The Second Kick of the Mule

W C. Fields had it right – “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

Of course Fields real name was William Claude Dukenfield and he drank a lot, and that finally killed him, but everyone agrees that he was a fine fellow. He wasn’t really a curmudgeon. That was efshtick. He came from vaudeville. Everyone had a shtick – but he didn’t suffer fools gladly. In his will there was a clause leaving a portion of his estate to establish a “W. C. Fields College for Orphan White Boys and Girls, where no religion of any sort is to be preached.” There was no point in being a damn fool about religion either. When something isn’t working, and is never going to work, do the sensible thing – quit. Move on.

And then there’s Eugene Robinson – that pleasant fellow from the Washington Post with his Pulitzer Prize for his columns on how Obama won the presidency – who sees the same thing:

House Republicans are apparently ready for yet another attempt to snatch health insurance away from constituents who need it. Someone should remind Speaker Paul Ryan of a saying often attributed to his legendary predecessor Sam Rayburn: “There’s no education in the second kick of the mule.”

Sam Rayburn sounds a lot like W. C. Fields. The two were born two years apart – 1880 and 1882 – so maybe there was something in the air back then. Or maybe the fools were more obviously fools back then – easier to spot – but Donald Trump and Paul Ryan seem to want that second kick of the mule:

President Trump is pushing Congress toward another dramatic showdown over the Affordable Care Act, despite big outstanding obstacles to a beleaguered revision plan and a high-stakes deadline next week to keep the government running.

The fresh pressure from the White House to pass a revision was met with skepticism by some Capitol Hill Republicans and their aides, who were recently humiliated when their bill failed to reach the House floor for a vote and who worry now that little has changed to suggest a new revision would fare any better.

They’re familiar with Sam Rayburn’s mule, but Trump isn’t:

The effort reflects Trump’s sense of urgency to score a victory on Obamacare replacement and move on to other legislative objectives, notably tax restructuring. Passing an Affordable Care Act revision would also allow the president to show progress toward a major campaign promise as he completes his first 100 days in office.

“The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really good, and a lot of people are liking it a lot,” Trump said at a news conference Thursday. “We have a good chance of getting it soon. I’d like to say next week, but we will get it.”

Right – and everyone will get a unicorn too – or not:

Congressional Republicans also worry that they must attract Democratic support to fund the government past the month’s end – a step they must take by midnight April 28 to avoid a shutdown. That could become difficult if Democrats grow alienated by the effort to alter former president Barack Obama’s key domestic policy achievement, which some White House officials said they hope will come up for a vote as early as Wednesday.

Several congressional GOP aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk openly about the ongoing negotiations, said they worry that the rushed process threatens to create another embarrassing public failure over health care. The schedule would also make it nearly impossible for lawmakers to finish their work in time for official scorekeepers to provide a clear estimate of how much the legislation would cost or how it would affect coverage numbers.

It may be time to move on, but they won’t move on:

The fresh hopes for resuscitating the American Health Care Act are pegged to an amendment being offered by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) that aims to attract enough conservatives and moderates that the measure can pass in the House. White House officials said language would be circulated among members in the next few days, and the modifications will be discussed Saturday in a conference-wide call as Republicans prepare to return to Washington next week.

The MacArthur amendment would allow states to obtain permission from the federal government to write their own list of essential health benefits and allow insurers to charge people with preexisting conditions higher premiums, as long as they also make a high-risk pool available to those patients – a change conservatives have demanded.

As a concession to moderates, the amendment would also add back federal requirements for essential health benefits, which the measure’s current version instead leaves up to states.

That’s where they were the last time, and many of them know it:

Apart from the publicly embarrassing struggle to reach consensus on an Affordable Care Act revision, some Republicans are also uncomfortable with refocusing on health care just as they are trying to build goodwill with Democrats to pass a stopgap budget plan to keep the government open past April 28.

Republican leaders have already admitted that they are unable to craft a spending bill that can appease the far-right flank of the GOP, and they have turned to Democrats to deliver votes instead. Democrats have so far been willing to work with Republicans to avoid a government shutdown, but any effort to schedule a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act could destroy those talks and threaten a government shutdown that Republicans have vowed to avoid.

“There isn’t going to be a warm, fuzzy feeling,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said of the impact a health-care repeal effort would have on spending talks.

Try, try again, then quit – there’s no point in being a damn fool about it – but they have their own damn fool in charge:

Trump’s position on a health-care overhaul appears to have shifted in the weeks since the House GOP’s proposal, called the American Health Care Act, failed last month. Then, the president indicated that he was ready to move on to his next priorities, notably tax reform.

Now, Trump is bringing a new urgency to the task of delivering one of his central campaign promises. Additionally, with the 100-day mark of his presidency approaching, he and his senior aides are eager to show a concrete legislative achievement.

Greg Sargent puts that this way:

Naturally, giving President Trump something to arbitrarily tout as an achievement (even if it passes the House, the Senate looms) in advance of the arbitrary 100-day mark is far more important than the human toll the proposal would have on millions.

But the toll of the new plan is considerable:

It allows states to seek a waiver to get rid of the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on charging higher premiums to people with preexisting conditions, on the condition that states set up or participate in high-risk pools that would help cover any of those people who lose insurance. It would also restore to the GOP bill the ACA’s requirement that insurers cover Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) – such as doctor’s and emergency room visits and maternity care – but allow states to seek waivers from them.

In effect, the waiver on preexisting conditions is designed to make conservatives happy, while giving moderates high-risk pools that allow them to argue it wouldn’t harm people with preexisting conditions. The restoration of EHBs is designed to make moderates happy, while telling conservatives states could still get out from under them.

But the waiver on prohibitions against jacking up premiums for people with preexisting conditions – which is called “community rating” – is a major problem. It would smack them with far more in costs — potentially pushing them off coverage entirely.

Sargent provides a nifty table documenting the specifics, for policy wonks, but it comes down to this:

Topher Spiro, a health policy analyst at CAP, tells me that these sums were calculated by using actuary “risk scores” for each condition, which detail how much someone with that condition costs insurers relative to a healthy person.

“If insurers can charge sick people higher premiums than healthy people, they would add a surcharge to premiums that reflects this additional cost,” Spiro says. “The premium markups would be unimaginable, adding thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to premiums. They would be priced out of the market and quarantined into high-risk pools.”

Now, in fairness, these findings are based on calculated national averages, so applying them to what would happen in any given state is tricky. But this is intended as a general guideline of what sort of premium hikes we might see in states that did seek waivers – and it’s fair to assume many red states would do so. What’s more, this conclusion dovetails with the general conclusions of other health policy analysts. The big story is that, while the new plan would ostensibly keep the prohibition against refusing to cover people with preexisting conditions, allowing premiums to be jacked up would functionally price a lot of those people out of the market, gutting that protection.

This is far worse than the last time around:

Indeed, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt tells me he thinks the CAP projections are plausible. “These figures show why a guarantee of coverage without community rating offers essentially no protection for people with pre-existing conditions,” Levitt says. “No insurance company will want to cover people with expensive health conditions if they don’t have to, so they will set premiums to make sure the coverage is out of reach. Health care costs are highly concentrated among a small number of people who are sick, and they would find it impossible to get affordable coverage.”

Of course, the new plan’s defenders would reply that these people can go into high-risk pools (this is apparently meant to give moderates cover to back it). But they’ve historically been underfunded and/or resulted in people paying higher prices or going without coverage.

But wait, there’s more:

Meanwhile, the new GOP plan would keep in place the old plan’s phase-out of the Medicaid expansion, which would itself result in 14 million fewer people on Medicaid, according to the Congressional Budget Office. You’d think that this, plus the gutting of protections for preexisting conditions, would render the new plan toxic for GOP moderates who, in rejecting the old plan, have confirmed that they are not willing to embrace a massively regressive plan that would push millions of poor and sick people off coverage while delivering an enormous tax cut to the rich. Of course, the need to give Trump a fake achievement to tout is also an urgent matter, so who knows what they’ll do?

They could stop being damn fools. Let it be. There really is no education in the second kick of the mule, and Eugene Robinson explains that kick:

Republicans don’t talk much about the practical reason for moving urgently on health care, which is to set the stage for tax reform: They want to take money now used to subsidize health care for low-income Americans and give it to the wealthy in the form of big tax cuts. Again, we can see you.

I’m sure the crowds at GOP town halls will be understanding. Just be sure to check attendees at the door for tar and feathers.

The crowds at GOP town halls will see this:

We would go back to the pre-ACA situation in which serious illness could mean losing a home or filing for bankruptcy.

This may satisfy GOP ideological imperatives – Ayn Rand would be so proud – but it is atrocious policy, even if you put aside considerations such as compassion and community.

