not there anymore. Trump’s not just a moron. He’s a despicable human being. And he’s getting crazier. Paranoid. Unhinged. Everyone knows it. I mean, we’re in shit up to our eyeballs with this guy.”

Reich may not understand dignity, as defined by Trump’s supporters, but at the New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen continues to report on this:

The removal of Trump using the Twenty-fifth Amendment is the aim of a newly launched social movement composed of mental-health professionals. The group, called Duty to Warn, claims that Donald Trump “suffers from an incurable malignant narcissism that makes him incapable of carrying out his presidential duties and poses a danger to the nation.” On Saturday, the organization held coordinated kickoff events in fourteen cities, where mental-health experts spoke out about Trump’s dangerousness and, in several, took to the streets in organized funereal marches, complete with drum corps.

Dr. John Gartner, the founder of Duty to Warn, told me that the event drew nearly a thousand participants across the country.

That may not be much, but that was inevitable:

According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, a majority of American voters now believe that Trump is not “fit to serve as President.” While many lay members of the public have observed Trump’s increasingly erratic and unstable behavior, commentary from mental-health experts about Trump’s mental state was slow to gather steam because of the Goldwater Rule, an ethical principle of the American Psychiatric Association that says that psychiatrists cannot express professional opinions about public figures they have not personally examined. “Because we were silenced by the Goldwater Rule, we failed to warn the public that they were heading over the Niagara Falls,” Gartner said. The Duty to Warn movement now represents an outright rebellion against the yoke of the professional norm.

That professional norm doesn’t matter now:

Numerous Duty to Warn participants contributed essays to a new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, which just landed on Sunday’s Times best-seller list – a sign of the public’s eagerness to know just how afraid it should be of Trump. Duty to Warn has also announced the formation of the “Twenty-fifth Amendment PAC” which will raise money for political candidates to run on the very issue of removing Trump via the Twenty-fifth Amendment. “We want to be to the Twenty-fifth Amendment what the NRA is to the Second Amendment,” Gartner said. He believes that fear drives people to the polls, and “what people are most afraid of right now is Donald Trump.”

Gartner said that Trump presents “the greatest psychiatric emergency in the history of the United States, maybe in the history of the world.”

That may be overstating things, but Chris Cillizza reports on the most recent odd incident:

President Donald Trump sent this tweet on Thursday morning: “Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?”

Cillizza sees a damaged and deeply insecure man:

This is, of course, somewhat common fare by this point in the arc of Trump’s presidency. Faced this week with storylines he doesn’t like – questions about the Niger attack, controversy over a phone call he placed to the widow of one of the soldiers lost in that attack, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Capitol Hill facing questions about Russian meddling in the election – he aims to change the subject via his Twitter feed. And he often does so by lobbing out a conspiracy theory with only the loosest ties to the factual world.

But even by Trump standards, this morning’s tweet is somewhat remarkable. He is suggesting that a dossier prepared by a former member of British intelligence has not only been totally discredited (it hasn’t) but that it might have been funded by some combination of Russia, the Democratic Party and, wait for it, the FBI!

Cillizza goes on to explain that this dossier contains things that were corroborated, and things that have yet to be corroborated – but “not corroborated” is not the same thing as “not true.” And he adds this:

The bigger issue – at least to me – is that Trump is suggesting that the dossier itself was funded by some combination of a foreign power, the opposition political party and a federal law enforcement agency.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the very suggestion and dismiss that idea as just Trump being Trump. “You guys always take him literally,” Trump’s supporters will say. “You shouldn’t!”

Okay. But here’s the thing: President Trump is, um, the President – which means he is held to the same standard every past president is held to. And by that standard, this tweet is crazy.

After all, put this in perspective:

Port yourself six years back in time. It’s 2011. President Barack Obama takes to Twitter to say that the stories over his place of birth are the result of a joint China-Republicans-CIA operation designed to discredit him.

How do you think that one would sit with the average American?

The point here is that it is deeply irresponsible for a president of the United States to even flirt with this sort of conspiracy talk. You can love Donald Trump and still believe that the idea that the Russians, the Democrats and the FBI funded a dossier designed to discredit Trump’s 2016 campaign is totally bonkers.

But what if there was and still is a vast and complex secret plot by the Russians and the Democrats and the FBI to make Donald Trump look bad? It could happen, right? Maybe there was no moon landing either.

It’s easy to see why many Republicans are worried, even about more mundane matters:

Key Senate Republicans are urgently trying to get President Donald Trump to reconsider his apparent opposition to a bipartisan deal shoring up health insurance markets, several senators said Thursday morning.

Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who negotiated the deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, both spoke to the president about it on Wednesday evening. Trump has variously praised the deal and trashed it as a “bailout” of insurance companies, and both Graham and Alexander are trying to pull him back from the brink.

Well, they did what they could:

In a conversation on Wednesday, Trump told Graham: “I want a deal. I want to get something for this money,” Graham recounted. The South Carolina Republican responded by explaining that Republicans’ bills to repeal and replace Obamacare continued the law’s subsidy payments, called cost-sharing reductions, and argued the plan is a bridge to the Obamacare repeal bill he wrote with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

“I told him that if Graham-Cassidy became law tomorrow, you’ve got two or three years before this thing gets implemented. You’ve got to do something in the interim period,” Graham said in an interview. “You can’t save Obamacare but you can keep the markets from collapsing until we get a replacement, which will be Graham-Cassidy.”

Graham said he talked with White House officials again on Thursday and encouraged people to make a deal within the “realm” of reason.

This White House is not the Realm of Reason it once was, and that has secondary effects:

Paul Ryan’s governing caucus is dwindling.

A number of the speaker’s closest comrades in the House have called it quits in recent weeks because they’re tired of President Donald Trump’s antics, depressed over the GOP’s dearth of legislative accomplishments this year or have personal reasons. Whatever the causes, the departures are certain to make Ryan’s job as House speaker harder, depriving him of loyal lieutenants in a conference already riven by ideological and stylistic divisions.

Rep. Pat Tiberi, a loyal ally of Ryan, is the latest departure. The Ohio Republican announced Thursday that he will resign by the end of January to take a job in the private sector. House GOP leaders had hoped the senior Ways and Means Committee member would lead the powerful tax panel in the coming years, House GOP sources told POLITICO. But Tiberi, a longtime tax reform proponent, made other plans just as tax talks are kicking off in earnest.

Pat Tiberi is walking away from the madness, as are many others:

Lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with Trump’s penchant for drama and inability to focus on the legislative agenda, numerous House GOP lawmakers and staffers said. While Trump and most Republican voters blame Congress for nothing substantial getting done, GOP lawmakers are privately exasperated that they don’t have a coherent leader who can help them deliver.

They have this kind of leader:

President Trump on Thursday gave himself a perfect rating for his response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico.

“I would give myself a 10,” Trump said when asked by reporters how he would score his efforts, on a one to 10 scale.

Trump spoke during a meeting with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who is in Washington to push the federal government to provide disaster relief for the island.

The island will not have electricity until next year, maybe, and people are drinking water from toxic waste sites – because there’s no real drinking water – but this was the most awesome and wonderful relief effort the world has ever seem – and the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were the largest that the world has ever seen – and so on and so forth. Donald Trump is maintaining his dignity.

This calls for an intervention, and that made this an emergency Presidents Day, as Aaron Blake reports here:

For the past nine years, George W. Bush has largely stayed out of presidential politics; he declined to criticize his successor, Barack Obama, and he chose not to endorse but largely ignored President Trump. While Mitt Romney and others spoke out publicly against Trump, Bush stayed above the fray.

That changed in a big way Thursday.

Speaking at a George W. Bush Institute event in New York, Bush didn’t use Trump’s name, but his target became clearer as the speech progressed.

 That was obvious:

“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism.”

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity.”

“It means that bigotry and white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed, and it means the very identity of our nation depends on passing along civic ideals.”

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.”

“The only way to pass along civic values is to live up to them.”

Blake then points out the obvious:

Any one of these quotes in isolation could be dismissed as highflying rhetoric aimed at the general coarsening of our political culture – or the rise of forms of nationalism and extremism that clearly exist outside the Oval Office.

But almost each of these quotes has some connection to Trump. “Conspiracy theories and fabrications?” Check and check. “Nationalism and nativism?” Check. A “degraded discourse?” Big check. “Bigotry and white supremacy?” Trump was criticized for not calling them out strongly enough in Charlottesville. “Bullying?” Huge check. Not “living up to civic values?” Check, definitely.

This was a presidential intervention:

It is possible Bush would argue that Trump is more a symptom of all of these unhealthy trends in American democracy than the root of them. But in drafting a prepared speech like that, he had to know how those words would be perceived.

Trump, during the 2016 campaign, repeatedly attacked Bush, most notably blaming him for 9/11 and for the Iraq War. More recently, he has favorably compared his own hurricane response with the response to Hurricane Katrina, which many view as the worst moment of Bush’s tenure.

On Thursday, Bush clearly decided that silence was no longer tenable.

This was a takedown, but Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley doesn’t see it that way:

For this speech to be a “takedown” someone would have to get taken down, and oblique remarks about being tolerant and elevating the discourse – given more than a year after Bush stayed quiet while his party nominated a candidate who openly cultivated the support of white supremacists and belittled his brother Jeb in personal terms on a daily basis – are not going to move the needle.

To be cynical, and to put it in orotund, indirect terms like George W. Bush might, you could even suggest that, for many powerful figures in Republican politics and the business community, rejecting alt-right white supremacism is more of a matter of maintaining one’s personal reputation in polite society than it is an actual political goal. Actual opposition takes time, money, and effort. Saving face only requires a microphone, a few clichés about American values, and a cable news camera.

There’s that, and there are the Trump supporters too. They would say that, in all of this, Trump was maintaining America’s dignity, against a world that’s laughing at us, or giggling at us – and maintaining America’s dignity against Muslims and “Mexicans” and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and anyone who doesn’t consider Jesus Christ his or her personal savior, and all that stuff. Who is this Bush guy anyway? Trump is uniting us.

Okay. Fine, the other president gave it a try:

Former President Barack Obama took some veiled shots at President Donald Trump Thursday night, warning against the “politics of division and distraction” in his first day back on the campaign trail since Trump’s victory last November.

“We have folks who are deliberately trying to get folks angry, to demonize people with different ideas, to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Obama said at a rally for Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), less than three weeks until Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election.

Obama never said Trump’s name during his mostly positive speech – but it was clear who he was talking about, taking shots at both Trump and Northam’s opponent, former Republican National Committee head Ed Gillespie.

Bush spoke in the abstract but Obama spoke in the specific:

“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them if that’s how you start. Ralph Northam believes we should have an orderly immigration system, and that we should crack down on criminals and gangs,” he said.

Obama, however, did generalize:

“Our democracy is at stake and it’s at stake right here in Virginia,” he said. “You are going to send a message all across this great country and all around the world of just what it is America stands for,” he said.

But this applied to both Gillespie and Trump:

“What he’s really trying to deliver is fear. What he believes is if you scare enough voters you just might score enough votes to win an election,” he said of Gillespie’s attacks. “It’s just as cynical as politics gets.”

Obama said Northam would deliver on law and order “without fanning anti-immigrant sentiment,” and invoked the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, an hour up the road, before ripping Gillespie’s “divisive” and “not true” attacks on Northam, a former army doctor.

