A World Not Ended

Donald Trump likes to gloat that the National Football League is in real trouble now, thanks to him. No one watches the games. Everyone is too angry, too angry at the uppity black football players who spit on the flag. Many of them have knelt during the national anthem, to protest the seemingly endless police brutality everywhere – all the young unarmed black kids shot dead by the police quite regularly – but that’s as good as spitting on the flag. These are ungrateful bastards. They should thank their lucky stars that the nation ended slavery. They got their damned black president. What else do they want? That’s why no one watches NFL games anymore. No white people would act this way.

Of course that’s nonsense. No one watches NFL games anymore because every year it’s the same damned thing. Will the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl by three touchdowns or seven? Even if that’s not quite true, it feels true. Why bother watching a whole season of football? What’s the point? America isn’t outraged. America is bored. The problem is redundancy.

That’s the problem with Donald Trump too, but not a problem for him. America isn’t outraged by anything he does now – too much outrageous stuff happens hourly to keep any kind of focus. No perspective is possible. It all runs together. And it’s all pretty much the same – so America is bored.

Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University – in Boston, Patriots territory – and he notes the redundancy problem in writing about Trump. He cites the political theorist Jacob T. Levy – “I don’t like writing the same argument multiple times, and the problems of the Trump era just keep repeating. It’s just too depressing to keep paraphrasing the same arguments.”

He cites Vox’s Dara Lind – “Not only is it abundantly clear that saying it the n+1th time doesn’t persuade anyone who was persuaded the nth time, but that the only people even paying attention were already paying attention and are using ‘getting it’ as a virtue signal.”

He cites himself from 2016 – “No matter how much one tries to develop an alternative perspective, the inescapable conclusion is that Trump is a narcissistic, ignorant, misogynistic gasbag – which means that, at this point, the entire commentariat winds up sounding pretty much the same when it comes to him.”

He still feels that way – “All the arguments about Trump have already been made, and there is no point in thinking up new ones.”

But he won’t give up:

The Age of Trump is so exhausting that it is easy to forget news items that would have dominated cycles in years past. Example: The dodgy means through which Jared Kushner got his security clearance. That story dropped last Friday but generated little discussion, as it was so close to the end of the government shutdown. Or, even better, the New York Times’ blockbuster story about Trump’s tax returns, which everyone across the board acknowledges was good reporting but barely caused a ripple. That came out less than five months ago. But here I am reminding you of these scandals, because it reminds us of the deeper rot within the Trump White House.

There is also some virtue in making the same point on multiple occasions, particularly if the point happens to be, you know, correct. There is an awful lot that political scientists don’t know. There’s a reason that debates about the future of the liberal international order are so furious right now; it’s because no one really knows how this is going to play out. Furthermore, the political shocks of 2016 make it easy for knaves and hacks to claim that the political world as we know it has ended. So there is some virtue in pointing out when the empirical regularities that define modern politics persist even under this president.

His argument is that the political world as we know it has not ended. There’s political gravity. Dazzling things tossed high in the air do crash to the ground. Statisticians would call this a “reversion to the mean” – things do settle down pretty much clustered in the middle, eventually. There are other ways to put this. People come to their senses. The truth will out. The world as we know it is still out there.

There is something new to say. Michael Gerson says this:

The president was elected, in part, by giving his supporters an impression of business acumen. This was, in fact, the image carefully cultivated by book publishers and TV producers. And by Trump himself as a presidential candidate, who claimed to be a peerless negotiator, an unrivaled businessman and an excellent manager.

And then there’s political gravity:

The problem for Trump is not only that he lost the most visible and important confrontation of his presidency – in negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the government shutdown. It is that his methods are so blunt and transparent. His typical tactic is to raise the stakes of a negotiation impossibly high – a government shutdown or nuclear war – then to make a maximal demand and trust in the triumph of his stronger will. It is a form of negotiation ended by someone saying “uncle.”

But he was the one who said “uncle” this time, so now it’s declaring a national emergency to get his wall, which does not make him that peerless negotiator:

If, in the next stage, the loser acts unilaterally under the pretense of a border security crisis, it will merely prove that Trump is a dangerously sore loser. For the MBAs taking notes, this complex negotiating strategy is known as: Throwing the game off the table if you can’t win.