And there’s this:

We live at a time of enormous economic dislocation. The manufacturing sector has shrunk dramatically, and now retail may be starting down the same path; long-lost jobs in industries such as coal mining are not coming back, no matter what Trump says. Workers need to be able to move to where jobs are being created – which means that health insurance should ideally be portable. But Republicans are heading in the other direction by trying to set up a system with radically different health-insurance rules in different states. In today’s world, how does that make sense?

And there’s this:

Unchanged from last month’s failed bill are provisions that would strip massive amounts of money out of Medicaid, by far the nation’s biggest source of payment for nursing-home care. So Republicans might not want to show their faces anywhere near retirement communities.

They’re asking for trouble, for that second kick from Sam Rayburn’s hypothetical mule, but that’s the plan:

The Affordable Care Act changed the way most people in this country think about health care. It did not, however, change the thinking of many House Republicans, who continue to believe individuals should be held financially liable for a genetic predisposition toward diabetes or a random cellular mutation that leads to cancer.

Not everyone feels that way. Ezra Klein argues that the Republicans’ biggest health care achievement has been making Obamacare more popular:

It is bizarre watching House Republicans persuade themselves that the problem they face on health care is cutting a deal between the Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group rather than crafting legislation that people actually like, and that will actually make some part of the health care system noticeably better. But the GOP’s refusal to take public opinion even mildly into account has put them in a disastrous position.

I’m not sure Republicans realize how deep a hole they’re in on this issue. But here’s a way to make it clear. Obamacare is now significantly more popular than Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, the Republican Party, or the American Health Care Act.

The aggregate approval numbers from all the polling are a bit sobering – Obamacare at 55 percent, Mike Pence at 49 percent, the Democratic Party at 45 percent, the Republican Party at 40 percent, Donald Trump at 39 percent, Congress at 34 percent, Paul Ryan at 29 percent, and the new American Health Care Act at 17 percent – before these latest possible revisions.

That’s absurd:

The Republicans’ strategy, right now, is to replace a law that’s more popular than they are with a bill that was polling at 17 percent before it went down in flames. And their approach to doing that isn’t a new campaign where they persuade the public that the AHCA is a good idea, nor is it a new proposal that fixes the problems that made the old bill so unpopular.

Instead, it’s a backroom deal that changes the AHCA so it’s easier for insurance companies to charge sick people more for coverage. Is that really what Republicans think the public disliked about the original bill? That it made it too hard for insurers to turn away former cancer patients?

The mule has already kicked them, twice:

When Democrats passed Obamacare, the law was mildly unpopular (though nothing close to the AHCA’s catastrophic numbers), but they believed, firmly, that it would grow more popular as it began delivering insurance to millions of people.

So far, the main thing the new Republican majority has achieved on health care is to prove the Democrats right – they have made Obamacare more popular than it’s been at any other point in its existence. And they’ve achieved that by persuading people disappointed in Obamacare that it’s better than what Republicans want to put in its place.

Josh Barro puts that another way:

I think it is best to understand the periodic reemergence of the American Health Care Act as similar to the periodic searches for evidence that President Barack Obama really did “tapp” Trump’s phones.

Trump says he was wiretapped, so he sets off a frenzy as Republicans seek to substantiate that claim, even though they will never be able to. Trump says Republicans are still making great progress on a healthcare deal, so he also sets off frenzies among Republicans to substantiate that claim, even though they’ll never be able to.

Trump forces his staff and Republicans in Congress to spend energy trying to construct in the real world the alternate reality that exists in his head, even when their energies would be best directed elsewhere – for example, toward trying to reach an agreement on a bill to prevent the government shutdown that will occur, absent legislation, on April 29.

That actually makes sense, but not in the real world:

The problems that prevent Republicans from passing a health care bill remain the same as they ever were.

A substantial number of members of the Republican House conference have maximalist ideas about Obamacare repeal, and can’t abide leaving a lot of the law’s spending and (especially) insurance regulations in place.

A substantial number of other members of the Republican conference have ideological or political objections (or both) to changes that would take away health insurance from many of their constituents, and/or make it difficult for people to get health insurance coverage that addresses their actual medical needs.

Fixing the first group’s objections will only deepen the second group’s objections. The spending the Freedom Caucus hates is what keeps coverage levels high. The regulations they hate are what make sure coverage actually addresses people’s healthcare needs, including pre-existing conditions.

In short, this was never going to work:

Healthcare is more complicated than Trump realized, but it’s not so complicated that you can creatively slice and dice the legislation to address the objections from both the right and the center. It’s impossible to write a bill that gives 216 Republicans in the House something they consider to be politically and substantively acceptable.

Meanwhile, the healthcare bill keeps getting less popular, congressional Republicans keep getting berated about the bill by constituents at town halls, and more members keep responding to that beratement by making promises to ensure the law protects coverage and holds people with preexisting conditions harmless – promises they will break if they vote for a revived version of the bill.

If so, and this seems to be so, there’s only one way to see this:

This bill is dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. But Republicans will prop up its stinking corpse… until the president allows them to stop.

Donald Trump will not allow them to stop. He’ll be a damn fool about it. He’s not W. C. Fields. In fact, Donald Trump doesn’t drink. Maybe that’s the problem. Donald Trump is out back with Sam Rayburn’s mule.

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The Day Came

Forget North Korea. Forget Russia and Syria and Iran and ISIS too. Forget the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with free-market nonsense that will cover no one but the healthy rich – and forget tax reform that will make the wealthy even wealthier, for no good reason. Forget the ongoing mass deportation of anyone who even looks vaguely Hispanic, and forget the coming trade wars that will paralyze the global economy. Well, don’t forget all that, but the day finally came, when modern American conservatism fell apart.

Perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic, but America has long understood what our sort of conservatism is, and made peace with it. It was fairly simple. Modern conservatism in the fifties was defined, if not established, by William F. Buckley, who cast out the John Birchers and the other conspiracy nuts. It was time to get serious. Conservatism was about free-markets and small government – the less government the better. It was a bit racist – Buckley vigorously argued for segregation – but that was a matter of states’ rights to him, and traditions that should not be abandoned lightly. Barry Goldwater was aboard. He lost. Ronald Reagan was aboard. He won – and William F. Buckley was there to explain it all. Buckley was erudite – reporters had to look up those odd words he used – but he was the voice of the movement. He founded the National Review, and the Weekly Standard followed, to compete with it, to say the same things even better. Much of it was cold-blooded and nasty, but was said with elegance, and then the think-tanks sprang up – the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and at Stanford, the Hoover Institute. Herbert Hoover was the good guy. Franklin Roosevelt was the bad guy – he had created a culture of dependency, on government.

So that was settled. Agree with it or not, Americans understood our sort of conservatism, but things changed. Richard Nixon might have started that change with his crude populism. He hated the Ivy League crowd, and there was no one more Ivy League than William F. Buckley. Nixon’s “silent majority” was the guys in hard hats that hated the hippies and everything that had to do with the sixties. Nixon used cultural resentment to win the presidency. His “Southern strategy” was to blame what had gone wrong down there on uppity black folks – without saying that directly – and that worked just fine. Carry the South and win every election. Republicans took notice – and then Nixon was gone. Watergate caught up with him.

Modern conservatism as cultural resentment went dormant for a bit, but it wouldn’t die, and things changed in 1996 with the birth of Fox News. Buckley was a grumpy old man. Fox News gave America Bill O’Reilly – the voice of cultural resentment in America. The folks at the National Review and the Weekly Standard still wrote the elegant pieces on free-market economics and tax policy and whatnot, but O’Reilly was talking about insufferable feminists and black thugs and the War on Christmas and Mexicans and Muslims and gays – we’d be better off without them. And there was political correctness – a straight white Christian man couldn’t say anything these days. He resented that. His viewers resented that.

That took off. O’Reilly had the hottest show on cable news. He buried CNN and MSNBC – he had ten times their ratings. That was an exaggeration, but modern conservatism had changed. O’Reilly was its voice.

And now that has fallen apart:

Bill O’Reilly’s reign as the top-rated host in cable news came to an abrupt and embarrassing end on Wednesday as Fox News forced him out after the disclosure of a series of sexual harassment allegations against him and an internal investigation that turned up even more.

Those insufferable feminists, or quite normal women being used and abused, did him in:

Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.

Since then, more than 50 advertisers had abandoned his show, and women’s rights groups had called for him to be fired. Inside the company, women expressed outrage and questioned whether top executives were serious about maintaining a culture based on “trust and respect,” as they had promised last summer when another sexual harassment scandal led to the ouster of Roger E. Ailes as chairman of Fox News.