“I don’t really think that somebody who spends his life operating on soldiers is suddenly cozying up to street gangs,” he said.

In short, guys like Gillespie and Trump are a problem, but there is a solution:

Obama specifically talked about the problem of turning out Democrats in off-year elections.

“Off-year elections, midterm elections, Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy, you get a little complacent,” he said. “The stakes now don’t allow you to sleep. It’s going to come down to how bad you want it. I don’t want to hear folks complaining and not doing something about it. All the young people out here, you know, I think that it’s great that you hashtag and meme but I need you to vote.”

Obama showed Bush how it’s done. If we’re in shit up to our eyeballs with this guy in the White House, go vote, in all elections. That was his Presidents Day message – and it has come to this. America just had an Emergency Presidents Day – because there’s an emergency. America’s dignity is at stake, not Donald Trump’s.

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Not the Politician

Americans hate politicians. Donald Trump knew that, so he said he wasn’t one – because he wasn’t one. He had never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is still a few steps below rudimentary. He had no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he had no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he tapped into America’s deep pool of resentment of those who question us, and an even deeper pool of insecurity, that they might have good reason to question us. There’d be no more of that. He promised to rid the country of Mexicans and Muslims and gays and urban hipsters and fancy-pants experts and all “politicians” in general. Donald Trump just sneered and mocked them all. No one would ever question us, or question him, ever again, and of course he won the election – because he wasn’t a politician.

That turned out to be a problem. There’s much to be said for politicians, and E. J. Dionne says it:

The work politicians do is important because politics is a good and essential thing in a free society. It’s the degradation of politics in the Trump era we need to worry about, not politics itself.

“The business of politics is the conciliation of differing interests,” Bernard Crick wrote in his still-valuable 1962 book In Defense of Politics. Note that word “conciliation.” It’s the alternative to outright warfare. Politics in a democratic republic assumes that we can find ways of living, working and progressing together even when we disagree. That’s why we need politicians who take their vocation seriously.

Politics, at its best, is about creating a decent society, a task that can only be accomplished when citizens find ways of cooperating. One of the best descriptions of what our aspirations should be was offered by the political philosopher Michael Sandel. “When politics goes well,” he wrote, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”

Dionne has issues with Donald Trump:

He has thrown our government into chaos and our country into tumult precisely because his disrespect for politics and what it requires leads him to debase our public life. He offers a torrent of lies, willfully tries to tear the country apart – his tweet on Wednesday continuing his verbal war on kneeling NFL players epitomizes his eagerness to polarize – and puts everyone else down, because doing so is the only way he knows how to lift himself up.

Trump takes no responsibility for – well, anything. “We’re not getting the job done,” Trump said in a very brief moment of truthfulness on Monday. But he quickly added. “And I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest.” That “I’ll be honest” might have been accompanied by a laugh track. Yes, Trump honestly believes that everyone else is to blame for everything.

Many of Trump’s lies are hideously personal. His false charge that President Barack Obama failed to phone or to speak to the families of members of the armed services killed in the line of duty was particularly sordid.

And there’s this:

Trump’s track record with the truth and his monumental insensitivity to others make it hard to believe his tweeted denial that he told a grieving soldier’s widow that her husband knew “what he signed up for.” The credibility of the denial was further undercut when Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the mother of the late Sgt. La David T. Johnson, told The Post that Trump had spoken to the family as had been reported and “did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”

So much for knowing a good in common that we cannot know alone, but his own party had joined him in this:

It has become a dreary Washington game to ask at what point Republican politicians (besides Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John McCain (Ariz.) and a few others) will stand up for basic decency by telling Trump: Enough. Up to now, most have cravenly absorbed all manner of insults, accepted unspeakable unseemliness, and sat by with wan smiles as Trump left them hanging by shifting his positions moment to moment.

Dionne blames them for this continuing foolishness, and adds this:

All Republican politicians who take their obligations seriously must stop rationalizing the irrational and say what has long been obvious, that Trump’s way of doing business is unproductive, erratic, mean and scary. Until this happens, Republicans deserve to be seen as enablers of a dangerous presidency.

Alas, you can count on GOP leaders to maintain their complicity until the tax cut that is their lodestar is enacted into law. On this question, Trump and his party are as one in offering misleading claims that their bill is designed primarily to help ordinary Americans when in fact its largest benefits will flow to the very wealthy.

But is a tax cut worth the price of colluding to undermine an honorable profession?

It is worth the price if the profession isn’t honorable, as Americans seem to have agreed, but this is not honorable either:

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, said that Trump called him at his home in Zebulon, N.C., a few weeks after his 22-year-old son and two fellow soldiers were fatally shot by an Afghan police officer on June 10. Their phone conversation lasted about 15 minutes, Baldridge said, and centered for a time on the father’s struggle with the manner in which his son was killed – shot by someone he was training.

“I said, ‘Me and my wife would rather our son died in trench warfare,'” Baldridge said. “I feel like he got murdered over there.”

And there was another problem:

In his call with Trump, Baldridge, a construction worker, expressed frustration with the military’s survivor benefits program. Because his ex-wife was listed as their son’s beneficiary, she was expected to receive the Pentagon’s $100,000 death gratuity – even though “I can barely rub two nickels together,” he told Trump.

The president’s response shocked him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000 – and I was just floored,” Baldridge said. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.'”

That was cool, but it wasn’t cool:

Baldridge said that after the president made his $25,000 offer, he joked with Trump that he would bail him out if he got arrested for helping. The White House has done nothing else other than send a condolence letter from Trump, the father said.

“I opened it up and read it, and I was hoping to see a check in there, to be honest,” the father said. “I know it was kind of far-fetched thinking. But I was like, ‘Damn, no check.’ Just a letter saying ‘I’m sorry.'”

Donald Trump was going to do what no other president had ever done – he’s not a “politician” after all – and then he didn’t do it – and then he did:

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: “The check has been sent. It’s disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the President, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda.”

That’s another way of saying “you caught us” damn it, so we sent the damned check, so back off, you assholes, and of course these things happen:

It took 18 months for President Barack Obama to fulfill a similar promise made to the family of Kayla Mueller, who was killed in 2015 while she was held captive by the Islamic State in Syria. Obama’s undisclosed sum, for a charity set up in Mueller’s name, arrived only after a report by ABC News called attention to what the president later described as an oversight.

Still, Trump is a special case:

The president has been on the defensive since details emerged of his phone call Tuesday with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 along with three other U.S. soldiers in Niger. After not addressing the incident for 12 days, Trump on Monday falsely claimed that previous presidents never or rarely called the families of fallen service members. In fact, they did so regularly.

Trump said this week that he has “called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.” At least 20 Americans have been killed in action since he became commander in chief in January. The Post interviewed the families of 13. About half had received phone calls, they said. The others said they had not heard from the president.

Donald Trump is not noted for his truthfulness, and here he was talking about “the hardest call to make” – these Gold Star parents may have lost a child but they don’t appreciate how much harder this is on him – but this is just curious:

White House officials circulated a statement of sympathy for the soldiers killed in Niger after the attack, but it was never released, Politico reported Wednesday. It is not clear why the statement was never released.

No one knows, and there was that other matter:

Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said Trump called Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, on Tuesday and said her husband “knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” Wilson was riding in a limousine with the widow and said she heard the conversation on speakerphone.

Attempts to reach Myeshia Johnson on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Trump denied the allegation Wednesday, saying in a tweet that Wilson had “totally fabricated” what happened and that he had “proof.” But the soldier’s childhood guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Post that she also was in the car when Trump called, and said that “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”

Trump later expanded his denial, saying that he did not say what Wilson alleged and that “she knows it.”

But there was no “proof” – the White House later admitted there was no recording of the call or even a transcript – so Trump ended the day calling Congresswoman Wilson a damned liar, and pretty much calling this particular Gold Star family a bunch of damned liars too – although he didn’t use those exact words. He’s certainly not a politician.

He may be something else:

Euvince Brooks’ son, Sgt. Roshain E. Brooks, 30, was killed Aug. 13 in Iraq. He has not heard from the White House. The president’s claim this week that he had called every military family to lose a son or daughter only upset the Brooks family more.

Brooks said that after watching the news on Tuesday night he wanted to set up a Twitter account to try to get the president’s attention.

“I said to my daughter, ‘Can you teach me to tweet, so I can tweet at the president and tell him he’s a liar?'” he said. “You know when you hear people lying and you want to fight? That’s the way I felt last night. He’s a damn liar.”

There is that, but the Washington Post’s Philip Bump sees a series of rookie mistakes starting with these:

The first mistake was that Trump didn’t acknowledge the soldiers’ deaths at the outset. Why he didn’t do so isn’t clear. As David Graham pointed out at the Atlantic, the White House said on the day after the attack that the administration was “continuing to review and look into this,” implying that there was still some uncertainty. But the soldiers’ bodies soon returned to the United States; Trump could certainly have at that point mourned their passing.

The second mistake was compounding that inaction by trying to insist that he was doing more than what was expected of a president. It’s the classic excuse of the kid who didn’t do his report so he asks for more time because, instead of a report, he’s doing a full diorama. But in this case, it was Trump saying that no one had ever done a diorama before, in front of a national audience that had seen a lot of dioramas.

There are more on Bump’s list, but there’s nothing new here:

This is what Trump does. Not only can we point to past examples of him taking a bad hand and making it worse, we can point specifically to a previous example of him making his handling of a family of a fallen soldier worse.

Last year, Khizr and Ghazala Khan took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to accuse then-candidate Trump of disrespecting the memory of their son, Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American who had been killed in Iraq, by suggesting that Muslims be barred from entering the country. It was a stunning and emotional speech – and Trump’s handling of it kept the family and the story in the news for days as he kept adding new areas of critique.

His first response was to praise the Khans’ son, while stating that the parents had “no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things.”

He then went on television and said of Ghazala Khan – who didn’t speak during the convention – “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” a clear insinuation about the status of women in some Muslim places.

That was followed by the usual Trump Tweet of Death that would leave all his foes whimpering in the corner with nothing to say and make him the hero in all this:

I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!

That did little good, and here we are again:

Trump can’t help it. Even before the election, that was clear to the public, which consistently questioned his temperament. But both the Khan dispute and Trump’s response to the deaths of soldiers in Niger are examples of Trump’s instinctive defensiveness working against his long-term benefit.

What’s remarkable is that Trump didn’t learn this lesson last year.

Any competent politician would learn that lesson, but he’s not a politician, and now he has proved that definitively, as Chris Cillizza notes here:

On Tuesday afternoon at a news conference with the Greek Prime Minister, President Donald Trump was asked about the Affordable Care Act and his decision to end subsidies to insurance companies to incentivize them to cover lower-income Americans. Here’s what he said:

“If you look at insurance companies and you take a good, strong look at the numbers, you’ll see, since the formation of Obamacare, they’re up 400%, 450%, 250%, 300%. They’ve made a fortune, the insurance companies. So when I knocked out the hundreds of millions of dollars a month being paid back to the insurance companies by politicians, I must tell you, that wanted me to continue to pay this, I said I’m not going to do it. This is money that goes to the insurance companies to line their pockets, to raise-up their stock prices. And they’ve had a record run. They’ve had an incredible run, and it’s not appropriate.”

