On Impulse Power

Kirk tells Sulu to proceed on “impulse power” but Sulu isn’t supposed to be impulsive. He’s supposed to go slow. He’s supposed to use the ship’s crude and old-fashioned secondary method of getting around:

In the fictional Star Trek universe, the impulse drive is the method of propulsion that starships and other spacecraft use when they are travelling below the speed of light. Typically powered by deuterium fusion reactors, impulse engines let ships travel interplanetary distances readily. For example, Starfleet Academy cadets use impulse engines when flying from Earth to Saturn and back. Unlike the warp engines, impulse engines work on principles used in today’s rocketry, throwing mass out the back as fast as possible to drive the ship forward.

That’s it. Throw mass out the back as fast as possible. This is late seventeenth-century Isaac Newton stuff – for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. It’s crude but effective. But then Captain Kirk also runs on impulse power. He acts impulsively, things go wrong, Spock straightens things out with systematically applied dry logic, and the end-credits roll. That was the formula. Impulsiveness was trouble. It was crude and stupid and everyone always had to clean up the mess caused by what might have seemed like innocent or even heroic impulsiveness. There’s no such thing.

Politicians find that out:

After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) slammed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for a photo posted on Facebook of a group of young men wearing “Team Mitch” shirts shown choking and groping a cardboard cutout of the Democratic congresswoman, the Senate majority leader’s campaign manager initially responded by saying, in essence, boys will be boys.

Oops. There’s no such thing as innocent impulsiveness:

The campaign ultimately ended up condemning the image as “demeaning.”

In a statement, Kevin Golden said the media is using the image to “demonize, stereotype, and publicly castigate every young person who dares to get involved with Republican politics,” adding that “these young men are not campaign staff, they are high schoolers.” In another statement, Golden condemned the photo, saying: “Team Mitch in no way condones any aggressive, suggestive, or demeaning act toward life-sized cardboard cut outs of any gender in a manner similar to what we saw from President Obama’s speechwriting staff several years ago.”

It was a bad move! Obama’s folks did it too! (No one remembers that.) They were wrong! Look! At least we apologized! We’re wonderful!

No, they aren’t wonderful:

Some of the young men in the photo, which was posted with the caption “break me off a piece of that,” attended Lexington Christian Academy, and the photo was taken while they were attending a “non-school” event, a school spokesperson said Tuesday. “Lexington Christian Academy officials are aware of a photo circulating on social media which includes LCA students attending a recent, non-school event,” Dan Koett wrote in an LCA statement. “This matter has been addressed with the students and the families involved.”

Lexington Christian Academy doesn’t run on impulse power, and don’t use impulse power in Texas:

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) admitted that he did say “terrible things” about his members on a recording taped by a far-right activist, saying that it was “stupid” to meet with someone who “worked hard to divide our House.”

“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” he said in an apology email to House members, which was obtained by the Dallas Morning News. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter. That’s not an excuse for the hurtful things I said or the discussion that was had.”

“Once again, I call for the release of the entire unedited recording so the House is no longer held hostage, and we can begin to heal,” he added.

“You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter,” said Captain Kirk. Spock raised one eyebrow and then fixed the problem, but Spock wasn’t in Texas that day:

Activist Michael Sullivan recorded a meeting he had with Bonnen and Republican caucus chairman Dennis Burrows on June 12 during which Sullivan was allegedly given a list of Republicans to challenge in the primaries with his well-funded super PAC in exchange for press credentials.

Bonnen has previously denied the existence of any such list, and he has consistently called for the recording’s release.

Sullivan and some members he shared the recording with have vehemently pushed back against calls to release the recording, saying that it would provide unfettered ammunition for Democrats in the upcoming elections.

There’s no good way to fix this, but as the Washington Post’s Damian Paletta reports, Donald Trump has also been running on impulse power:

President Trump is increasingly acting based on his own intuition and analysis and not the advice of aides in the fraught trade war with China, five people briefed on the actions said, shattering a more cautious process that had yielded few positive results so far.

The Treasury Department’s formal announcement that it had labeled China a “currency manipulator” Monday came six hours after President Trump did it himself, on social media, the latest example of how Trump is determining his own next steps. The people describing the White House process spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

On Tuesday, Trump’s senior advisers still floated the possibility that the White House could scale back some of its economic penalties against China if leaders in Beijing offer tangible concessions.

Well, someone has to play Spock here, but that’s both a hopeless and thankless task:

“As difficult as things may be, and I know the markets are bit volatile, the reality is we would like to negotiate,” White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said on CNBC. His comments came the same day that Chinese leaders moved to stabilize their currency, a move that calmed investors after a sharp selloff Monday.