Yes, his boss, Roger Ailes, had been fired for the same thing. It was O’Reilly’s turn, but it was a bit odd:

For a generation of conservative-leaning Fox News viewers, Mr. O’Reilly, 67, was a populist voice who railed against what they viewed as the politically correct message of a lecturing liberal media. Defiantly proclaiming his show a “No Spin Zone,” he produced programming infused with patriotism and a scorn for feminists and movements like “The War on Christmas,” which became one of his signature themes.

The news of Mr. O’Reilly’s ouster came while he was on a vacation to Italy; on Wednesday morning, he met Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Mr. O’Reilly’s tickets to the Vatican were arranged by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York.

In a statement later in the day, Mr. O’Reilly praised Fox News but said it was “tremendously disheartening that we part ways due to completely unfounded claims.”

“But that is the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today,” he said.

He was whining, resentful to the end. He just shook hands with the Pope! What did these people want?

They wanted this:

In the aftermath of Mr. Ailes’s dismissal in July, the Murdochs pledged to clean up the network’s culture. But since then, it has been hit with new sexual harassment allegations, and female staff members said they remained fearful of reporting inappropriate behavior…

Mr. O’Reilly’s dismissal was hailed by women’s rights activists and some inside the company as a sign that the network, and perhaps corporate culture at large, was finally taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously.

“This is a seismic cultural shift, when a corporation puts a woman’s rights above the bottom line,” said Wendy Walsh, a former guest on Mr. O’Reilly’s show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” who made allegations against him. “Today, we have entered a new era in workplace politics.”

But even on Wednesday, after the ouster, some employees said they were skeptical about whether the treatment of women at Fox News would actually change.

No one really expects it to change, but what’s done is done:

Mr. O’Reilly has been an anchor at Fox News since he joined the network in 1996. His departure is a significant blow to the Fox News lineup, which has dominated the prime-time cable news ratings. In January, the network lost another star, Megyn Kelly.

He will be succeeded in the 8 p.m. Eastern slot by Tucker Carlson, who moved into the channel’s prime-time lineup only in January.

Read about Tucker Carlson here – fired by CNN and then fired by MSNBC – another smug white male conservative full of resentments and more than willing to air them, but younger than O’Reilly, and there’s this – “On January 11, 2010, Carlson and former vice president Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel launched a political news website titled The Daily Caller.”

Nothing much will change, but Tucker Carlson is no Bill O’Reilly, and Jim Rutenberg explores that problem:

No two people did more to build Fox News Channel into a powerful cultural-political force than Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

Mr. Ailes, the founding chairman of Fox News, envisioned a news network that would speak for those forgotten Americans who thought the rest of the media was talking down to them while abetting a liberal takeover of their country.

He found one of those concerned citizens in the person of a midcareer, midlevel broadcaster named Bill O’Reilly, of Levittown, Long Island. With a white working-class background, and a perfectly perched chip on his shoulder, Mr. O’Reilly was the ideal personality for Mr. Ailes to build his network around.

Mr. O’Reilly quickly climbed to the top of the cable ratings, and then pulled the rest of the network along with him as he became one of the biggest stars in television news history.

In so doing, he empowered Mr. Ailes to build Fox News into more than America’s No. 1 cable news network. Much more significantly, Mr. O’Reilly helped Mr. Ailes turn it into the beating heart of a new, populist conservative movement, one that reshaped the political landscape while making its parent company, 21st Century Fox, billions.

And, finally, it became an important vehicle in the conservative convoy that delivered their mutual friend Donald J. Trump to the White House.

Tucker Carlson cannot fill those shoes:

First there is Mr. O’Reilly’s own audience, which steadfastly stuck with him – and then some – as the revelations about sexual harassment first emerged in The New York Times. For as long as he has been “looking out for” them – as he puts it – he has sworn to beat back the “secular progressive” forces of political correctness.

His fans told interviewers they doubted the allegations against him, describing him as an “easy target” for liberal groups and the same mainstream media he has made a career of lambasting.

Now here was Fox News, the network they trust above all others, refusing on Wednesday to stand behind Mr. O’Reilly in the face of what he called “unfounded claims” in the same way that they do.

“Generally, the Fox audience is not going to be happy the network fired him,” said Chris Ruddy, chief executive of a smaller Fox News rival, Newsmax Media. “They’re going to think it was unfair.”

But, really, where will Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers go in his absence?

Tucker Carlson ain’t it, but Bruce Headlam gets to the core issue here:

You know there is a lot of fear in corporate America when it actually penetrates the hard exoskeleton of Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News announced Wednesday that it will part with its star host Bill O’Reilly weeks after a New York Times investigation into sexual harassment charges led more than 50 companies, under pressure from protesters, to pull their ads from “The O’Reilly Factor.”

This wasn’t the only recent boycott. Last month, North Carolina passed a face-saving reversal of its bill that prevented transgendered people from using the bathroom of their choice after a host of companies and organizations, including the NCAA, said they wouldn’t do business in the state.

A campaign by the group Sleeping Giants has shamed hundreds of marketers into pulling their ads from the right-wing Breitbart News. A threatened boycott has extracted a promise from United Airlines that it will no longer violently remove passengers in favor of a company employee. If you’ve flown United recently, you’ll know that’s progress.

Boycotts work, sort of:

There’s little evidence that broad-based boycotts actually hurt a company’s bottom line; in fact, loyal customers often increase their patronage. Mr. O’Reilly’s ratings rose after the Times investigation. After the Cracker Barrel chain fired gay employees in 1991, visits to the restaurants rose in the face of protests. In 1977, when a Georgia group threatened a boycott of the Girl Scouts of America for its endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, cookie sales went through the roof.

But boycotts can cause a significant drop in share price, according to a 2007 study of boycotts over a 28-year period. In other words, shareholders react to their own fear of what might happen to the company’s brand, and not to what’s actually happening to its revenue.

That’s an important distinction:

None of the companies that pulled out of “The O’Reilly Factor” or Breitbart News are exactly a profile in courage. The basic allegations against Mr. O’Reilly have been known since 2004, when he settled his first lawsuit, but that didn’t stop companies from advertising until more women came forward. Though in some cases, corporate cowardice is a good thing. American business is often accused of producing a bland, monolithic culture – “Disneyfication” – but sometimes the fear to offend instills a kind of civility that other spheres of public life lack.

The idea here is that cowardice is socially useful:

Just compare the inclusive if dull message you hear from corporations with the state of our political culture, where the vilifying of enemies (the elite, welfare queens, the deplorables) is still a critical tool. Donald Trump won an election despite the creepy predatory comments he made on the “Access Hollywood” tape. But Mr. O’Reilly is being shown the door for acting toward women exactly as Mr. Trump had suggested (“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”). Not that he needed the encouragement, apparently.

Things change when money is involved:

Steve King, a five-time congressman from Iowa, has plagued the public arena for years with his barely concealed white nationalism. By contrast, when Donald Sterling, the longtime owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was heard on tape disparaging African-Americans, the NBA revoked his right to ownership and put the team up for auction. The NBA did this even though Mr. Sterling was speaking in private about associates of his ex-girlfriend, who secretly taped him as part of an extortion plot.

This is the same sort of thing:

Kellogg’s and Charles Schwab don’t want their ads to appear on a site featuring headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Crazy and Unattractive” or “Only Gullible Fools Believe the Great Barrier Reef Is Dying” unless they want to destroy their corporate reputations.

Likewise, Mercedes-Benz is a niche brand in the United States, but the company spends millions so that every consumer associates its vehicles with Jon Hamm uttering the phrase “The best or nothing” and not with Bill O’Reilly’s voice telling a would-be conquest that she’s a “wild girl.”

It seems this just had to happen:

More important, 21st Century Fox’s stock has slipped almost 6 percent since the Times investigation was published. That decline would make a coward of almost any chief executive. Mr. O’Reilly’s lawyer is laying the blame for his client’s situation on a “smear campaign” that is “being orchestrated by far-left organizations.” That sounds like the kind of all-out political assault that Fox News and Mr. O’Reilly himself excelled at for years. But it wasn’t politics that did in Mr. O’Reilly. It was just business.

Still, there is the tale of how it came to this, and it did start with Nixon. In 1967, Roger Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon was old-school. Ailes reminded Nixon of that televised debate with Kennedy in 1960, where those listening on radio though that Nixon won the debate, and those who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won. Radio is background noise. Television is what everyone talks about.