That’s clear, but then there was a question on a bipartisan deal between Senators Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, and Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, on health care that had been announced as Trump was speaking, which changed everything:

“So they are indeed working, but it is a short-term solution so that we don’t have this very dangerous little period – including dangerous periods for insurance companies, by the way. For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution.”

That’s clear too, except, as Cillizza notes, that wasn’t clear at all:

“A very good solution” was understood to be Trump’s endorsement of the Alexander-Murray plan. How could it be taken in any other way?

Except that Trump’s endorsement of Alexander-Murray meant an endorsement of legislation that would reinstate the same subsidies Trump had eliminated last week and, earlier in the same news conference, derided as a pay out to the big insurance companies.

Trump was trying to have it both ways:

Trump, while still on the record as supportive of Alexander-Murray, condemned the subsidies provision in the bill during a speech Tuesday night at the Heritage Foundation; “Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies,” Trump said.

Then, this morning, Trump tweeted this out: “I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.”

This is not a competent politician:

He had no real idea what was in Alexander’s legislation. How else to explain Trump’s initial endorsement of the Alexander-Murray deal? Or, as CNN’s Phil Mattingly has reported, Trump’s private urgings for Alexander to cut a deal?

This is not a politician at all:

Trump likes good headlines in newspapers and good chyrons on cable TV. And he knows that being for bipartisan deals cut by Congress is a way to get those headlines. Remember that reports at the time suggested Trump was ecstatic in the wake of the positive headlines produced by his much-ballyhooed deal on DACA with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. (SPOILER ALERT: The deal isn’t happening!)

When he heard that Alexander and Murray were working on some sort of bipartisan deal on health care, Trump was drawn to it. Another chance for positive headlines! And a chance to push back on the “fake news” media narrative that he wasn’t getting anything done!

Trump didn’t – because he doesn’t – familiarize himself with many of the details of the deal, most notably the fact that it would reverse his decision on subsidies. When he heard during Tuesday’s news conference that a deal on Alexander-Murray had been reached, he jumped at the chance to a) show he knew it was happening behind the scenes and b) align himself with the bipartisan success.

Then the White House began to hear lots and lots of conservative criticism for his seeming endorsement of the bipartisan deal.

And so, Trump reversed course – a course correction that almost certainly dooms a piece of bipartisan legislation that he deemed “a very good solution” less than 24 hours ago.

There’s that, and his feuds with Gold Star families, and jerking around one Gold Star family with the old “the check in in the mail” trick that was probably useful in the world of high-end real estate, where pathetic suckers get screwed.

This is not a competent politician. This is not a politician at all – but Donald Trump never said he was a politician. He was better than that, but E. J. Dionne argues that politics in a democratic republic assumes that we can find ways of living, working and progressing together even when we disagree – we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone. Politics is the alternative to outright warfare – but with Trump it’s outright warfare day after day. Americans may hate politicians, but now they see the alternative – and there’s no alternative at all.

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That Empathy Gene

Republicans aren’t big on empathy. Empathy is for losers. In 2010, Bill O’Reilly reminded all Americans that it says right there in the Bible that “the Lord helps those who help themselves” – so Jesus would have argued that unemployment insurance and welfare and food stamps and all the rest are immoral, because charity creates a “moral hazard” for those who receive it. Real charity is doing nothing for these people, thus providing the poor and unlucky the dignity to solve their own problems and finally become “good” people with a sense of personal responsibility. That would mean that when Jesus said that “the poor are always with us” it’s obvious that Jesus was simply exasperated with such losers, who can’t ever seem to get their act together.

That devastating quote from the Bible that O’Reilly thought he found caused quite a stir – because there are no such words in the Bible. Stephen Colbert reminded O’Reilly that O’Reilly was actually quoting Ben Franklin. In subsequent interviews, O’Reilly sputtered that that’s what was clearly implied in the Bible, if you thought about it. O’Reilly also protested that he was a fine Irish lad, who had gone to Catholic schools all his life, and the nuns had taught him that kindness, which the Church calls Charity, can ruin everything.

This was not Bill O’Reilly’s finest moment, but the moment passed, and then he lost his job. He had sexually harassed one too many women at Fox News. Then his boss, Roger Ailes, lost his job, for the same reason – but nothing much has changed over the years. Donald Trump isn’t big on empathy – and there are the women – but that’s another matter. Trump still has his job.

There’s nothing surprising here. The Republican Party is often referred to as the “Daddy Party” – the party of the largely absent taciturn father who, when necessary, beats the crap out of the kid, to beat some sense into the kid, for the kid’s own good, to teach the kid some damned personal responsibility, but otherwise lets the kid sink or swim on his or her own, for the same reason. Inflict pain. Random acts of meanness help too. That builds character. No one whines.

That’s how government should work, and of course the Democratic Party is the “Mommy Party” – nurturing and supportive. No child (or adult) should be left behind. People don’t whine. They’re really in trouble – and random acts of kindness do a whole lot of good in this sorry world. Charity doesn’t ruin everything. The Democratic Party is the party of empathy – real losers who seem to want to turn all good Americans into whining losers too, as any Republican will tell you.

Some of this showed up in Trump’s comments on Puerto Rico – those folks are going to have to shoulder more responsibility for any recovery from Hurricane Maria – the federal government’s emergency responders can’t stay there “forever” – and their financial crisis is “largely of their own making” – and their infrastructure was a “disaster” before the hurricane. Some said he wasn’t doing enough, so he hit back. He made his point. Don’t mess with him. People who are hardly Americans, except by chance, especially shouldn’t mess with him. He’s the largely absent taciturn stern father. Let these kids sink or swim on their own. It’ll be good for them. It builds character. He’ll help the people in Texas and Florida. They don’t question him. They don’t whine. Donald Trump really is a Republican. Don’t expect empathy.

Empathy, however, is sometimes part of Trump’s new job. Puerto Rico is one thing. Who the hell are they? They get none. Military families are another thing. They’re supposed to get some empathy, and the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Dan Lamothe outline the problem here:

On Oct. 4, the day four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were gunned down at the border of Niger and Mali in the deadliest combat incident since President Trump took office, the commander in chief was lighting up Twitter with attacks on the “fake news” media.

The next day, when the remains of the first soldiers reached Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Trump was assailing the “fake news” and warning the country of “the calm before the storm.” What storm, he never did say.

Over that weekend, as the identity of the fourth soldier was disclosed publicly and more details emerged about the incident, Trump was golfing and letting it rip on Twitter about Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the NFL, North Korea, Puerto Rico and, again, alleged media bias.

But a president who revels in providing color commentary on the news said nothing about what happened in Niger for 12 straight days – until Monday in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he was asked by a reporter to explain his uncharacteristic silence.

He got caught. Empathy had been called for – just the normal stuff – and twelve days had passed – so he faked it:

In his answer, Trump said in his defense that he had written personal letters to the soldiers’ family members, and he then tried to use the issue to gain a political advantage. Trump leveled false accusations at his predecessors, including former president Barack Obama, saying they never or rarely called family members of service members who were killed on their watch, when in fact they regularly did.

As anger swelled, Trump continued to attempt to bolster his broader claim Tuesday by invoking the death of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly who was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.

Had Obama ever called Kelly? That settled matters, but there was more:

The White House did not receive detailed information from the Defense Department about the four dead soldiers until Oct. 12, and that information was not fully verified by the White House Military Office until Monday, according to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the internal process.

At that point, the official said, Trump was cleared to reach out to the four families – both in letters that were mailed Tuesday and in personal phone calls to family members that day.

“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

In short, none of this was his fault, and better late than never, but sometime better never than late is better:

In his call with Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, Trump told her, “He knew what was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway,” according to the account of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who was riding in a limousine with Johnson when the president called and heard the conversation on speakerphone.

Wilson recalled in an interview with the Washington Post that Johnson broke down in tears. “He made her cry,” Wilson said. The congresswoman said she wanted to take the phone and “curse him out,” but that the Army sergeant holding the phone would not let her speak to the president.

The White House neither confirmed nor denied Wilson’s account. “The President’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private,” a White House official said in a statement.

That’s putting a good face on things, because this guy doesn’t do empathy:

Trump did not serve in the military – he sought and received several draft deferments during the Vietnam War – and has drawn pointed criticism in the past for his comments about military heroes.

As a presidential candidate, Trump mocked the service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and feuded with the Gold Star parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

And on his first full day as president, Trump used a speech before the Central Intelligence Agency’s wall of stars honoring intelligence officers who died in service to air his personal grievances, including about the media coverage of the size of his inaugural crowd.

This guy is hopeless at empathy. He doesn’t get the concept:

Peter Wehner, an adviser and speechwriter in President George W. Bush’s White House, said communicating empathy and compassion has been for Trump like speaking “a foreign language.”

“Part of being a president is at moments being pastor in chief, dispensing grace and understanding and giving voice to sorrow, tragedy and loss,” Wehner said. “But he’s a person who’s missing an empathy gene.”

Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Bush and McCain, said he was surprised by Trump’s twelve-day silence on the Niger attack.

“There is no issue too small for him to comment on,” Schmidt said. “He tweets at all hours of the morning and night on every conceivable subject. He has time to insult, to degrade, to demean, always. But once again, you see this moral obtusity [obtuseness, perhaps] in the performance of his duties as commander in chief.”

That’s harsh, but this may be an inherited or congenital condition – he’s simply missing that empathy gene.

Perhaps it’s a birth defect, or just a Republican thing, but Ashley Parker reports this:

For the past seven years, Gen. John F. Kelly has gone out of his way to keep the death of his son free from politics.

He did not talk about him when – just four days after his death in southern Afghanistan – Kelly found himself commemorating two other Marines killed in combat, in a moving speech in St. Louis. In fact, according to a Washington Post report, he specifically asked the officer introducing him not to mention his boy, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, who was killed instantly when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol in 2010.

Just last month, Kelly slipped away from the White House to attend a Marine Corps scholarship golf tournament in his son’s memory, with little fanfare or attention.

Kelly wanted to keep this private, but his new boss didn’t:

In Trump’s White House, almost nothing is off limits and just about anything can be used to score political points.

Leon Panetta, former defense secretary under Obama and former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said Trump’s comments were below the dignity of the office.

“I just think it demeans the presidency when you use John Kelly and his son, both of whom are patriots, to back up his excuses for whatever happened,” Panetta said. “I just think it creates a sense that there is no sacred ground for this president.”

It was too late for that:

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Kelly did not receive a call from Obama at the time.

Yes, they had nailed Obama – Fox News had something to call outrageous for weeks and weeks – or not:

In May 2011, Obama hosted a breakfast for Gold Star families – those who had lost a family member who was in uniform – and Kelly and his wife attended, according to White House records. A person familiar with the event said the couple was seated at then-first lady Michelle Obama’s table.

Kelly can’t be happy:

Kelly has previously resisted White House efforts to link children’s deaths with politics and policy. Earlier this year, when Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish the VOICE office – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement – Kelly, then the homeland security secretary, at the rollout of the office tried to push back internally against efforts to highlight “angel” moms and families whose kids were killed by undocumented immigrants, one department official said. The families were featured at the event but did not have a speaking role.

The official said Kelly is very sensitive to his son’s death being politicized, and recoils at attempts to politicize parents and families in this manner.