The one-day respite may not continue much longer. A number of White House officials say they now expect a long, drawn-out battle with Chinese leaders, as the on-again, off-again trade negotiations that began in December have shown little sign of progress.

In short, a number of White House officials say they now expect Trump to do whatever suddenly occurs to him at any given moment, which will probably make no sense at all:

Trump is convinced that the Chinese economy is suffering more than the U.S. economy from the conflict and that leaders will eventually back down. And he has felt validated that his hardball threats in other circumstances, including a recent tangle with Mexico over border security, seemed to get at least some results, even if they scared investors in the short term, said the people familiar with the matter.

This has left aides, many of whom have preferred for the president to be more patient, to scramble to complete directives issued by Trump. Stocks have whipsawed as Trump and China have escalated the trade conflict. Democrats, some of whom are supportive of a more adversarial economic relationship with China, have nonetheless criticized Trump’s penchant for making impulsive moves that have enraged farmers and businesses.

It seems that Trump does need a Spock:

The practical implications of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s move to label China a “currency manipulator” on Monday were limited. It begins a process of discussions with the International Monetary Fund about ways to address China’s behavior. But it represented the most concrete Trump administration broadside in a week that had previously been marked by twin attacks from Beijing.

First, China’s currency had weakened against the U.S. dollar, something White House officials suspected was directed by the Chinese government. And second, Chinese officials sent signals that they would not be ramping up purchases of U.S. agriculture products, as Trump had long promised they would.

Both steps made clear that Chinese leaders did not plan to make quick concessions to the White House following Trump’s surprise announcement last week that he would be imposing a 10 percent tariff on $300 billion in imports from China. Several of Trump’s advisers had warned against this, nervous that it would only provoke retaliation from Beijing and could damage the U.S. economy.

“We’re learning that maybe China has a higher pain threshold than we thought here,” said Stephen Moore, who was an economic adviser to Trump during the 2016 election and remains close to the White House.

So, Trump’s impulses were wrong, but they often are:

Trump has frequently relied on his own judgment in navigating trade disputes with other countries, a tactic that has yielded mixed results. South Korean leaders agreed to revise their trade agreement with the U.S. after Trump threatened to withdraw from an existing pact. Similarly, Canada and Mexico agreed to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, though U.S. lawmakers have still not approved the changes.

But Trump has also tried to take charge of sensitive trade arrangements with Japan, India, and the European Union, and he has made little progress so far. And none of those relationships is as complex or intertwined with the U.S. economy as China’s.

And this won’t go well:

Trump had promised during his 2016 campaign to label China a currency manipulator, but he backed down once he took office amid pressure from top advisers. Then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and others warned Trump about the economic implications of attacking China without a strategy in 2017, and Trump instead focused on passing a large tax cut law and growing the domestic economy.

But Trump pivoted sharply toward following through on his trade threats in 2018, and Cohn left shortly thereafter. Trump still has a number of senior advisers on his economic team, but he frequently ignores their advice. He has been frustrated that Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer have not been able to extract more concessions from China since trade negotiations began in December, and he increasingly relied on his own impulses to lead the battle with China, said the people familiar with the matter.

So all bets are off:

Just last month, Kudlow tried to assure the public that the White House had ruled out the possibility of intervening in the U.S. dollar as part of the currency war. Kudlow said in a CNBC interview that top White House advisers had met and decided not to intervene.

Several hours later, Trump told reporters that this was not true and that he reserved the right to intervene if he wanted to.

“I could do that in two seconds if I want to,” Trump said two weeks ago. “I didn’t say I’m not going to do something.”

Kudlow has a difficult job. Trump is finished with listening to others about anything, and Tom Friedman sees this:

For the first three decades, U.S.-China trade could be summarized as America bought T-shirts, tennis shoes and toys from China, and China bought soybeans and Boeing jetliners from America. And as long as that was the case, we did not care whether the Chinese government was communist, capitalist, authoritarian, libertarian or vegetarian.

But over the last decade, China has become a more middle-income country and a technology powerhouse. And it unveiled a plan, “Made in China 2025.” This was Xi’s plan to abandon selling T-shirts, tennis shoes and toys and to instead make and sell to the world the same high-tech tools that America and Europe sell – smartphones, artificial intelligence systems, 5G infrastructure, electric cars and robots.

I welcome China as a competitor in these areas. It will speed up innovation and drive down prices. But these are all what I think of as “deep technologies” – they literally get embedded into your house, your infrastructure, your factory and your community. And unlike dumb toys, they are all dual use. That is, they can potentially be used by China to tap into our society for intelligence or malicious purposes. And once they are embedded, they are hard to remove.