Nixon hired Ailes on the spot, as his Executive Producer for Television. Nixon’s 1968 election might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likeable and “accessible” to the public. That story is told in The Selling of the President 1968 – Joe McGinniss tells how Ailes made Nixon one of the cool kids again, and then a decade later there was this:

During the 1988 U.S. presidential election, the Willie Horton attack ads run against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis built upon the Southern strategy in a campaign that reinforced the notion that Republicans best represent conservative whites with traditional values. Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes worked on the campaign as George H. W. Bush’s political strategists, and upon seeing a favorable New Jersey focus group response to the Horton strategy, Atwater recognized that an implicit racial appeal could work outside of the Southern states. The subsequent ads featured Horton’s mugshot and played on fears of black criminals. Atwater said of the strategy, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Horton, big and black, was the convicted murderer who escaped during a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and then committed an awful rape along with armed robbery. Even though the furlough program was actually repealed during Dukakis’ second term, Bush’s two guys made Horton the symbol here, a signifier. Dukakis had no clue about bad guys. Dukakis was soft on crime. And black men are frightening. Everyone knows this.

And then, another decade later, in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch. The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the cool kids again. Ailes could do that and Fox News, featuring Bill O’Reilly, launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since.

They have had that plan. They say they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry white conservatives. That is, however, no more than their saying that they’re the cool kids, who know what’s what, not those other guys. It’s a high-school thing.

That may be why Roger Ailes hired all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks. That makes them cool, doesn’t it? It really is like being back in high school. The taunt is there. Check her out! She’s with me! I’m cool and you’re not!

Megyn Kelly left for NBC – she graduated from Bethlehem Central High School in Albany in 1988 or so. She’s not going back.

We may still be stuck in high school, however, and Isaac Chotiner explains why:

As the most-watched host on the most successful cable channel of the past two decades, O’Reilly came to represent a style of in-your face conservatism that had previously been associated primarily with talk radio. O’Reilly’s uniquely aggressive personality and instinctual skills in front of the camera go a long way toward explaining his success. But he also tapped into the right-wing id in a way no one had before, captivating his viewers with his unbridled egotism and stoking their resentments. It was a playbook that won him a huge audience – and, to judge by Donald Trump’s eerily similar appeal to voters, a legacy that will outlast his grip on the 8 p.m. time slot.

There is a parallel:

When The O’Reilly Report began in 1996 – the show didn’t become what O’Reilly referred to as “The Factor” until 1998 – it was your typical anti-Clinton offering from Fox News, with many of the same preoccupations of other conservative programs in the second half of that decade. (White House scandals, mainly.) Over his first several years on the air, O’Reilly made an effort to appear reasonable. He declared that he was not a Republican, but an independent; he refused to support the death penalty; he talked about the value of environmental protection; he said that he understood both sides of the debate on issues such as gun control and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; and he took immense pride – which manifested itself as smug self-satisfaction – in his supposedly nonpartisan, down-home common sense.

That sounds familiar, as does this:

O’Reilly’s minor heresies during his first decade on the air were ultimately less indicative of the future direction of his show than the passions that always consumed him. These were not the same passions of the Club for Growth crowd. O’Reilly was naturally in favor of tax cuts and smaller government, and after 9/11 he became predictably jingoistic, offering full-throated support for the Iraq war and a tough line on terrorism. But even then it was clear that the traditional Republican platform never really motivated him. The idea of O’Reilly spending more than 30 seconds talking about supply-side economics was unfathomable; Limbaugh and Hannity would do so constantly.

That’s Trump and Paul Ryan, because the resentment matters more:

A college professor would call America a fascist country, or a retailer would announce that it would greet customers with “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” O’Reilly would rant and rave; he would call for people to be fired; he would bemoan that America was becoming less religious and less white. Sure, Limbaugh and Hannity would occasionally focus on culture instead of politics, but for O’Reilly, it was what fueled the show, and what really got him exercised. (Much was made of his Levittown upbringing and disdain for snobby elites.) Even better, he didn’t appear to be faking it in the way one often suspects of certain right-wing hosts. All of the details that have leaked out about O’Reilly – from the harassment claims to the violent way he behaved toward his ex-wife – strongly suggest that he was not playing a character when he fumed on the air…

It’s simply impossible to overstate how much of each night’s show was consumed by O’Reilly’s own grievances. He skirmished with everyone from Matt Lauer to Rosie O’Donnell to Al Franken, and those fights would invariably become the topic of the day on his show.

Donald Trump tweets about Meryl Streep, the same sort of thing, and that’s the problem:

I never really had a theory for how this supposed man of the people got away with talking about nothing but himself. Then Donald Trump came along. Here was another rich guy who built a following speaking up for the working man. Like O’Reilly he seemed entirely driven by resentment: at President Obama, at the media, at the people who doubted him. And like O’Reilly, he spoke almost entirely of himself. His stump speeches were shocking, in part, because they were rarely about anything other than Donald Trump. When I would see him talk to a bunch of working-class voters in the Midwest and appeal to them by describing his own battles with CNN, I was surprised. But not as surprised as I would have been if I hadn’t been watching O’Reilly all these years.

They’re two of a kind:

In 2016 and 2017, as both O’Reilly and Trump battled accusations of misconduct, it’s been hard not to see them as twinned: bigoted, sexist dinosaurs from the past. Each man went to extreme lengths to defend the other, and you sensed that this wasn’t only because they share the same audience but also because they have so much in common, that they really do see themselves in one another.

So this is half a victory:

Finally we are seeing the downfall of a true symbol of reaction and misogyny. But satisfaction these days has a tendency to give way to despair. An even larger symbol (and transmitter) of these ugly ideas is sitting in the White House. O’Reilly’s time has finally come, but the forces he helped unleash on American culture remain ascendant.

Still, Fox News did fire Roger Ailes and then Bill O’Reilly – bigoted, sexist dinosaurs from the past. America can fire Donald Trump in four years, or sooner – and then someone can define American conservatism once again. Maybe they’ll come up with something useful this time.

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Past Presidents

American kids grow up with different wars, because we’re always at war. On October 7, 2001, it was Operation Enduring Freedom – war in Afghanistan. We’re still there. On March 20, 2003, it was Operation Iraqi Freedom – our war in Iraq. We’re still there, in much smaller numbers, advising and bombing this and that, but still at war – now to get rid of ISIS not Saddam Hussein – and now we’re doing the same in Syria. That’s what sixteen-year-old American kids know. We’ve been at war in the Middle East as long as they’ve been alive – their entire lives. That’s their war.

Aging baby boomers, born in the late forties, have the Korean War. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and we did something about that. That was Harry Truman’s war, but in 1952 we elected a new president – Dwight Eisenhower – and with the United Nations’ acceptance of India’s proposed Korean War armistice, the UN Command, which we led, ceased fire with the battle line at the 38th parallel. We had an armistice, and a Demilitarized Zone, and two Koreas. It’s been that way ever since.

That war never ended. We signed that Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, to end the fighting – but that war is still on pause, and really, by then the Russians were the problem. They finally had the bomb, and then they had lots of them. We had the Cold War that might turn hot in an instant. In the late fifties people were building underground bomb shelters in their back yards. In fifth and sixth grade there were those duck-and-cover drills – get under your desk and cover your head and close your eyes. You were going to be vaporized anyway, but it was something – and then those baby boomers came of age and finally went off to college, or to Vietnam. That was our war too. We were always at war. We got used to it.

American kids don’t get to choose their wars of course, but curiously, the next generation of American kids may get the Korean War again – the war that never really ended – but not Harry Truman’s war – because this will be Donald Trump’s war. That’s the way things seem to be headed, and as  Missy Ryan and Simon Denyer and Emily Rauhala explain in the Washington Post’s National Security column, it all starts with that missing aircraft carrier:

As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula this month, the U.S. military made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore toward the Western Pacific, apparently closing in on North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal.

But the ship that some officials portrayed as a sign of a stepped-up U.S. response to threats was in fact, at the moment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mounted a defiant show of military force last weekend, thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, operating in the Indian Ocean.

This was a monumental screw up. Perhaps the Trump folks forgot to tell the Navy to send that carrier group north – negligence. Perhaps the Trump folks just assumed that the Navy simply knew what Trump wanted them to do, because military guys know Trump and love him, and this would have been instinctive – arrogance. It’s unlikely that Naval Command disobeyed a direct order from their commander-in-chief. But Trump was boasting about this – he said he had sent submarines too – as was Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer. John McCain was happy. And it never happened, but perhaps that was intentional:

Officials’ nebulous – if not seemingly misleading – statements about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson illustrate the Trump administration’s attempt to deliver a dual message on one of its most thorny foreign problems: at once illustrating a willingness to employ force against a dangerous adversary while also steering clear of steps that could spiral out of control.

Dual messages are tricky, but that seems the only option now:

A series of binary, sometimes conflicting comments delivered by top officials in the past week highlight the Trump administration’s hope that hardline rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and, more fundamentally, the lack of attractive options it faces on North Korea. While officials are eager to signal a break from previous U.S. policy, their strategy appears to be a continuation of the Obama administration’s attempt to use international economic and diplomatic pressure to force results in Pyongyang.