The VOICE office is supposed to prove to America that “those people” really are rapists and murderers and drug dealers, and Kelly would have none of it, not done that way:

Kelly participated in a 2011 Washington Post profile, largely, he said, to highlight the lives and challenges of military families.

Even then, however, his reticence emerged. When first approached about the story, he replied in an email: “We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war. The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”

That has now led to this:

Since joining Trump’s West Wing team, Kelly is almost always at the president’s side for public appearances. But he was notably absent Tuesday from a Rose Garden news conference with Trump and the Greek prime minister.

The White House offered no explanation of why Kelly was not in attendance.

Trump had just used his dead son to score points against Obama. His boss, the man missing that empathy gene, had just “used” his dead son to slap down, one more time, the man who wasn’t even president anymore, the man who doesn’t even matter anymore. Kelly skipped the Rose Garden thing. That congresswoman said she wanted to take Trump’s phone and “curse him out” – but that’s not Kelley’s style. He probably just needed a stiff drink, alone.

Paul Waldman says it’s worse than that:

Every once in a while a politician says something so outrageous that it produces not the feigned outrage that has become so familiar, but genuine outrage. That’s what President Trump managed yesterday, when in a news conference he was asked about his public silence on the four American soldiers who were killed in Niger, and claimed that while he calls the families of those killed in action to express his condolences, previous presidents, particularly Barack Obama, hadn’t done so.

This was a particularly despicable lie, because it painted Obama – and other presidents, but let’s be honest, mostly Obama – as cruel and dismissive when it comes to the sacrifice of those in uniform, while portraying Trump as the only one who truly cares.

This morning, Trump actually seemed to double down. In an interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade, he referred to the fact that the son of his chief of staff, John Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010: “I mean, you could ask General Kelly did he get a call from Obama.”

You could, but Kelly might mention that Gold Star parents’ dinner, and Waldman would say that that’s not the point:

It’s obvious from his responses that Trump had absolutely no idea what presidents before him did or didn’t do in this situation, which he admitted again today (“I don’t know what Obama’s policy was”). But he went ahead and claimed that only he calls the families.

This is quite familiar to anyone who has been watching Trump these past couple of years. He takes his own limited experience and characterizes it as unique, extraordinary and unprecedented. No one has ever done this before, no one has accomplished so much, no one knows more than I do. There’s an element of the salesman’s puffery at work, but it also comes from a place of pure ignorance.

As conservative writer Tim Carney hypothesized last week, when Trump claims that no administration has ever done as much as his, it isn’t so much that he’s intentionally lying but that he’s so ignorant of the presidency and politics in general. He never realized that presidents and their staffs work very hard (“Like how 10-year-old me assumed teachers went into a cocoon at 3 pm,” Carney said), so he assumes he must be the first to have ever done so. The comparison to a 10-year-old is apt, because Trump’s brand of ignorance is so infantile. All of us are ignorant about some things, but only Trump believes that if he doesn’t know something, no one else could know it either (“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”).

That may be what happened here:

When a normal person is in a state of ignorance, he or she might exercise some caution and refrain from making a volatile accusation that, for instance, his or her predecessors were callous to Gold Star families. But not Trump.

Trump may be missing more than that empathy gene, and David Von Drehle – a former editor-at-large for Time Magazine and the guy who wrote Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year – now has this to say:

What struck me was Trump’s contempt for his predecessors. With scarcely a thought, he attacked not their policies, but their characters, accusing them of being casual about the deaths of American soldiers.

In their eye-opening book The Presidents Club my friends Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy documented the deep and complex empathy fostered among sitting presidents and their predecessors. Only they can understand the weighty experience of the office, and this makes even bitter political rivals into “fellow travelers in the parallel universe where past, present, and future blur, where the terrain of regret looks very different and where there is hardly ever such a thing as a perfect outcome.”

However, the newest club member appears incapable of empathy. Thus, he can malign not just the decisions but also the decency of previous presidents – and not as a matter of principle – merely on impulse, a whim.

Trump really is missing more than that empathy gene:

Patriotism doesn’t require us to praise what is not praiseworthy. Like any other American, Trump is free to criticize as he sees fit. But when an elected leader disparages, without cause, the good faith of other elected leaders, he is tearing the country down. What sort of nation, after all, would elect them?

I might be reading too much into a passing remark, except that Trump has been at this business from the beginning. His campaign was a tirade against “stupid” leaders who never managed to accomplish things that he would deliver on Day One. (We’re still waiting.) The transition was filled with talk of incompetent intelligence agencies. His inaugural address told the world that America’s bipartisan foreign policy of the previous 75 years was only a craven and deliberate theft of the nation’s wealth by its own leaders, to be “redistributed all across the world.” No one could hear and heed that speech without thinking less of the United States. For this was not some buck-chasing talk-show host tossing veiled charges of treason. This was the new president.

This is also a man who sneers at America itself:

I don’t think we’ve ever been led by a person with such a low opinion of America. And I’m hardly the only one to notice. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose military service Trump denigrated during his campaign, had this to say on Monday: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism” – to be Trump, in other words – is “unpatriotic.”

That’s a thought:

The president insists that football players show respect for the national anthem, yet he has no respect for the good faith of those who served before him. He complains that critics are unfair to him even as he unfairly maligns his predecessors. At 71, Trump is experiencing public service for the very first time. We can but hope that the value of it will eventually dawn on him.

Hope won’t help here. This guy is hopeless at empathy. He doesn’t get the concept. The man is missing something – but that should be no surprise. Republicans never got the concept of empathy. Trump is simply more Republican than any Republican ever imagined. They’ve been working on this a long time. Now they have the real deal. Now they have to explain that.

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What Just Isn’t So

fThings weren’t always this way. There’s the curious case of George Aiken – one of those old-school “progressive” Republicans of the Teddy Roosevelt sort. Aiken arrived in the Senate in early 1941 and did turn out to be a bit iconoclastic. Toward the end of his Senate career he was all for food stamps and taking care of the poor, and he was big on the environment long before Nixon suggested the Environmental Protection Agency – he had been president of the Vermont Horticultural Society after all – and he was big on infrastructure spending before Eisenhower came up with the Interstate Highway System. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to make things better. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit to the deficit to make things better.

Maybe he wasn’t a Republican. Aiken had been elected as speaker of the Vermont House in 1933 – over the opposition of the Republican establishment at the time. He then passed the Poor Debtor Law to protect people who could not pay back the big banks during the Great Depression, further infuriating the Republican establishment. He’d say he was a pragmatist, but he was still a damned good Republican. He was conservative in the old-fashioned sense of that word. Be careful and cautious, taking small steps, but also do what’s necessary for the greatest good, for everyone, even the poor folks. The whole Ayn Rand concept of there being only Makers and Takers in this dog-eat-dog world would have puzzled him.

Admittedly the guy is obscure. The only thing anyone remembers him for was what he said about the Vietnam War in 1966 – maybe we should just declare victory and head on home. He explained that “the United States could well declare unilaterally” that “we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

What more do you want? And that wasn’t copping-out either. This was sensible and pragmatic, because such a declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.”

That would change everything. People would shout at each other, not shoot each other. Isn’t that more sensible? There’s no need for any more to die, and he added this – “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”

Everyone ignored him. It couldn’t be that simple. Sure, we could declare victory, but who would believe us? It’s foolish to say something is so when it just isn’t so. No one ever tried that again, until Donald Trump:

Obamacare is finished. It’s dead. It’s gone. You shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore.

Trump simply declared victory. Move on. His very own Republican Congress couldn’t manage any form of “repeal and replace” at all. That doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. Everyone knows this is so – or so he says – but Kevin Drum sees foolishness here:

Needless to say, this is just the latest part of Trump’s campaign to prevent people from signing up for Obamacare. Cut the signup period in half. Eliminate outreach. Eliminate advertising. Shut down the website periodically on weekends. Cut CSR subsidies in a way that makes people think benefits have been cut. Tell everyone Obamacare is dead.

That doesn’t have to be so:

When Republicans started passing photo ID laws, progressives fought back with campaigns to get people registered to vote. Because of this, ID laws probably had only a very small effect on the election. Are progressives doing the same thing for Obamacare? It sure seems like there ought to be a huge campaign to publicize the Obamacare signup period and help people get through it. This might help fight some of Trump’s doom-saying and keep signups high. This in turn will keep Obamacare healthy despite Trump’s best efforts.

That may happen, and Josh Marshall adds this:

President Trump just gave an angry, thrashing, desperate sounding series of remarks about Obamacare. He pressed the point that people think it’s an emergency now that he’s cut off CSR payments. And he thinks that’s good. He went on about how the health insurers only fund Democrats, lashed out at Democrats, and said that health care is going to be great once they repeal Obamacare. It struck me as more unhinged and febrile than usual for Trump. One continuing theme is that even through his anger and need to lash out he seems not to understand even the most elemental details of how the health care system or Obamacare works.

In short, saying something is so doesn’t make it so, and he did get caught on another matter:

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump made the dubious claim that former President Barack Obama and other former presidents did not personally call the families of soldiers who died in combat.

Trump quickly walked back the claim when a reporter followed up.


The President first told reporters that he had written letters to the families of soldiers who died in the recent attack in Niger and said he would soon call the families as well. He then claimed that his approach was unique, and that not all past presidents made those calls.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls,” he said. “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice so generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them.”

Former aides to Obama quickly pushed back on Trump’s claim, calling it a “lie.”

They were late to the game:

A reporter followed up with Trump later in the press conference, prompting Trump to walk back his claim and say that he “was told” that Obama didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers.

“I don’t know if he did. No, no. I was told that he didn’t often and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters,” Trump said.

“President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals,” the President continued.

This wasn’t his fault. His generals had misled him. Damn those generals! He was the victim here.

That wouldn’t fly, and Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation, reports this curious reaction to all this:

We’ve all seen the San Antonio Spurs’ future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich in a state of exasperation on the sidelines, or in postgame news conferences. Many of us have also heard him speak with great vexation and clarity about the direction of this country and the actions of Donald Trump, particularly on Trump’s “disgusting tenor and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.” But I have never heard this man more frustrated, more fed up, and more tense with anger than he was today.

Coach Pop called me up after hearing the president’s remarks explaining why he hadn’t mentioned the four US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.

Maybe it was bald-faced nature of this lie. Maybe it is Pop’s own history in the military, but the coach clearly had to vent. He said, “I want to say something and please just let me talk and please make sure this is on the record.”

Popovich did vent:

“I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this president had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never ending divisiveness. But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families, is so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words.”

At this point, Coach Pop paused, and I thought for a moment that perhaps he didn’t have the words and the conversation would end. Then he took a breath and said:

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner – and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers – is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House: unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this President should be ashamed because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”

Okay. Now the thirty-four percent of the country that will never watch an NFL game ever again will now never watch an NBA game ever again, and Popovich coaches the men’s Olympic basketball team, so they won’t watch those ever again either. Is that cynical? Charles Pierce, a former sportswriter turned political writer, is even more cynical about this:

Why make the assertion at all? Because he knows that tens of millions of Americans are right now emailing and texting each other about how Obummer never called the families of soldiers who were KIA. A third of the country will believe it by Thursday no matter how much we mock it, or how often it is exposed for the sickening fabrication that it is. I’m sure Benghazi, Benghazi!, Benghazi! is in there somewhere, too.