And then there’s the world stage:

In a variety of global negotiations, American opponents need only master one method: flattery. In Trump’s words, “I know people, because deals are people… If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin respects me, and if Putin wants to call me brilliant, and other things that he said which were, frankly, very nice, I’ll accept that.”

Taken at face value, Trump is arguing: Deals are people. People who praise me have good judgment. Thus, people who praise me make good deals.

This is not a peerless negotiator:

Hearing these sentiments from an American president is enough to gag a historian. It is pathetic gullibility elevated into the realm of theory. It should concern us that the American president is a source of global derision and national shame.

But wait, there’s more:

The other branding claims made by Trump have become equally incredible. His reputation as a self-made billionaire lies in ruins. An extensive New York Times article on Trump’s wealth found a bassinet millionaire, consistently bailed out of bad bets, a millionaire who dodged gift taxes, milked his empire for cash and cultivated a deceptive image of business brilliance. And special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation may reveal serious corruption and perjury in cataloguing Trump’s 30-year panting desire to sell his brand in Russia.

Things are catching up with Trump, and there’s this too:

And who can take Trump seriously as a manager? He has a talent for weeding out the talented and responsible. He is a world-class nepotist. He is incapable of delegation or of taking conflicting advice. He is unreliable in dealing with his allies. He is capable of taking several conflicting policy views on the same topic – be it health care, or the “dreamers,” or gun control – in a matter of days or hours. He often has no clear goals. He has no attention span and is consistently ignorant of details. He is prone to vicious and public abuse of rivals and of employees. Try to put that profile up on LinkedIn.

There may be nothing really new in any of this, but the cumulative effect is new:

Those thirty-seven percent who approve of Trump’s performance may point to the state of the economy or the composition of the Supreme Court. They may be impressed by his destruction of norms or enthused by his promotion of exclusion. They may want a president who speaks his mind, even when it is hateful gibberish. They may want a president who is an institutional arsonist, even if the result is mere destruction.

But no one can reasonably claim to believe in Trump’s brand as it was sold in 2016.

It’s back to the real world now, for the rest of us, as Max Boot notes here:

Did you know that “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians” as part of a broader effort “to influence US policy, actions, and elections”?

Or that North Korea “is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities,” because “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival”?

Or that Iran is abiding by its nuclear deal, even though the United States pulled out, and that it “is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities”?

Or that the Islamic State “still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria” and around the world, and that it “will exploit any reduction in CT [counterterrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities”?

Or that global warming is contributing to intensifying “climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans”?

If this is all news to you, congratulations – you’re the president of the United States.

Cool, but everyone else is in the real world:

For a diligent news consumer, there is little new or interesting in the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” released on Tuesday by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. Because the report is unclassified, its information does not differ much from what you can read in “open source” reporting such as this newspaper. Because it is a collective product – representing whatever 17 intelligence agencies can agree to – its judgments are, by definition, conventional wisdom.

That is kind of boring, but then there’s the Big Guy:

President Trump is not a normal news consumer. He is an indefatigable promulgator of conspiracy theories and misinformation that he picks up largely from Fox News and its far-right ilk. Trump can’t even keep straight the bogus statistics he sees on right-wing TV or websites. He further mangles already misleading statistics on the cost of immigration, for example, by conflating legal and illegal immigration.

Trump lives in an alternative reality where a day of cold weather disproves years of climate science. Where a 400-pound coach potato, rather than Russian intelligence, could have been responsible for hacking Democratic Party emails. Where “caravans” of refugees are always on the verge of pillaging America. Where the Islamic State has already been defeated and North Korea has already disarmed, but Iran is still working to develop nuclear weapons.

And that does present a problem:

Trump has dragged many of his followers down the rabbit hole with him. They are all convinced that any information to the contrary is the product of the “fake news media.” His assaults on the press as the “enemy of the people” play into the long-standing skepticism on both left and right of the “corporate” or “mainstream” news media. It is, therefore, important to have his own intelligence community – led by a former Republican senator – on record as certifying the validity of the facts that normal people already know.

Max boot finds that comforting:

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not advance cutting-edge thinking on the world with its report, but it did strike a blow for the truth. In the Age of Trump, that’s more than enough.