This was the Obama administration’s strategy, done badly:

“The Trump administration, having looked at the options, is speaking out of both sides of its mouth, which if done deliberately is good policy,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security.

“The idea is that we have the means of striking back, we’re certainly going to protect our allies… but we’re not going to make the mistake of starting a war,” he said.

Is it war or isn’t it? It was hard to tell:

Standing at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas this week, Vice President Pence issued his latest warning to North Korea. “The patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out, and we want to see change,” he said.

But even as they highlight Trump’s willingness to use force in new ways in Syria and elsewhere, Pence and other officials have also expressed a preference for a negotiated disarmament for North Korea.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to achieve this objective through peaceable means,” the vice president said, adding that he hoped for a resumption of negotiations.

The double-barreled comments from Pence, like those from national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior officials, also indicate the importance that China, which Trump hopes will play an instrumental role in persuading Kim to abandon his nuclear plans, holds in the administration’s strategy.

China also signed that 1953 armistice agreement after all. They promised to help out. But then there’s Donald Trump:

Analysts said the White House is betting that its tough talk will convince Chinese President Xi Jinping that Trump is willing to use force to shatter the long standoff with Pyongyang, prompting Beijing to use the weight of its trade ties with North Korea to help avoid a huge conflict on its border.

Trump himself has issued repeated warnings to North Korea on Twitter, calling on China for help but promising to act unilaterally if need be. “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”

That sounds like war for the next generation of American kids, because Trump is playing with fire:

The use of bellicose rhetoric, even when paired with messages of continuity, could bring unanticipated results. Already, North Korea has ratcheted up its rhetoric against the United States, threatening its own preemptive strike.

Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, declared this week that North Korea would use nuclear arms to “obliterate” the United States if it made a move suggesting a first use of military action.

Perhaps with that in mind, officials at the Pentagon and State Department have attempted to ratchet down speculation about potential conflict.

They want to contain Trump:

Officials at the State Department have signaled that a resolution to the standoff could be well off in the future.

“I think there’s not going to be an answer tomorrow or the day after that. It’s going to take more time,” Susan A. Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told reporters this week.

“Our preference is to put pressure on the North Korean regime so that they will undertake to cease this threatening behavior and roll back their illegal programs,” she said.

So the Carl Vinson has been thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean, not bearing down on the Korean Peninsula. That may change things in Pyongyang. It may not.

Of course, Harry Truman faced the same thing – without the nukes – and David Ignatius draws the parallels:

The only modern president who rivaled Donald Trump in his lack of preparation for global leadership was Harry Truman. Both men took office with little knowledge of the international problems they were about to face, and with worries at home and abroad that they weren’t up to the job.

“I pray God I can measure up to the task,” Truman said right after Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the shock of taking the oath of office. Trump wouldn’t be human if he hadn’t had a similar prayer in a corner of his mind on Jan. 20.

But the parallels end there:

Truman exhibited what in those days were called manly virtues – quiet leadership, fidelity to his beliefs, a disdain for public braggadocio. He never took credit for things he hadn’t accomplished. He never blamed others for his mistakes.

President Trump is obviously a radically different person from Truman. He’s a showy New Yorker, where Truman was a low-key Missouri farm boy. Where Trump made his name as a noisy casino tycoon and TV star, the poker-playing Truman always kept his cards close.

What these two presidents have in common is the experience of coming into the Oval Office facing widespread doubts. What Truman teaches us is that character counts, especially for a president with low initial popularity ratings.

Still, Ignatius says Trump is coming around:

On foreign policy, Trump has shown a flexibility and pragmatism that contradict some of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric. He had accused China of “raping” the American economy, for example, but as president, he evidently realized that he needed Beijing’s help on North Korea and other issues and dropped his claims that Beijing was a “currency manipulator.”

Trump’s Russia position seems to be evolving, too. During the campaign, he was almost fawning in his praise for President Vladimir Putin, and investigators probed for hidden connections to Russia’s covert hacking of the 2016 campaign. Now Trump has taken a warier tone toward Putin. There have been similar shifts on more mundane issues, such as the Export-Import Bank and the tenure of Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen.

That fine, but not fine:

Trump’s new positions seem right to me. But because they represent reversals from earlier views, they raise the question of what this man really believes.

Ignatius prefers Truman:

How does a politician become more trustworthy? There’s no formula; it must be earned. But Trump would help himself if he exhibited more of the virtues that Truman embodied. Trump should stop blaming others, for starters. He should never again say that Barack Obama is the cause of his difficulties in Syria, or anywhere else. Shifting blame sounds political, but it also sounds weak. Similarly, Trump should never again malign his military commanders, as he did after the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, when Trump said that “the generals lost Ryan.” Such statements are the opposite of leadership.

Trump should stop taking credit for things he didn’t do (and even for things he did accomplish). These boasts only diminish him. It’s good that he has decided that NATO isn’t obsolete anymore, but he’s foolishly vain to take credit for it. The same is true with job gains from decisions by U.S. companies to keep plants in the United States. The quicker Trump is to claim personal credit, the phonier it seems.

Trump’s taxes present another example of how trust is won and lost. The man running for president might refuse to release his tax returns, but the wise chief executive, never.

When presidents encounter difficulty, they need public confidence. Divisive tactics that may work in a campaign, or attempts to shift responsibility to others, can be ruinous. Truman is remembered as a great president because he overcame a history of personal failure, as a farmer and a haberdasher, to develop the one bond that’s indispensable for a president, which is that in a crisis, people believed him.

So this will be Trump’s war, not Truman’s:

Truman was grieved by North Korea’s invasion in 1950. The war went badly, his popularity plummeted, his commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, defied him. But the public stuck with Truman for a simple reason: He had built a reservoir of the trust that is essential for a successful leader.

Okay, Trump is not Truman, but there’s Richard Nixon. Nixon inherited Johnson’s war in Vietnam and made it his own. He said he has a secret plan to end that war. He didn’t. There was that massive carpet-bombing of Hanoi to force the North Vietnamese to get serious at the negotiating table in Paris, and the invasion of Cambodia, after incursions into Laos – all to bring Peace with Honor. The North Vietnamese signed a peace agreement in Paris, and the war didn’t end. Nixon resigned – Watergate finally caught up with him – and Gerald Ford finally ended the thing. We had peace without honor. We lost.

It may be that Trump is Nixon, but in January, Carter Eskew argued that Trump is Nixon without the polish:

Ron Ziegler’s famous words “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative” have stood as a marker for the deceitfulness of the Nixon administration. We know that Trump not only has a tenuous relationship with the truth but also has a strategy of devaluing objective fact. You have your facts; Trump has his “alternatives” – biggest inaugural crowd in history, one of the largest margins of victory in Electoral College history, millions of illegal immigrants voted, and so on.

Eskew wasn’t hopeful:

It will be important to see whether Trump misleads about the big stuff, as well as the little stuff, the way Nixon did. Nixon deceived on everything from the quality of the wine served to him vs. his guests, to body counts in Vietnam. So far, Trump’s deceptions seem less sinister. So far, he’s like Nixon, but without the polish. Easier to catch. So far.

Once again, character counts:

Both men seem to share something else in common: a deep-seated resentment for the media and other elites. Nixon never felt completely legitimate as president; he always saw a plot by the Kennedys to thwart or defeat him. No matter his success, the “Ivy Leaguers” seemed to look down upon him. In the end, Nixon’s resentments both motivated and defeated him. He took his mantra of “I am not a quitter” and turned it into criminal activity. He forgot that he was venerated by millions of Americans, the silent majority, who identified with him as an underdog. Instead, he was obsessed with the approval of those who would never give it to him. Unrequited, he sought revenge.

Trump shares some of these same qualities. He comes from Queens and had to muscle his way into the hierarchy of Manhattan real estate, whose elite have always seen him more as a marketer than a builder. He is acutely aware of the disdain elites have for his outsize ego and gilded properties bearing the large stamp of his name. He is everything certain old-style elites disdain: loud, brassy, crude and boastful. Like Nixon, he seems to fear he isn’t viewed as legitimate. Instead of embracing the people who identify with his story of success he too stews over those who slight it. Like Nixon, he hates the press. And, like Nixon, he is frequently underestimated.

A question to follow in the Trump years will be whether he can harness his resentments and use them as positive motivation, or whether he will succumb to their darker instincts.

That question has now been answered, but a month later, Charles Lane noted that Trump was trying to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, but he may have had the wrong Andrew:

Egged on by his top political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump is touting an analogy between his populist administration and that of Andrew Jackson, who was first elected in 1828 as the tribune of Appalachian backwoodsmen – and whose portrait now hangs significantly in the Oval Office.