Of course it is. Saying something is so, that just isn’t so, even if you walk it back, does sometimes make it so – to some – to the right sort of people – the people who actually vote when others don’t. That works too. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. Sure, why not? Declare victory and go home – but that still leaves that soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others, by saying things that just aren’t so.

Such people are hard to manage, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Greg Jaffe report on that difficulty:

During the campaign, when President Trump’s advisers wanted him to stop talking about an issue – such as when he attacked a Gold Star military family – they sometimes presented him with polls demonstrating how the controversy was harming his candidacy.

During the transition, when aides needed Trump to decide on a looming issue or appointment, they often limited him to a shortlist of two or three options and urged him to choose one.

And now in the White House, when advisers hope to prevent Trump from making what they think is an unwise decision, they frequently try to delay his final verdict – hoping he may reconsider after having time to calm down.

This is a difficult business:

When Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the White House as “an adult day-care center” on Twitter last week, he gave voice to a Trumpian truth: The president is often impulsive, mercurial and difficult to manage, leading those around him to find creative ways to channel his energies.

Some Trump aides spend a significant part of their time devising ways to rein in and control the impetuous president, angling to avoid outbursts that might work against him, according to interviews with 18 aides, confidants and outside advisers, most of whom insisted on anonymity to speak candidly.

“If you visit the White House today, you see aides running around with red faces, shuffling paper and trying to keep up with this president,” said one Republican in frequent contact with the administration. “That’s what the scene is.”

These people worry all the time:

Trump is hardly the first president whose aides have arranged themselves around him and his management style – part of a natural effort, one senior White House official said, to help ensure the president’s success. But Trump’s penchant for Twitter feuds, name-calling and temperamental outbursts presents a unique challenge.

But there is a way to deal with this:

One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump; in one memorable Cabinet meeting this year, each member went around the room lavishing the president with accolades.

Senior administration officials call this speaking to an “audience of one.”

One regular practitioner is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who praised Trump’s controversial statements after white supremacists had a violent rally in Charlottesville and also said he agreed with Trump that professional football players should stand during the national anthem. Neither issue has anything to do with the Treasury Department.

So one way to keep this president from doing stupid stuff, from suddenly saying what clearly isn’t so at all, is to calm him down by telling him that he’s wonderful:

Especially in the early days of his presidency, aides delivered the president daily packages of news stories filled with positive coverage, and Trump began meetings by boasting about his performance, either as president or in winning the White House, according to one person who attended several Oval Office gatherings with him.

Some aides and outside advisers hoping to push their allies and friends for top postings, such as ambassadorships, made sure their candidates appeared speaking favorably about Trump in conservative news outlets – and that those news clippings ended up on the president’s desk.

Others, however, are more subtle:

H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, has frequently resorted to diversionary tactics to manage Trump.

In the Oval Office, he will volunteer to have his staff study Trump’s more unorthodox ideas. When Trump wanted to make South Korea pay for the entire cost of a shared missile defense system, McMaster and top aides huddled to come up with arguments that the money spent defending South Korea and Japan also benefited the U.S. economy in the form of manufacturing jobs, according to two people familiar with the debate.

“He plays rope-a-dope with him,” a senior administration official said. “He thinks Trump is going to forget, but he doesn’t. H.R.’s strategy is to say, ‘Let us study that, boss.’ He tries to deflect.”

This too is a tricky business:

Some aides and advisers have found a way to manage Trump without seeming to condescend. Perhaps no Cabinet official has proven more adept at breaking ranks with Trump without drawing his ire than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has disagreed with his boss on a range of issues, including the effectiveness of torture, the importance of NATO and the wisdom of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

The president appreciates how Mattis, a four-star Marine general, speaks to him candidly but respectfully and often plays down disagreements in public. A senior U.S. official said that Mattis’ focus has been on informing the president when they disagree – before the disagreements go public – and maintaining a quiet influence.

But even this guy has his limits:

Unlike his fellow Cabinet secretaries, Mattis has also gone out of his way not to suck up to the president – a stance made easier perhaps by his four decades in uniform and his combat record. At the laudatory Cabinet meeting this summer, he was the lone holdout who did not lavish praise on the president. Instead, Mattis said it was “an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.”

Trump didn’t fire him on the spot. Mattis lived to fight another day, but Daniel Drezner still sees this:

What’s next? Ordinary toddlers eventually tire out after throwing a tantrum. But this is when the analogy breaks down. Full disclosure: Trump is not really a toddler, but an overindulged plutocrat who has never had to cope with political failure. With each negative shock or story he faces, his behavior worsens, and that just leads to a new cycle of negative press and disaffected GOP officials. The political effects of this are to weaken his historically weak presidency, making it harder for him to do anything that would counteract this trend. This doom-loop means that his behavior is only going to get worse.

Drezner says it did get worse – “By the end of the week, Trump had gone after Obamacare, the Clean Power Plan, UNESCO, and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

Trump was off to the races, saying what just wasn’t so, and Drezner cites Peter Baker of the  New York Times:

President Trump leaves little doubt about what he thinks of his predecessor’s top domestic and international legacies. The health care program enacted by President Barack Obama is “outrageous” and “absolutely destroying everything in its wake.” The nuclear deal with Iran is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Yet as much as he has set his sights on them, Mr. Trump after nearly nine months in office has not actually gotten rid of either. Instead, in the past few days, he took partial steps to undercut both initiatives and then left it to Congress to figure out what to do next. Whether either will ultimately survive in some form has become a central suspense of Mr. Trump’s first year in office.

In the case of health care, Mr. Trump is making a virtue of necessity. Having failed to push through legislation replacing the Affordable Care Act, he is taking more limited measures on his own authority aimed at chipping away at the law. On the other hand, when it comes to the Iran deal, he has the authority to walk away without anyone else’s consent but has been talked out of going that far by his national security team. Instead, by refusing to recertify the deal, he rhetorically disavows the pact without directly pulling out.

These are not the only instances in which Mr. Trump’s expansive language has not been matched by his actions during this opening phase of his presidency. On immigration, diplomatic relations with Cuba and international accords like the North American Free Trade Agreement and a separate trade pact with South Korea, he has denounced decisions made by Mr. Obama or other previous presidents without fully reversing them.

All that was odd, but Drezner also notes this:

To be sure, there are conservatives who defend Trump’s actions as a means to reverse executive-branch power grabs by prior administrations. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York offers the best case for this interpretation. Even York, however, concedes that, “Trump’s actions might not work. After all, he is pressuring Congress to act, but that doesn’t mean Congress will act, especially when the president is feuding with some key members.”

If the best spin of Trump’s actions relies on Congress acting like a mature political organization, that is a thin reed…

It is certainly possible that Trump will walk away from NAFTA or KORUS [the Korean Free Trade Agreement] – the Trump administration’s style is gleefully aggressive enough to alienate countries that want closer ties with the United States. The data are already starting to come in on how loyal allies are reacting to Trump’s disruptive style, and that data is not encouraging.

Drezner cites Politico’s Adam Beshudi on that:

Japanese officials are expressing growing frustration with the Trump administration’s economic policies, vowing to continue striking trade deals with other countries that undercut U.S. agricultural exports rather than seek a new trade agreement with the United States.

The frustration comes both from President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on trade and from his pullout from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan still hopes can provide a bulwark against China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region…

In interviews with POLITICO, more than half a dozen senior Japanese officials said they were uneasy with a so-called bilateral – two-nation – deal to replace the TPP, arguing that the goal of the multinational agreement was to create a wide international playing field. They said they are dismayed by Trump’s seeming inability to understand the importance of a multinational pact to establish U.S. leadership in the region and set the trade rules for nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean as a counterweight to China’s rising influence.

Drezner also cites Karen DeYoung on that:

Instead of leading, Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach has been a detour from the multilateral road the United States has traveled since World War II. And as Trump has left behind, or threatened to, the premier international agreements of this century, from the Paris climate accord to global trade alliances and now the Iran nuclear deal, he has not had many willing followers… Even those who have proclaimed him as a leader have sometimes not felt bound by his demands.

Drezner notes that “from Israel to the Persian Gulf, to Kurdistan to Turkey to NATO to East Asia, even Trump’s few allies have been perfectly happy to ignore him.”

There’s a reason for that. When the President of the United States persists in saying things that just aren’t so it’s probably best to ignore him, and then there’s Josh Marshall:

Peer nation-states make agreements with the US in part because we tend to stick to our agreements, even with the change of administrations. The entirety of Trump’s vision of ‘deal-making’ is one in which you bully and cajole and threaten the other party until you get a deal that works for you and not them. That may make sense in the highly shystery world of New York real estate. But in the global order we’re going to be dealing with Germany and France and China and Mexico … well, we’re going to be dealing with them forever. Not everything is Kumbaya in international relations. Far from it – but except in war, and not even always them, it’s not zero-sum…

Both abroad and with Congress we can see clearly what should have been clear in advance: President Trump has no idea how to negotiate international accords or treaties or how to pass laws. These require building coalitions and trust because you’ll need to work with the same actors again in the future. You also need to build coalitions of people or nations each of which thinks they have something to gain from the effort… Trump’s idea of business is basically cheating. That doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the law, though Trump does plenty of that. It means making money by trickery and hard-dealing in which the other party usually ends up screwed. Those just aren’t the skills that end up being effective for a President. But that’s all Trump knows. That’s why we currently have what amounts to governance via chaos and outburst. Trump doesn’t know how to be President.

Trump, however, does know how to say things that just aren’t so, to declare victory where there is none. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. President Obama, and all other presidents before him, never spoke with the families of those who died in military action, or even wrote condolence letters to them, but he will – when he gets around to it. None of it is remotely true.

In 1966, George Aiken said we should declare victory in Vietnam and leave. We had “won” after all – but he knew that wasn’t remotely true. He himself called that idea farfetched – but nothing is farfetched to Donald Trump. The only alternative may be to turn the tables on Donald Trump and declare that he was never elected president. He’s not the only one that can play this game.

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Red-Hot Trump

For those of us who grew up in the Ozzie and Harriet fifties and came of age in the long-haired-stop-the-war counterculture late sixties, there was always the matter of cool. James Dean was cool, and then Peter Gunn was cool, and then Steve McQueen was major-cool, and then James Bond was cool, depending on who was playing him at the time. Or maybe James Bond was a dork – opinions vary – but that’s all commercial stuff. There was real cool – Jack Kerouac and the Beats, and Miles Davis. After all, Davis’ rare early recordings were collected in that 1957 album Birth of the Cool – “hot” jazz had disappeared in the late forties and Miles Davis had changed things. He was certainly not hot. He was distant and mysterious and slightly dangerous, like his music, and he didn’t really give a shit about what you thought about his enigmatic modal improvisations, or what you thought about anything else either. He was who he was. Deal with it.

That’s the essence of cool. You are who you are and nothing gets to you. No one can rattle you and you go your own way. You have no use for convention, or the conventional. Of course that can border on parody. There was Andy Warhol. He was always on the edge of becoming his own sly joke about how cool he was, perhaps intentionally, just to keep all the hopelessly straight-and-narrow people, like art critics, off balance. Of course they decided to keep up with him, praising his paintings of soup cans and the like – just to prove they were cool too, because being cool was… well, cool. It’s important to be cool.