That would be this:

A new American intelligence assessment of global threats has concluded that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear stockpiles and that Iran is not, for now, taking steps necessary to make a bomb, directly contradicting the rationale of two of President Trump’s foreign policy initiatives.

Those conclusions are part of an annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” released on Tuesday that also stressed the growing cyberthreats from Russia and China, which it said were now “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”

The 42-page threat report found that American trade policies and “unilateralism” – central themes of Mr. Trump’s “America First” approach- have strained traditional alliances and prompted foreign partners to seek new relationships.

This was new. This was news. The president’s own intelligence community was not saying that he was an idiot. They only implied it directly:

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee linked to the release of the report, the nation’s intelligence chiefs tried to avoid directly questioning administration policies. Yet they detailed a different ranking of the threats facing the United States, starting with cyberattacks and moving on to the endurance of the Islamic State and the capabilities of both North Korea and Iran.

This was, in fact, brutal:

Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, told lawmakers that the Islamic State would continue “to stoke violence” in Syria. He was backed up by the written review, which said there were thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria and a dozen Islamic State networks around the world.

Just last month, Mr. Trump said that “we have won against ISIS; we’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly” in announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

And there was this:

Mr. Trump is expected to meet next month with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in a second round of direct negotiations aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons. After his last meeting, in Singapore, Mr. Trump tweeted that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Mr. Coats described his concerns in opposite terms.

He cited “some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization,” adding that most of what North Korea has dismantled is reversible. He said the North’s “leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

Similarly, the threat review declared that “we currently assess North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capability and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability.”

And there was this:

On Iran, Mr. Coats cited Tehran’s continued support of terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, including sponsoring Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militants in Iraq. He also said that he believed that Iranian hard-liners would continue to challenge centrist rivals.

But on one of Mr. Trump’s key assertions – that Iran had cheated on the spirit of the 2015 nuclear agreement even if it was temporarily following its terms — Mr. Coats said Tehran continued to comply with the deal even after the president announced in May that the United States would withdraw from it.

“We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Mr. Coats said.

And there was this:

Mr. Trump famously clashed with the spy agencies over their conclusions that Russia was behind the hacking and influence operations that marred the 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday, the new director of the Cyber Command, Gen. Paul Nakasone, told the Senate committee that the American efforts to blunt Russian interference in the recent midterm elections had been successful, though he gave no details – an effort Mr. Trump has never discussed.

And there was this:

Notably missing in the written review was evidence that would support building a wall on the southwestern border; the first mention of Mexico and drug cartels was published nearly halfway through the report – following a range of more pressing threats.

Mr. Trump has said the wall is among the most critical security threats facing the United States.

They said he was an idiot, without saying that directly, and Peter Baker reports that they were not alone:

They think pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan would be a debacle. They think North Korea cannot be trusted. They think the Islamic State is still a threat to America. They think Russia is bad and NATO is good.

The trouble is their president does not agree.

More than two years into his administration, the disconnect between President Trump and the Republican establishment on foreign policy has rarely been as stark. In recent days, the president’s own advisers and allies have been pushing back, challenging his view of the world and his prescription for its problems.

And then the dam broke:

The growing discontent among Republican national security hawks was most evident on Tuesday when Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and perhaps Mr. Trump’s most important partner in Congress, effectively rebuked the president by introducing a measure denouncing “a precipitous withdrawal” of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The senator’s repudiation came on the same day that Mr. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs, led by Dan Coats, a former Republican senator, gave Congress a radically different assessment of international threats facing the United States from the president’s own.

Everyone on that side of things has had just about enough of this guy:

Nearly two weeks ago, more than two-thirds of House Republicans voted to overturn the Trump administration’s move to ease sanctions on Russian companies linked to a prominent oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska. And last week even more House Republicans voted to bar Mr. Trump from withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as he privately suggested to aides several times last year.

This is new. Dan Drezner was wrong. This is not the same story about Donald Trump told once again for no good reason. Things do change. The problems of the Trump era do just keep repeating, but eventually they add up. They reach a critical mass. And then there’s political gravity, that brings everything down, to the real world, that was there all along. That political world didn’t end – and one day the Patriots won’t even make it to the Super Bowl. And someone else will be president.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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