They’ve got the wrong Andrew. The past White House occupant Trump most closely resembles is the 17th president, Andrew Johnson, who served briefly as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president before Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 – then ruled turbulently, barely staving off impeachment, over the next three years and 11 months.

That’s Trump:

Like Jackson, Johnson believed there was no contradiction between strong states’ rights and unconditional commitment to the Union, and he never wavered, not even after the Civil War broke out. His pro-Union stance led to his selection as Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 presidential election: Republicans saw this rare loyal Southern politician as a ticket-balancing pick.

Johnson’s open and thorough racism mattered less to Lincoln’s party than the onetime tailor’s animosity toward the Southern planter class (faintly echoed in Trump’s Queens-bred insecurities regarding Manhattanites and other “elites”). Their aristocratic pretensions annoyed Johnson even if their slave-holding per se did not.

Republicans of Johnson’s time, in short, intended to use Johnson for their own purposes, not for this ideological misfit to become president.

Once he did, however, his stubborn, conflictual and erratic personality proved a constant source of irritation and embarrassment.

That sounds familiar:

Just as Trump has taken to Twitter to berate everyone from Nordstrom to a “so-called judge” who had the temerity to rule against his administration, Johnson transgressed contemporary norms of “presidential” communication.

Flouting his era’s unwritten rule against politicking by the chief executive, Johnson embarked on a national “swing around the circle” for the 1866 midterm election. Shouting and trading insults with hecklers at every whistle-stop, Johnson slammed “diabolical” political opponents and denounced the House and Senate as “a body called or which assumes to be the Congress of the United States.”

In one rant, which the Chicago Tribune called “the crowning disgrace of a disreputable series,” Johnson blamed a bloody race riot in New Orleans not on the white ex-Confederates who actually killed 34 African Americans and four white supporters, but on unnamed persons, linked to Congress, who had supposedly exhorted blacks “to arm themselves and prepare for the shedding of blood.”

One hundred and fifty years later, Trump would make a similar demagogic insinuation regarding political violence, labeling President Barack Obama a “founder” of the Islamic State terrorist group, and Hillary Clinton a “co-founder.”

Everything old is new again, including this:

Made president through tragic happenstance, Johnson not only lacked legitimacy among the wider public, he also had little or no leverage in Congress, even before he started alienating it.

Trump’s ascent was weird, too – he’s only the fifth president to win office with a majority of the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Obviously, his behavior and his policies dismay more than a few conventional Republican politicians.

Okay, Trump is not Andrew Jackson. He’s Andrew Johnson, the jerk who offended so many others (even his allies) that he got nothing done. Trump isn’t even Richard Nixon. Trump is Nixon without the polish – and Trump doesn’t have the “manly virtues” of Harry Truman either. Trump stands alone – and may stumble into war with North Korea now. American kids don’t get to choose their wars. The next generation of American kids may have to live with this one. They’ll get used to it too.

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Istanbul on the Potomac

There’s North Korea. There’s Syria. There’s Iran. And there are always the Palestinians and most of the obscure nations south of Egypt, full of ISIS and al-Qaeda wannabes – and then there’s Turkey. No, really – Turkey may be a member of NATO and an ally, but Turkey is still a worry, and Turkey has been lurking in the background in odd ways. There was President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn – fired for being a jerk and a liar, but there was a connection there. His attorney suggested that he had a whole lot of juicy stories to tell, if the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees would grant him immunity, from what, no one was sure. No one took him up on that – it could wait – but at the time Joy-Ann Reid had this to say about Flynn:

Here is a man who was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 for his apparent belligerence, rashness, and fondness for crank conspiracy theories. He then sought income from Russian state-run TV and the Turkish government, where according to the former head of the CIA, Jim Woolsey, he took a meeting to discuss illegally renditioning a U.S. green-card holder who the Turkish autocrat would very much like to have sent to him.

Woolsey said that Flynn and the Turks were talking about kidnapping the guy, so Woolsey walked away from the Trump crowd, and there’s more:

Flynn is known to have communicated with the Russian ambassador, and to have lied about it. If his name showed up unmasked in the monitored communications of foreign entities that could well be because he was the subject of a FISA warrant, and a national security probe. Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, told the White House, including Vice President Pence, that Flynn was at risk of being blackmailed by the Russians. It was his former staffer at DIA who was among the two, or perhaps three people, including a former [House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes staffer said to have rummaged around in the sensitive files he had access to as a top National Security Council staffer to try and find backup for Trump’s false claims about President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower.

That didn’t work out. Nunes has since recused himself from these matters, but something else became clear:

Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for his lobbying work linked to the Turkish government, according to paperwork filed Tuesday. Just weeks after Flynn was ousted from the Trump administration, the early Trump supporter and campaign adviser registered with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit for lobbying that his firm  – Flynn Intel Group In. – did on behalf of Inovo BV, a Dutch consulting company owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Flynn’s firm took on the Inovo job late in the campaign, in late August, and was paid $530,000 for consulting work on behalf of the company during the final stretch of the presidential campaign…

Flynn registered because his work “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”

Flynn was working for Turkey and this had to be done:

“Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign government or political entities must disclose their work to the Justice Department” according to the AP. “Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the Justice Department rarely files criminal charges in such cases.”

Of course Flynn wasn’t the only one with this problem:

Paul Manafort, facing mounting questions about his work for pro-Russian interests in the Ukraine, may be belatedly registering as a foreign agent.

Manafort, a onetime campaign manager for Donald Trump, has been in talks with the government about registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for some of his past political work, according to a statement from his spokesman, Jason Maloni.

“Mr. Manafort received formal guidance recently from the authorities and he is taking appropriate steps in response to the guidance,” the statement said…

Manafort worked as a political consultant for ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia figure who was driven from office.

Manafort was working for Putin’s guy all along, and getting well paid to do that, and there’s that third fellow:

A former adviser to Donald Trump who is at the centre of an FBI investigation was exhibiting “strongly pro-Kremlin” ideology almost two decades ago, his former employer has told the Guardian.

Carter Page, who was reportedly being monitored by the FBI last summer because of suspicions about his ties to Russia, was hired in 1998 by the Eurasia Group, a major US consulting firm that advises banks and multinational corporations, but left the firm shortly thereafter.

The account of Page’s abrupt departure from the Eurasia Group suggests that concerns about Page and questions about his links to Russia were known in some professional circles for nearly two decades and long before Page joined Trump’s successful presidential campaign.

Carter Page may or may not register, retroactively, as a foreign agent of the Russia government – it seems the Russians found him useless – but he’s a minor figure, and all of these Russians connections may never be untangled, or amount to much. That’s not true with Turkey. Flynn may be gone, but Trump, with his Towers in Istanbul, is connected, and now, the Washington Post’s Carol Morello reports this:

President Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday after a referendum greatly expanding his powers, despite a more circumspect State Department response to Sunday’s vote, which international election observers declared unfair.

According to accounts by both Trump and Erdogan, the two also discussed the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to the April 4 chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib province. Trump thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s support of the retaliatory action. The leaders agreed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be held accountable for the chemical attack that killed at least 70 people, and they talked about the ongoing campaign to counter the Islamic State.

They didn’t discuss the other matter:

Trump’s comments differed in tone from those of the State Department, which urged Turkey to respect the basic rights of its citizens and noted the election irregularities witnessed by monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States is a member of the OSCE.

“We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens,” said the department’s acting spokesman, Mark Toner, noting the objections of the Turkish opposition and the monitors.

The whole thing was a bit disturbing:

The juxtaposition of the differing responses underscored the awkward situation faced by many U.S. and European officials in responding to the disputed results of the referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to one led by an executive president with strong central powers. It passed by a slim margin, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

Turkey kind of got rid of its democracy, undemocratically:

OSCE observers said the campaign did not meet international standards for democracies, noting that virtually all Turkish media failed to cover the opposition, creating an “uneven playing field.”

Erdogan lashed out in response at what he called a ­”Crusader mentality in the West.”

Erdogan has the media in his pocket now, and the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins explains what that meant:

Fifteen years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the hope of the Islamic world. He was an Islamist, of course, but that was part of his appeal. As the mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, Erdoğan had governed as a charismatic and smart technocrat. He’d served time in prison, in 1999 – for reading a poem that seemed to celebrate militant Islam – but his jailers had been the country’s rigid, military-backed secular leaders who, by then, seemed as suited to the present day as dinosaurs. When Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, every leader in the West wanted him to succeed. In a world still trying to make sense of the 9/11 attacks, he seemed like a bridge between cultures.

On Sunday, Erdoğan declared himself the winner of a nationwide referendum that all but brings Turkish democracy to an end. The vast new powers granted to Erdoğan – wide control over the judiciary, broad powers to make law by decree, the abolition of the office of the Prime Minister and of Turkey’s parliamentary system – effectively make him a dictator. Under the new rules, Erdoğan will be able to run for two more five-year terms, giving him potentially another decade in power, at least. With a vote by the now truncated parliament, he would be able to run for yet another term, one that would end in 2034. By then, he’ll be an old man.