But sometimes the culture, which depends on shared conventions to maintain itself, fights back. In the seventies there was that television show, Happy Days, with Henry Winkler as the Fonz. He worked hard at being cool, but at the end each episode we always discovered that the Fonz was warm and decent, and thus much like everyone else, underneath it all. Cultural equilibrium was maintained. Hollywood did its job. The cool was neutered. And Hollywood continues to do that job. The cool and mysterious hero, far outside the mainstream of convention, is always conflicted, as he should be. The most recent Batman – the Dark Knight – really hated his save-the-world job in the end. The price of cool was too high. You lose yourself. Cool is dangerous.

And cool is for the young. No old folks are cool, except for Bernie Sanders. The young don’t care what anyone thinks. Hell, they don’t floss, and try to tell them not to text while driving. They’ll give you that Miles Davis shrug. And now Republicans aren’t cool. In the 2008 election we had the white-hot John McCain, outraged at our failure to go to war with Russia over Georgia, not that anyone remembers that now, and outraged about the lack of respect for America in the world these days, suggesting we flex our muscles a bit more over all sorts of things. And he was also outraged by Obama’s notions of economic fairness, which he characterized as unfair income distribution from the good guys – like Joe the Plumber – to the losers. McCain was outraged at all sorts of things. It’s hard to remember them all. All Americans were supposed to be outraged too. They weren’t.

They went for the other guy. Barack Obama was cool and measured, and always reasonable and thoughtful. He was always saying that he’d rather work with others, even the Republicans, and just fix things. He was implying that being perpetually hot and bothered was a dead end. Be cool. Fix what’s broken.

It’s no wonder he won the youth vote, and the election. Americans like cool, although his own base often was in agony off and on, screaming that he had to get hot and outraged and tell it like it is, slapping the other side around, righteously. But it seems Obama knew better. Keith Olbermann took care of the righteous outrage on the left night after night back then. Look what happened to him. He’s now forgotten. Now the only place to go for a daily dose of righteous outrage is talk radio, for Rush Limbaugh, or Fox News with Hannity and those folks – that stuff for angry old folks. That’s their demographic.

Barack Obama seemed to sense this from the beginning. He knew how to use his cool. It was almost as unfair as it was simple. Let your opponent get all hot and bothered and go nuts, and then raise one eyebrow. He did that to Mitt Romney with one line – “Proceed, Governor.” He did that to Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she went on a rant about his big fancy speeches. He smiled, made no comment at all, and kept giving those speeches. She seemed unhinged. He didn’t have to do a thing, and he did the same thing to John McCain in the general election that year – when McCain tried to cancel that one debate because he had decided to fly back to Washington to solve the financial crisis, all by himself. Cancel the debate? Obama was cool – “You know, it’s a funny thing, but presidents often have to be able to deal with two things at the same time.”

McCain had no response to that. He debated Obama, on schedule, and he didn’t fix the financial crisis. When McCain finally got to Washington, he made things worse – he blew up the deal on TARP by getting all passionate and confusing his own party. It took a week to fix that, but there was no fixing McCain’s reputation as an angry old man who just doesn’t get it. Obama won easily. Obama was young, he was black, and he was cool.

America went with cool, even if Obama was black, or perhaps his being black was part of that. That was our eight-year experiment, and Ta Nehisi Coates, who many call the James Baldwin of our times, wrote about being in on that experiment early on. In a cover story for the Atlantic – My President Was Black – he offered this:

I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was phenomenal – the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center – and blinded him to the appeal of Trump. (“As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,” Obama once said to me.)

But if the president’s inability to cement his legacy in the form of Hillary Clinton proved the limits of his optimism, it also revealed the exceptional nature of his presidential victories. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.

That, however, is praising what didn’t happen. What did happen? Those eight years never satisfied anyone, really. The ice finally cracked. Obama had been cautious and thoughtful – everything that Donald Trump is not – and Trump won the presidency. It’s not hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are after all. That works too. Cool is cool, but some like it hot. Those who do got outvoted twice. McCain was hot about everything. Romney may not have been hot about anything, but he was that other opposite of cool. He was hopelessly square, a word from the late fifties but appropriate. Romney seemed to have walked straight out of Ozzie and Harriet Land – and finally, Donald Trump was red hot about everything. Those who like it hot wouldn’t be outvoted a third time.

That makes things uncomfortable. Everything is always end-of-America-as-we-know-it intense, all the time. If you’re not outraged you ought to be, or you’re a fool, or a traitor. Turn up the heat. That’s the only way to get things done. Democrats like to say let’s all calm down and reason things out, as the only way to get things done, and the differences lie deeper than policy. These are differences in temperament. One gets through life, and changes what needs to be changed, by being intense, by being hot about something – or not. Each side believes the other side doesn’t even know how to approach any given problem. This may not be a matter of party. This may come down to how, instinctively, Americans value cool – and cool finally lost.

This was an odd victory that the New York Times’ Charles Blow – a rather cool urban black man of course – characterizes this way:

It must be cold and miserable standing in the shadow of someone greater and smarter, more loved and more admired. It must be infuriating to have risen on the wings of your derision of that person’s every decision, and even his very existence, and yet not be able to measure up – in either stratagem or efficacy – when you sit where that person once sat.

This is the existence of Donald Trump in the wake of President Barack Obama. Trump can’t hold a candle to Obama, so he’s taking a Tiki torch to Obama’s legacy. Trump can’t get his bad ideas through Congress, but he can use the power of the presidency to sabotage or even sink Obama’s signature deeds.

This is anger at the cool:

While Obama was erudite, Trump is ignorant. Obama was civil, Trump is churlish. Obama was tactful, Trump is tacky. There is a thing present in Obama and absent from Trump that no amount of money or power can alter: a sense of elegant intellectualism and taste…

Trump – who sees character as just another malleable thing that can be marketed and made salable – chafes at the black man who operated above the coarseness of commercial interests and whose character appeared unassailable…

All of this feeds Trump’s consuming obsession with undoing everything Obama did. It is his personal crusade, but he also carries the flag for the millions of Americans – mostly all Republicans who were reflexively repulsed by Obama and the coalition that elected him.

That may be overstating things, but Blow points to Obamacare:

Republicans – including Trump – campaigned for years on a lie. They knew it was a lie, but it was an enraging one that excited their base: Obama was destroying America’s health care system, but Republicans could undo the damage and replace it with their own, better bill.

First, Obama wasn’t destroying America’s health care system. To the contrary, he simply sought to make it cover more people. He moved to take American health care in a more humane, modern and civilized direction, to make it more universally accessible, even by the sick and poor who often took its absence as a given.

Second, the Republicans had no replacement plan that would cost less and cover as many or more people. That could not be done. So, their repeal-and-replace efforts failed. But that also meant that Trump’s promise was proven a lie. Trump has no problem lying, but in the end he wants his lies to look plausible.

And of course lies are “hot” stuff:

Last week he took more swipes at undermining the ACA – asking his administration to find ways to increase competition among insurers (a move many worry will move younger, healthier people out of the marketplace) and stopping the so-called “cost-sharing reduction” (CSR) payments – federal subsidies paid to insurance companies to help finance coverage for low-income Americans (a move many believe will send premiums soaring for those people).

Trump is doing this even though it will likely wreak havoc on countless lives. He is doing this even though a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll released Friday found that most Americans want Trump and Congress to stop trying to repeal the law, and instead work on legislation to stabilize the marketplaces and guarantee health care to Americans.

Furthermore, six in 10 Americans believe Congress should guarantee cost-sharing reduction payments, as opposed to only a third who view these payments as a “bailout of insurance companies,” as Trump has called them. There is no real reason to cut these payments, other than to save face and conceal the farce.

Trump isn’t governing with a vision. He’s governing out of spite.

That works too. Some like it hot. George Will – the conservative “intellectual” who likes to think conservative principles through, logically, to prove their validity – isn’t one of them – he quit the Republican Party over Trump. He’s now registered as an unaffiliated voter. Of course he also calls himself an “amiable, low voltage atheist” – so he couldn’t be one of them – and now he says this:

Trump’s energy, unleavened by intellect and untethered to principle, serves only his sovereign instinct to pander to those who adore him as much as he does. Unshakably smitten, they are impervious to the Everest of evidence that he disdains them as a basket of gullibles. He understands that his unremitting coarseness satisfies their unpolitical agenda of smashing crockery, even though his self-indulgent floundering precludes fulfillment of the promises he flippantly made to assuage their sense of being disdained. He gives his gullibles not governance by tantrum, but tantrum as governance.

In short, Trump gives them the opposite of cool, but that might not be a good thing:

With Trump turning and turning in a widening gyre, his crusade to make America great again is increasingly dominated by people who explicitly repudiate America’s premises. The faux nationalists of the “alt-right” and their fellow travelers such as Stephen K. Bannon, although fixated on protecting the United States from imported goods, have imported the blood-and-soil ethno-tribalism that stains the continental European right. In “Answering the Alt-Right” in National Affairs quarterly, Ramon Lopez, a University of Chicago PhD candidate in political philosophy, demonstrates how Trump’s election has brought back to the public stage ideas that a post-Lincoln America had slowly but determinedly expunged. They were rejected because they are incompatible with an open society that takes its bearing from the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine of natural rights.

Bannon and his friends haven’t thought this through:

With their version of the identity politics practiced by progressives, alt-right theorists hold that the tribalism to which people are prone should not be transcended but celebrated. As Lopez explains, the alt-right sees society as inevitably “a zero-sum contest among fundamentally competing identity groups.” Hence the alt-right is explicitly an alternative to Lincoln’s affirmation of the Founders’ vision. They saw America as cohesive because of a shared creed. The alt-right must regard Lincoln as not merely mistaken but absurd in describing America as a creedal nation dedicated to a “proposition.” The alt-right insists that real nationhood requires cultural homogeneity rooted in durable ethnic identities. This is the alt-right’s alternative foundation for the nation Lincoln said was founded on the principle that all people are, by nature, equal.

George Will doesn’t like where this is headed:

Trump is, of course, innocent of this (or any other) systemic thinking. However, within the ambit of his vast, brutish carelessness are some people with sinister agendas and anti-constitutional impulses. Stephen Miller, Bannon’s White House residue and Trump’s enfant terrible, recently said that “in sending our tax reform proposal to the tax-writing committees, we will include instructions to ensure all low- and middle-income households are protected.”

So, Congress will be instructed by Trump’s 32-year-old acolyte who also says the president’s national security powers “will not be questioned.” We await the response of congressional Republicans, who did so little to stop Trump’s ascent and then so much to normalize him.

Don’t expect much. Congressional Republicans know that it doesn’t pay to be cool these days. They have to be as red hot as Donald Trump these days or lose their jobs. Republican voters like it hot, but John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio – the last man standing against Trump in the primaries – the man who somehow couldn’t be destroyed by Trump’s deadly tweets (he shrugged) – just had this to say:

I’m disappointed in the direction of the Republican Party. They cannot be anti-trade or anti-immigrant. They just can’t walk away from increasing debt. The Republican Party can’t go out and start grabbing people out of their homes who have been really good people living in this country and shipping them out of the country willy-nilly or taking away health care for millions of people. This is not what the party is. Look, I grew up in the Reagan era. Here’s what it was. It was sunny. It was positive, inclusive. It was a big tent, and there was room for everybody – pro-growth, all the things that we really like. Connectivity, welcoming, that’s where this party needs to be.