So this is serious stuff, and Trump is right to oppose this, and, at the same time, he’s kind of useless:

Someone had to call that game. And that was what Trump did, and he was right to do it. But he did it in an incredibly foolish way!

Trump should have signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, which would have aligned all the major Pacific economies – except China – around United States trade values, norms, interests and standards, and lowered thousands of tariffs on American products. Instead, Trump tore up the TPP.

Then Trump should have lined up all the European Union countries, which have the same trade problems with China as we do, on our side. Instead, Trump hit them with tariffs on steel and other goods, just as he did China.

Then Trump should have told Xi that we and our Pacific and European partners wanted to negotiate with him “in secret” on a new trade regime and no one would lose face. But in that secret negotiation, it would be “the world’s trade standards and values versus China’s.”

Instead, Trump went it alone – and made it America versus China alone. If everything is “America first,” why should anyone help us?

It seems that Trump’s impulsiveness trapped us:

Now we have less leverage and are involved in a tit-for-tat tariff war – with no allies – and we have made it a nationalist-pride question of who will lose face first: Xi or Trump? This makes it much harder to solve. Again, Trump’s core instinct is right, but trying to solve the whole United States-China trade problem, built up over decades, in one perfect deal may be too much change for the lumbering Chinese system to handle at once.

Spock could have told him that, but this isn’t science fiction. There is no Spock. This is just the world falling apart, but Frank Bruni argues that Trump is worse when he suppresses his impulses:

When a president orders up a special script, summons the national media and sends a message to all Americans that the “sinister ideologies” of “racism, bigotry and white supremacy” have no place here, the normal response is to cheer.

But these aren’t normal times. Donald Trump isn’t a normal president. And those words, which he spoke on Monday, made me feel sick, because they were just cheap and hollow sops to convention.

He doesn’t believe them. Or rather, he doesn’t care. That’s indisputable from his actions to this point, and it will be demonstrated anew by his behavior going forward. I lost my fondness for forecasts after November 2016, but you can take this prediction to the bank: Trump will be back to his old tweets and tricks in no time. They have gotten him this far, and he’s not going to mess with a good thing just because the country is in crisis.

That speech of his was a pantomime of dignity to give cover to his Republican enablers…

Trump, however, has different impulses:

I don’t claim that Trump specifically caused or catalyzed El Paso or Pittsburgh or related blood baths, because nothing’s that tidy, because I know that mass shootings and mad shooters predate him and because, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. The enmity he sows and the hatred he reaps are unacceptable regardless, and they’re certainly not lowering the temperature of political discourse in America.

I also don’t believe that all of Trump’s backers are bigots, and insistences along those lines are an overreach with the unfortunate effect of inviting many of them to tune out their critics. Trump rose and Trump rules for an array of reasons, and racism is prominent among them.

Let’s never forget the milestones of his political ascent: In 1989, as he kicked around the idea of running for office, he took out full-page ads in major New York City newspapers against the Central Park Five and denounced the “bands of wild criminals” and “crazed misfits” threatening everyone else. In retrospect, this was throat clearing for his invocation of Mexican rapists more than a quarter century later.

Go back and reread the presidential campaign announcement speech when he mentioned rapists and drug smugglers from Mexico. It’s not just an aria but an entire opera of grievance, its unalloyed fury trained on supposedly unprincipled actors from places where people’s skin is darker and their names less bluntly phonetic than Donald Trump. If fits with eerie neatness into the “replacement theory” that animated the El Paso gunman, and it’s not meant to inspire or instruct. It’s meant to inflame.

And that’s his impulse:

He’s a moral arsonist, and if he determined that the only way to hold on to power was to burn everything to the ground, he’d gladly be king of ashes. To paraphrase Milton: Better to reign over a ruined country than to be just another crass plutocrat in a noble one.

That may be what drives him, but Ross Douthat sees this:

What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.

Nothing links them, but this:

There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.

But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self – which is not the rhetoric, or the ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole that lies beneath his persona and career.

So, Douthat insists, deal with that:

By all means disable 8Chan and give the FBI new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones – which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place.

A failson, by the way, is an incompetent, unsuccessful middle-class or upper-class man who is protected from economic duress by his family’s wealth or influence – a “fail son” of course – a recent coinage – but that works:

This is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.

And that means Trump is not a populist:

It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.

So there’s nothing there:

Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.

But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.

And he’s an incredibly popular impulsive man who believes in nothing. What could go wrong? Now we know. This ship can’t get anywhere on impulse power.

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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