Donald Trump can only dream of dissolving America’s pesky Congress, always messing up his stuff, and making himself the one who decides what’s constitutional and what’s not, but he must like that guy’s style:

The voting took place in a government-created atmosphere of violence, intimidation, and fear. Turks campaigning against the referendum were attacked and even shot at. For much of the past year, Erdoğan’s government has been working to stamp out what remained of the democratic opposition to his rule. Since July, some forty thousand people have been detained, including a hundred and fifty journalists. A hundred thousand government employees have been fired, and a hundred and seventy-nine television stations, newspapers, and other media outlets have been closed. Many opposition leaders are in jail.

Trump can’t even put Hillary Clinton in jail, and although he’s called the press “the enemy of the people” nothing’s been shut down. On the other hand, there’s this:

 It did seem hard, in the lead-up to Sunday, to imagine that Erdoğan would allow himself to lose. (He did not even permit international observers to monitor the vote.) In the end, to solidify his position, Erdoğan was compelled to strike an unlikely deal with the MPH, an ultra-nationalist party that had previously opposed him. Without the ultra-nationalists, who can’t be expected to be enduring Erdoğan allies, the referendum vote may well have failed. Not that it will matter much now – the margin may have been close, but you can expect Erdoğan to exercise his new prerogatives fully. “It means the country is totally split,” James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, told me. “Half the country loves him, and half the country loathes him.”

Late in the campaign, Trump hired Steven Bannon, and the ultra-nationalist alt-right Breitbart crowd in America’s MPH also splitting America in two, and as Trump cleverly used the evangelicals, Filkins shows that Erdogan did the same:

The secret to Erdoğan, I think, is that his Islamism has always been a diversion; what he cares about is not so much the power of his religion as power for himself. This has been true at least since the beginning of his second term as Prime Minster. It was then, in 2007, that his government opened the first in a series of investigations aimed at rooting out what he described as a vast, secret cabal – dubbed “Ergenekon” – composed of the secular élite that had historically dominated Turkey. As it turned out, Ergenekon was just another name for the democratic opposition and members of the military who regarded Erdoğan with suspicion.

And one thing led to another:

At the time, the Ergenekon prosecutions made a certain sense: in Turkey, the secular élite and its allies in the military had such a history of repression that much of the world seemed prepared to believe Erdoğan, or at least to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the trials – which began the dismantling which continues to this day, of the secular democratic opposition – were a farce.

It was divide and conquer:

Since then, Erdoğan has used one trumped-up enemy after another to justify his drive for absolute power. In 2013 came the Gezi Park protests, where Turkish police cracked down on peaceful demonstrators, killing several people and injuring thousands more. Then, last July, Erdoğan beat back an attempted military coup against him, and then exploited the crisis to neutralize any remaining opposition.

Anyone could see where this was heading:

For years, Erdoğan’s critics attributed to him a damning quotation that, they said, revealed his true intentions. “Democracy is like a train,” Erdoğan was said to have remarked. “You get off once you’ve reached your destination.”

That’s a warning, and the Guardian’s Liz Cookman adds this:

It’s not that long since Turkey was championed as a democratic beacon in the Middle East. In just a few years, hyperbole, deliberately fanned fear and paranoia have fueled the country’s descent into Islamism and the sort of Big Brother state its people had hoped it had left behind…

Turkey now silences dissent by arresting opponents and has been accused of using torture and violence, including rape. Widespread purges have seen thousands dismissed from their jobs due to loosely evidenced accusations of supporting the group the government holds responsible for last year’s failed coup attempt. They have been left without employment or financial support – suicides have followed. Turkey’s newest accolade is that it’s the world’s largest imprisoner of journalists.

She draws a parallel:

Trump has voiced his support for the use of torture. And his similarities with the Turkish leader do not end there. Both use the rhetoric of patriotism to the point of nationalism, are vocal against abortion and are infamous for their tendency to objectify women and misunderstand feminism. They have both granted their sons-in-law important positions and both have a particularly thin skin when it comes to criticism, especially when it comes from comedians and journalists.

Erdoğan and Trump have publicly supported each other’s stance on the media in the past. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will recognize Trump’s denouncement of negative coverage in outlets such as the New York Times as “fake news”.

We may be heading for an Istanbul on the Potomac, and there was that first-week phone call:

President Donald Trump reiterated US support for Turkey as a “close, long-standing” partner, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.

It was the two leaders’ first conversation since Trump took office in January.

Trump welcomed Turkey’s efforts in the battle against ISIS, according to a White House readout of the conversation, and spoke of both countries’ commitment to fighting terrorism “in all its forms.”

The conversation lasted 45 minutes, local media reported.

But areas of ongoing tension were notably absent from the readout, including the latter’s extradition request for exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and US support for Kurdish groups in Syria.

Michael Flynn would work on that:

Erdogan demanded the US hand over Gulen, whom he blamed for the coup attempt, but the Obama administration asked for proof of his involvement.

Trump praised the Turkish leader’s handling of the coup in a July interview with the New York Times.

“I give him great credit for being able to turn that around,” he said.

Erdogan was Trump’s kind of guy – like Vladimir Putin, strong and in control – but Trump did have to cut Erdogan’s man, Michael Flynn, loose. Trump has now been forced to become a centrist.

That’s comforting, but Brian Beutler says think again:

Donald Trump’s recent policy reversals, and reports that he’s exasperated with right-wing advisers like chief strategist Steve Bannon in favor of moderates like son-in-law Jared Kushner, have given rise to a media depiction of the president as a burgeoning centrist. By declining to label China a “currency manipulator,” to shutter the Export-Import Bank, or to replace Janet Yellen when her Federal Reserve chairmanship expires, Trump has moved “toward the economic policies of more centrist Republicans,” according to The Washington Post. “Trump is, if not behaving normally, at least adopting normal positions,” writes Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who cites Trump’s declaration that NATO is “no longer obsolete” in addition to other flip-flops.

Don’t believe a word of it:

It is strange, for instance, to describe the combined law enforcement policy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic policy of adviser Gary Cohn, and foreign policy of Trump’s Twitter feed and the military generals in his good graces as “centrism.” Trump has instead taken the three-pronged fusionism of standard movement conservatism – pro-corporate economic policy, religious right-wing social policy, and hawkish foreign policy – and stripped away any pretense of concern for racial equality and inclusiveness. Describing that kind of platform as “centrist” is both inaccurate and a gift to reactionary forces in society.

It is also strange to reflexively applaud a president for serially violating campaign promises – or to assume that the new positions are good, simply because the old ones were bad. The instinctual feeling of relief overtaking the political establishment is understandable – even appropriate – but the reasons are being misdescribed, and wrongly attributed to a rational process supposedly happening in Trump’s mind.

There’s nothing rational here:

Trump really seemed to believe that the presidency was essentially omnipotent, and that, once inaugurated he could mow over all obstacles to unfettered rule. His hubris has been answered in humiliating fashion.

That may work in Turkey, but not here:

A review by The Los Angeles Times found that fewer than half of Trump’s 39 executive actions changed federal policy in any meaningful way. Two of the orders – the Muslim ban and Muslim ban redux – have been enjoined nationwide, notwithstanding Trump’s attempts to smear the judges who enjoined them. Trump was likewise forced to withdraw a federal hiring freeze because it exacerbated backlogs at Veterans Affairs hospitals and Social Security offices, and to reverse his politicization of the National Security Council by demoting Bannon.

The list goes on and on:

Where Trump has asked Congress to expedite controversial aspects of his agenda – Trumpcare, and funding for a wall along the southern border – Congress has responded by not doing them. Republicans in Congress have largely abetted Trump’s efforts to cover up the corruption that pervaded his campaign and now pervades his administration. But Trump has been unable to stymie a Senate investigation of ties between his advisers and the Russian intelligence elements that sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. When the White House attempted to conscript Congress into turning its investigative powers on his enemies, it boomeranged on them. Republicans and Democrats condemned Trump, and their partner in crime, Congressman Devin Nunes, had to relinquish control over the House Intelligence Committee’s own Russia investigation.

Trump told Fox Business Network that “it’s not too late” for him to fire FBI Director James Comey, who is conducting a third investigation of the Russian subversion operation. While this is true in a narrow technical sense, what Trump may not realize is that for all practical purposes it is almost certainly false – unless the White House believes that mass FBI resignations, or the appointment of a special prosecutor, or impeachment for obstruction, or some combination thereof, would be an improvement on the status quo.