That would be cool, but Robert Kagan – a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the State Department from 1984 to 1988 – the Reagan years – sees a different Republican Party now:

Rarely has a political party more deserved the destruction the Republican Party may be about to suffer at the hands of President Trump’s former strategist, ideological guru and onetime puppeteer Steve Bannon. It was obvious during the earliest days of the campaign that Trump never intended to be either the leader or the protector of the Republican Party. He had contempt for the party. For one thing, it was a proven loser. For another, it crumpled like stick figures under his steamroller. Who could respect people who fell so easily, and so willingly?

Party leaders were especially contemptible in Trump’s eyes. They couldn’t even see what he was doing to them, or if they did, they were too cowardly to stop him. He had contempt for them when they tried to distance themselves from his racist, sexist and all around antisocial behavior. But he had even more contempt for them when they nevertheless came crawling back to him, again and again, pledging their fealty. He knew they came back not because they approved of him but because they feared him and the political following he commanded. He had stolen the hearts of their constituents, and therefore he owned them. He would use them as needed, and dispose of them when he could, knowing they could do nothing about it. “I saw them at Munich,” Hitler said of his British and French counterparts, whom he dubbed “little worms.”

That’s why Steven Bannon’s “firing” didn’t matter at all:

After a few months, it became clear that Bannon had become a lightning rod in the White House, the target of endless sniping from disgruntled Republicans and fellow staffers, unable to get anything done in the sludge of the Washington bureaucracy. He was hamstrung. And so they decided he could do more for Trump on the outside. Trump would play the constrained madman, surrounded and controlled by the “adults,” occasionally letting his true feelings be known to his throngs. Meanwhile Bannon would play the gonzo political maestro on the outside, running Trumpists in primaries to knock off establishment types, even hardcore conservative ones. Trump could even pretend to support the establishment’s choice, but his voters would know better. The result would be a rout. Some establishment Republicans would lose, either in the primary or the general; others would be afraid to run for reelection; others would try to suck up to Bannon in the hopes of persuading him not to unleash the hounds; all would try to mimic Trump. And it didn’t matter which path they took: These would all be victories for Trump.

Kagan calls this the peaceful takeover of a party too craven to fight back:

Republican leaders cry, “You’re helping the Democrats win!” But that doesn’t matter to Bannon and Trump. For one thing, it may not even be true, for who can be sure that a thoroughly Trumpist Republican Party won’t be able to defeat a Democratic Party apparently bent on nominating unelectable candidates on the left? But either way, Bannon and Trump undoubtedly believe it is more important to turn the party into Trump’s personal vehicle, to drive out the resisters, the finger-waggers, the losers, the proud scions of the responsible establishment who could not stop Trump and apparently cannot legislate their way out of a paper bag.

That makes the situation hopeless:

The party would be worth saving if it contained even a dozen women and men of courage. But of course if it did contain such people, it wouldn’t need saving. Today the definition of a brave Republican is someone who is not running for reelection. So rooting for them is no longer an answer. The best thing for the country may be to let the party go. Let it become the party of Trump and Bannon, and as fast as possible. Let the 35 percent of the country who believe Trump is a suitable president, or who hate Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama so much that they would elect Mussolini to the White House, have their party.

And there’s only one answer to all of this:

The rest of Republican voters should leave the party until it earns back the right to their support. They should change their registration and start voting for Democratic moderates and centrists, as some Republicans did in Virginia recently, to give them a leg up in their fight against the party’s left wing. A third party of “good Republicans” is a fantasy. This is a two-party country. To defeat one, you have to support the other, either directly or indirectly.

Right now the country’s best hope is for a moderate Democratic Party that speaks for that sizable majority of Americans who recognize the peril of seven more years of Trump in the White House. Bannon is doing his part to make that happen.

He is? He’s doing this:

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon implored conservative activists at a Washington gathering Saturday morning to continue fighting the GOP establishment, attacking a number of Republican members of Congress by name, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Bannon told attendees at the Values Voter Summit, an annual social conservative conference, to keep up the fight against the “imperial” political class.

“It’s not my war, this is our war and y’all didn’t start it, the establishment started it,” Bannon said. He also said, “Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment.”

He had told Fox News’ Sean Hannity earlier this week that he was declaring “war” on the Republican establishment.

Bannon is red hot. Donald Trump is red hot. Some like it hot, and they finally got exactly what they wanted – but others find all of this tiresome and stupid, and just not cool. Americans have always liked cool. Maybe they will again. There’s always Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, there’s no one else at the moment. America needs to work on that.

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How Cause Leads To Effect

Some people have a problem with cause and effect. They need counselling. Don’t talk back to that cop. Don’t tug on superman’s cape. Don’t spit into the wind. Don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger – and if you hold your hand in an open flame and feel no pain you’re probably dead. Some things are obvious – and don’t sneer at the folks on your side. Don’t mock them mercilessly in public. You’ll need them.

The last guy understood this. There was Obama’s somewhat famous foreign policy dictum – basically don’t do stupid shit – that kept us out of endless trouble. Maybe that was leading from behind, a horrible thing to some, but we started no new wars. North Korea wasn’t testing nukes and shooting off missiles. Crises weren’t solved, but they were contained. Iran agreed to give up their nuclear weapons program, for at least ten years, even if they agreed to nothing else. Nothing there was solved, but one part of the problem was contained – and domestically, there was Obamacare, an awkward half-free-market hybrid healthcare system that also included expanding Medicaid to cover those who couldn’t afford even its subsidized policies, but it worked. The number of uninsured dropped dramatically, even if Obamacare didn’t work all that well. It was something. Something is better than nothing.

Obama understood cause and effect. Nationalized healthcare – a single-payer system – Medicare for All or whatever – would enrage half the country. Doing nothing would enrage the other half. He split the difference.

The new guy doesn’t understand cause and effect. Donald Trump will enrage both halves of the country – he likes that sort of thing – and the latest is this:

President Donald Trump will oppose any congressional attempts to reinstate funding for Obamacare subsidies – unless he gets something in return, his budget director Mick Mulvaney said in an interview Friday morning.

The comments by the Office of Management and Budget chief delivered a severe blow to efforts by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to strike a bipartisan deal on funding the subsidies. Trump canceled those payments to insurance companies on Thursday night, raising hopes among some Democrats and centrist Republicans that the Trump administration could accept a bill that would revive the subsides while offering states more flexibility to opt out of Obamacare.

But Mulvaney panned those efforts, calling the so-called cost-sharing reduction payments “corporate welfare and bailouts for the insurance companies.”

That’s a bit of a misrepresentation, but there was this:

The administration, however, opened the door to negotiations on the now-canceled payments. After speaking to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday, Trump said that a temporary deal could be struck on shoring up the insurance markets. Mulvaney suggested the insurance payments could be a bargaining chip in a broader negotiation with Congress to either repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law – or fund Trump’s long-stalled border wall with Mexico.

Yes, he wants that wall, but this is dangerous:

Republican leaders are worried that Trump’s move to end Obamacare subsidy payments could backfire on them in the 2018 midterms, inciting voters upset about skyrocketing insurance payments. But Mulvaney said voters are far more likely to punish congressional Republicans for failing to live up to a seven-year promise: repealing Obamacare.

That could go either way, and there was this:

A new multi-state lawsuit has been announced to stop President Trump from halting key ObamaCare payments to insurers.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., signed onto the lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in California, according to Sarah Lovenheim, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D).

On Thursday night, Trump announced he would stop making the payments, which led to an outcry from critics saying he was sabotaging the health-care law.

The complaint will seek a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction requiring the cost-sharing reduction payments be made.

Those weren’t corporate welfare and bailouts for the insurance companies – they allowed a whole lot of people to finally afford health insurance – and people know that:

A solid majority of the public – 71 percent – wants to see President Donald Trump make Obamacare work instead of dismantling the law, according to a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

While the poll was conducted before the White House announced that Trump would end crucial subsidies for insurers under Obamacare, 60 percent of respondents said they want to keep the payments in tact…

Thirty percent considered the subsidies – called cost-sharing reduction (CSR) – a bailout to insurance companies and said the program should end.

That thirty percent is with Trump on this, and there are the details:

Democrats (93 percent) and Independents (74 percent) were far more supportive of the idea than Republicans. About half of the Republicans surveyed – 48 percent – said they’d like to see the Trump administration make the current healthcare law work. Four in 10 Republicans said Trump should make the law fail, according to the poll.

That’s odd. Fewer than half of Republicans are with Trump on this, and Greg Sargent sees the miscalculation here:

President Trump’s peculiar combination of malevolence, certainty in his own negotiating prowess, and cluelessness about the details of policy, sometimes leads him to issue fearsome-sounding threats that are rooted in a baffling misread of the distribution of leverage and incentives underlying the situation at hand.

That is, this guy doesn’t understand cause and effect:

There is already a bipartisan set of negotiations – led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the leaders of the health and education committee – that have been continuing over how to shore up the Affordable Care Act’s individual markets. According to a Democratic source familiar with the talks, there is broad agreement that Congress should appropriate the money to cover the billions of dollars in cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which, if halted, could cause the individual markets to melt down. The sticking points are over how much flexibility the deal should give to give states in defining what counts as insurance coverage, and there’s a decent chance those sticking points will be resolved.

Indeed, Alexander has publicly confirmed that he believes Congress should appropriate the funds to cover the CSRs. He has also publicly allowed that he believes Murray has already made serious concessions towards the flexibility of ACA rules that Republicans want, though Murray still insists that the regulations requiring insurers to offer “essential health benefits” must remain. What this means is that, presuming a deal is reached, the real lingering question will be whether Republican leaders in Congress will accept such a compromise and allow a vote on it.

They too will have to understand cause and effect:

The pressure on Republicans to do that will be intense. The Washington Examiner recently reported that vulnerable House Republicans worry they could have a major political problem on their hands if these payments are stopped, because it could harm large numbers of people in their districts. As it is, millions are enrolled in plans with cost-sharing reductions, which pay money to insurers to subsidize out-of-pocket costs, and if they are halted, insurers could exit the markets, further destabilizing them and leaving millions without coverage options. Tellingly, influential House Republicans such as Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Greg Walden (Ore.) have called for Congress to appropriate the payments.

Cause and effect do matter here:

In the end, Trump and Republicans are the ones likely to feel more pressure to support such a deal, which will put them in the tough spot of choosing between taking the blame for chaos in the individual markets and weathering the rage from the right that accepting a deal will unleash. Even if Trump doesn’t understand this, congressional Republicans surely do.

All of this puzzles Josh Marshall:

This morning President Trump tweeted out: “The Democrats ObamaCare is imploding. Massive subsidy payments to their pet insurance companies has stopped. Dems should call me to fix!”

This is almost word for word the kind of chilling message a hostage taker sends. I’ve got your kids. You need to call me.

Of course, that might have been intentional:

Part of this is dominance. The desire to act, dominate, destroy. There’s the need to produce something for his most ardent supporters. But the biggest drive is what is contained in this tweet. To force Democrats hands by using Obamacare beneficiaries as hostages.

“Dems should call me to fix!”

Setting aside any moral calculus, this is folly in political terms. A lot of Senate Republicans get this. This hurts millions of Americans. But Trump is doing the damage in plain daylight. He’s shooting himself without even realizing it. If the ‘deal’ Trump wanted was one that helped people, Democrats might face a dilemma over whether to follow their political advantage or making good policy. But there’s no conflict. For Democrats politics and policy line up entirely.

Marshall thinks Trump is making a bad mistake but just can’t help himself:

The underlying driver here is Trump’s transactional, bullying way of approaching business which he brought from his predatory business to the White House. I don’t think you can understand what’s happening here except through that prism. For Trump, Democrats own Obamacare. It’s theirs. If he breaks it, it’s still theirs. It’s all on them. The “Obamacare” brand is the entirety of it. The more he breaks it, the more they need him to fix it. It’s like if the Democrats owned a building or a company. They more he damaged it, the more they’d need him to stop. This is a logic Trump understands. It’s his native environment. This is an organized crime mentality, one he used again and again in his private business.

But that’s not how big social programs like this work. Legislation and governance is fundamentally about people. That’s not just lofty rhetoric. The consequences of government play out in elections. Trump doesn’t get that. A lot of Republican Senators do.

But the man just can’t help himself:

President Trump signed his executive order on cross-state insurance policies yesterday. He just cut off CSR funding. He’s about to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. Each action is consistent with the campaign he ran in 2016. But they’re coming in a rush. Why now? Each move has some contingent logic. But I suspect the big driver is that rising pressures on the President are leading him to act out. And the acting out is escalating. Beyond the policy specifics and verbiage, Trump’s politics is about dominance and destruction. It’s a drive deep in him and one that he shares – albeit with very different life experiences – with his core political supporters. That’s the bond.

And that leads to stupid shit:

Most of us have seen this raft of articles talking about rising pressure in the White House – the President is coming apart, angry, isolated. I’m skeptical of these reports, to the extent they suggest he’s about to blow apart or lose it entirely. But he does seem increasingly erratic, impulsive. He’s under pressure because he feels like he’s losing. For Trump these policies and policy moves are not just about politics. They are characterological. The more pressure rises, the more he feels besieged, the more he’ll take unilateral actions to assert himself – to balance himself.

Cause and effect are in play here then, in an odd way, and Paul Waldman says this about the Iran business:

Today, President Trump announced that the only way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to begin destroying the painstakingly negotiated agreement that is keeping them from getting nuclear weapons.

“History has shown that the longer we ignore a threat, the more dangerous that threat becomes,” Trump said, as though we had been ignoring Iran until now. “We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout.”

So he’s going to withdraw his certification of their compliance, which means Congress now has to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. Congress will probably allow the deal to survive, with additional conditions. And Trump today said that, going forward, if he’s not satisfied, “the agreement will be terminated.”

None of that makes sense:

What exactly is Trump trying to accomplish? The answer may seem obvious, but it isn’t at all.

Presidents, we know, are supposed to have “vision,” a broad conception of where they want to lead the country. When they run, it’s often presented in vague terms. The closest Trump came as a candidate was promising that “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” While in a sense “making America great again” was a kind of vision, presidents also need specific goals to guide their decision-making, a real conception of how they want things to turn out so that they can figure out the best way to get there.

Trump’s lack of those specific goals – or to put it another way, the lack of a defined end-state he’s trying to reach – may be one of his most underappreciated weaknesses as a president. Most people, even many in his own party, understand that he’s spectacularly uninformed about policy, not particularly bright and distressingly impulsive. But he also seems to have no idea where he’s trying to go…

That has become obvious:

Ever since he was a candidate, Trump has complained that the nuclear agreement, which was negotiated not only between Iran and the United States but also with Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, is a terrible deal, while seldom getting specific about what exactly he objects to in its provisions. We knew what President Barack Obama was trying to accomplish with the deal in the first place: an Iran that, whatever else it might be up to, couldn’t threaten anyone with nuclear weapons.

What’s Trump’s vision? An Iran that not only doesn’t have nuclear weapons but also is a force for peace and stability, and maybe a liberal democracy to boot? Well, that would be great. How is pulling out of the nuclear agreement going to get us there?

This new guy clearly doesn’t understand cause and effect:

Trump seems to believe that there’s some mythical “better deal” awaiting somewhere, and if he threatens to withdraw from the agreement, then the Iranian government will fall to its knees and say, “We submit! We’ll do whatever you want!” But of course it won’t, and the other partners aren’t interested in starting the process all over again either. If we do pull out, there’s a chance the agreement could collapse and Iran would resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is exactly the thing the agreement is preventing.

It would be edifying to hear Trump or some of his aides and allies explain exactly how this scenario is supposed to play out and where it’s supposed to end up. But if they tried to do that, it would become obvious how little they’ve thought it through.

There’s a lot of that going around:

Trump has decided to go whole-hog to destroy the individual health insurance market, with executive orders that will drive up premiums, send insurers from the market and potentially lead to many people losing their coverage. And what exactly is the health-care future Trump is aiming for with these actions? It’s almost impossible to tell. He often talks as if he’s a social democrat wanting government to provide for everyone (“We’re going to have insurance for everybody”), but then moves to remove government protections and move us toward a cruel Randian future more in line with what most Republicans would like to see. Can anyone say they have any idea what health-care system Trump envisions, and how it relates to the decisions he’s making now?

And it’s more than that:

A president with a better grasp on policy would at least have a sense of what course is likely to produce success and which outcomes are reasonable to predict. Trump, on the other hand, is apparently willing to believe any ridiculous story somebody tells him, if it ends with “Trump wins!”

A case in point: Conservative economist Kevin Hassett, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, apparently told Trump that just one of the White House’s proposed tax changes – allowing corporations to repatriate cash they have parked overseas and pay low taxes on it – would be such a spectacular shot of adrenaline to the economy that it would make every American family $4,000 richer. Sane economists, both Democrat and Republican, will tell you that this notion is utterly ludicrous. But it sounds good to Trump, so he has been touting the number, as proof of how great his tax cuts are going to be.

Again, this new guy clearly doesn’t understand cause and effect:

Presidents don’t need to be policy geniuses, but at the very least they need a sense of how cause leads to effect and a vision of what they’re trying to accomplish. That way they can tell whether what they’re doing is likely to take the country to the place they want to go. Trump has neither, which means he’s either being pushed around by people who have figured out how to manipulate him for their own ideological ends, or he’s flopping about aimlessly with no principles to guide him except if Obama did it, I should do the opposite.

Either way, it’s not very encouraging.

Josh Marshall agrees with that:

President Trump straight up lied in his speech today on ‘decertifying’ the Iran nuclear deal. He said: “The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement.” This is not true. The US, the Europeans, outside observers, and the inspectors, all agree that Iran is meeting the conditions of the deal. If Iran were violating the deal, all of this drama wouldn’t have been necessary. Trump could have just canceled the deal without any need to justify the decision. He would have had broad support for doing so. That’s the bind he’s been in. The Iranians are keeping their end of the bargain. So Trump really hasn’t had a good rationale – legal or geopolitical – for getting out.

He doesn’t have a good rationale:

In addition to all the things the President says his new policy will accomplish he made this pledge. “We will deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.”

But of course there was no explanation of how that would happen. It’s possible that the deal might stay in place even if the US pulled because the benefits to Iran and Europe are good enough to keep it going. But assuming the deal gets totally scuttled there are really only three ways to “deny the regime all paths to a nuclear weapon.” 1) You can impose sanctions and other forms of pressure to a great enough extent that the Iranians relent. (That’s kind of what Obama did – crippling sanctions plus covert, often cyber, sabotage.) 2) You sign a new agreement. Or 3) you can go to war and physically coerce them into stopping.

“One” seems highly unlikely since the European powers and China and Russia don’t want to do that. Without them, really ruinous sanctions aren’t possible. “Two” seems unlikely mainly because the Trump administration shows really no inclination even to want a deal. “Three” fits the Trump mentality but it’s fraught with incalculable danger. There’s a reason why it never happened under President Bush and even Israel was held back largely by its own generals.

Marshall suggests looking at a bit of history:

What we see here really looks like Bush administration policy on North Korea in the first years of this century. The Clinton administration had a deal too. It was sort of still born. The GOP Congress hobbled it from Capitol Hill and cut off funding for it. There’s evidence – though it wasn’t that rock solid – that the North Koreans started violating the agreement in the late Clinton years. For all that though, the nuclear weapons program we’re now so concerned about and which has produced numerous nuclear weapons, was shuttered.

The Bush foreign policy team decided that deal was appeasement and basically forced a complete breakdown of the deal. They would not tolerate North Korea getting a nuclear weapon. No appeasement, no payoffs, no cowering. Only they had no actual plan for how to do that. In 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear device.

So here we are:

The Bush team wouldn’t stand for appeasement, opted for a policy of strength and moral clarity and got a nuclear North Korea. By any possible definition the policy was an abject failure. Might the Clinton approach have failed too? Maybe – but it kept the program shuttered for almost a decade. For all the messiness, that was a success.

Set aside all the policy ins and outs with the President’s decision today and this looks almost exactly the same. The Trump team thinks it’s a terrible deal, a giveaway, appeasing a rogue regime. In its place they have no plan at all.

Maybe that will do. There’s David French – the conservative lawyer who writes for National Review. He writes about both Donald Trump and the alt-right and pulls no punches, and then got all those death threats aimed at his wife and children. Now he writes about ordinary rural conservatives who support Trump:

Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage – and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time. If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately.

And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight – and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against – that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for. Don’t like the media? Shut it down. Don’t like kneeling football players? Make them stand. Tired of American weakness overseas? Cheer incoherent and reckless tweets as evidence of “strength.”

This is a place where cause and effect don’t matter, and Kevin Drum sees this:

The two big explanations for the rise of this rural anger (and the rise of Trump) revolve around economics and race. The modern economy has screwed these folks over and they’re tired of it. Or they’re badly threatened by the growth of the nonwhite population. Which is it? Almost certainly both, and in any case it doesn’t matter much – both of these things are likely to get worse from their point of view. The nonwhite population share is obviously going to keep growing, and the economy of the future is only going to become ever more tilted toward the highly educated. If working-class whites really are enraged by either or both of these things, they’re only going to get more enraged as time goes by.

That’s especially true if they keep voting for Republicans, who will actively make these things worse while skillfully laying off the blame on “elites” and “Hollywood liberals.” Keeping the rage machine going is their ticket to political power.

In this case, Republicans have thoroughly muddled cause and effect, and Drum isn’t sure that can be un-muddled:

How do we prick this bubble? Obama tried to give them cheap health care, and it enraged them. He passed stricter regulation on the Wall Street financiers who brought us the Great Recession, and they didn’t care. He fought to reduce their payroll taxes and fund infrastructure to help the economy get back on track, and they sneered that it was just a lot of wasted money that ballooned the national debt.

At the same time, Obama didn’t try to take their guns away. He didn’t outlaw Christianity or conduct a war on Christmas. He didn’t do much of anything related to abortion. He did promote a number of gay-friendly policies, and praised the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.

None of it really seemed to matter, though. The culture war stuff remained enraging regardless of what Obama did or didn’t do.

Drum admits that there may be no answer to this. Some people have a problem with cause and effect. They need counselling. Instead, they elected Donald Trump.

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