Trump is also learning that while it is technically his prerogative to unthinkingly abuse U.S. allies and antagonize rival powers, the consequences of doing so are immensely constraining. The inherent power of institutions like NATO, combined with path dependency, loss aversion, and other inertial forces are for better or worse stronger than any president; the good news is, that includes Trump. Most presidents wouldn’t threaten to intentionally mismanage the Affordable Care Act in order to bring about its failure, but when Trump did, no less a player in Republican politics than the Chamber of Commerce warned him that he would be making a grave mistake.

It seems that Trump ran into wall after wall, because we have walls:

Trump’s “pivot” is really an outgrowth of the fact that he keeps bouncing off of these institutional constraints. Trump’s power-mad political instincts, reflected in Bannon’s central role in the administration’s early days, served him very poorly, so he has delegated governing to different people with different agendas. His economic adviser Gary Cohn – until recently the president of Goldman Sachs – is reportedly gaining clout, while the generals Trump placed in charge of the Defense Department and the NSC have taken the reins of foreign policy.

Insofar as Trump’s strongman tendencies and his erratic, id-driven decision-making process have been sources of widespread sleeplessness, this is a welcome development, and I believe some of the enthusiasm for Trump’s supposed “centrism” is really an expression of gratitude that his authoritarian inclinations are giving way to something more considered.

That would be those walls, but they may not be enough:

There is a lot of damage a praise-seeking president can do short of blundering us into World War III via Twitter. Trump ran afoul of the foreign policy consensus in Washington, only to win over the keepers of that consensus by bombing Syria. The problem is that the consensus itself is unwise, forged by corrupted institutions, dangerous even when someone like Barack Obama – a deeply deliberate, reluctant interventionist- is at the helm. I think the decision was a moral and strategic error, but even those who supported it shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that Trump did something they liked. Yes, Clinton might have made the same decision – but not on a lark, and not in pursuit of cable news plaudits. It is frankly bizarre how many people are of the view that Trump is a dangerously erratic man, unfit for the presidency, but are thrilled to give him positive reinforcement for launching cruise missiles.

We could still have some sort of Istanbul on the Potomac, and things may be heading that way:

Unable to delegitimize competing institutions, Trump is seeking to empower them at the expense of his central campaign promises. This is an inherently stabilizing development, but praising Trump for it confronts us with a new set of problems. This especially true if, in our relief, we reinforce incentives for him and future presidents to lie to their supporters and encourage complacency with institutions that failed to stop Trump from becoming president in the first place.

Well, yes, America did elect him. Break out the baklava – layers of paper-thin filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with honey – just like our government. It’s Istanbul on the Potomac.

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Easter

This is not the day for politics. Drop by tomorrow.

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Our Man of Militant Ignorance

Nothing has settled down. Donald Trump has not become presidential in any way anyone uses that word – although he said he could be presidential, and would be – “I will be so presidential. You will be so bored. You’ll say, can’t he have a little more energy?”

Donald Trump says lots of things that just aren’t so. No one seemed to mind that one. Politicians running for office make all sorts of claims. People worry. Politicians tell them not to worry. The future will take care of itself – but now people are worried, and no one is bored. And are we going to war with Syria, and Iran and Russia in that case, and with North Korea, and with China in that case? And why is Trump cutting everything to pay for that damned wall that no one ever believed would solve anything? The Meals on Wheels program costs next to nothing. Big Bird on PBS isn’t busting the budget. Do you want the kids to cry? And defunding the State Department seems unwise – as does neutering the EPA and defunding anything that has to do with science and medicine. And why is Trump tweeting angry nonsense instead of doing the hard detailed work necessary to fix things? Is he easily bored? Does he have Attention Deficit Disorder? Is he in over his head?

No one expected this. Perhaps no one really expected Donald Trump to be presidential, voluntarily – he was just saying what he must have thought was the right thing at the time – but the job would surely make him presidential. He would have to be presidential – he’d have to deal with other world leaders – he’d also have to deal with all the big egos, with specific and often angry constituencies, in Congress. Other world leaders would test him. Facts that he didn’t like would come up – like Vladimir Putin being the nasty fellow everyone had always said he was. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, turned out to be a nut and a liar – Trump had to fire him. Steve Bannon might be gone soon now too – the blood and soil white nationalist who wants to blow everything up. Some things just won’t do. A new president soon realizes that. There’s a lot to learn. The office changes the man.

That doesn’t seem to be happening. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to want to learn things. Like those who enthusiastically voted for him, he doesn’t trust experts, or even like them. What good are they? They got us into this mess, and only a man not weighted down by expertise can get us out of it. Our intelligence agencies were wrong about the Russians messing with our election – they’re Nazis or something, out to make Trump look bad – and Obama did wiretap Trump Tower – and climate change is a hoax too – and the coal industry will come roaring back too. What do experts know anyway? Trump was fond of saying that he knew more about ISIS than all the generals. He watched all “the shows” – on Fox News, mainly – and said he had a fine mind – the best, really. In his inauguration speech he said he’d end the “American carnage” that so-called “experts” had caused.

Those who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump ate that up. They hate experts too. The other sixty or seventy percent of the county – which includes those who held their noses and voted for Trump because at least he wasn’t Hillary Clinton – have been in a panic ever since. This wasn’t supposed to happen in America.

That was a misunderstanding. That’s America. That had been explained. Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) explored Americans’ curious distrust of people who know more than most Americans know, a culturally-established distrust of experts and expertise. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Maybe there was a time when being well-educated and insightful, and full of ideas, or at least be able to discuss the ideas of others intelligently, or least know there were ideas floating around out there somewhere and they mattered, made you cool – or maybe that was France. Here, more than ever before, that makes you a fool. You’re inauthentic. You’ve lost touch with the real America. Obama, with his degrees and having taught constitutional law and all the rest, had been out of touch with the real America.

A lot of this is all mixed up with our attitudes about where we learn things, which for most of us is in school, from teachers, most of whom are women. Hofstadter is clear on that too. Historically, teaching in America, uniquely, has been a women’s profession. The few men who taught kids were suspect. They were effeminate losers. After all, those who can’t do, teach. That’s why teachers are paid next to nothing. They’re not doing. Hofstadter traces this thinking back through all the years, back to Colonial times. Real men don’t teach.

The corollary is obvious. Sure, you should know lots of stuff, but whatever success you have, whatever you might achieve, will be because of your character, or because of Jesus, or because you were bold. High-school dropouts become millionaires, after all. Most high school dropouts don’t become millionaires, but couldn’t that be because of their moral failings?

Thomas Nichols makes a parallel argument in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University, and he used to teach international relations and Russian affairs at Dartmouth and Georgetown, and he has worked as a defense and security affairs staffer in the Senate, so his frustration is understandable. Cab drivers tell him they know as much about any of this stuff as he does, and that their opinions are as good as his. He’s worried about the country. His book is about America now unable to figure things out, because anyone can claim to be an expert, and does, angrily. Thomas Nichols updates Richard Hofstadter’s argument for the internet age – but the warnings were always there. Donald Trump was inevitable.

Donald Trump is also a problem, and Josh Marshall explores that problem:

It is what we might call “the consensus judgment” that President Trump is a deeply ignorant man and perhaps a profoundly ignorant President. But it is worth stepping back and considering just what this means, the different kinds of ignorance that exist and how they differ.

That calls for a bit of recent history:

Without making a direct comparison, it is worth remembering that each of the last three Presidents came to office with a steep learning curve about the modalities of the presidency and many aspects of the challenges and issues they would face. Clinton, Bush and Obama were each, in different ways, pretty green. Bush’s father, since he had served in Congress, as head of the CIA and especially because he had served as a fairly active Vice President for the previous eight years, came in knowing quite a lot about the specifics of the Presidency.

Some of the difference with Clinton, Bush and Obama (let’s call them CBO) is that they had good staff or at least knowledgeable staff who could help them to understand what they didn’t know and advise them on the almost infinite number of details they could never hope to understand in depth. But there’s another key issue. You don’t become President by being excessively humble. Yet CBO each had a sense of what they did not know. At a bare minimum, they didn’t advertise it when they learned something they later realized a lot of other people knew.

That’s not Trump:

What is endearing, terrifying and hilarious about Trump is not simply his ignorance, really his militant ignorance, but his complete lack of self-awareness about his ignorance. Trump told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal that his understanding of the problem of North Korea changed dramatically after hearing ten minutes of history from the President of China. Needless to say, Trump didn’t need to admit this. But neither was it candor.

In fact, that was an in-your-face militant statement:

So far the Trump Presidency has been a sort of Mr Magoo performance art in which the comically ignorant Trump learns elemental or basic things that virtually everyone in the world of politics or government already knew – things that the majority of adults probably know. Health Care: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” North Korea: “I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power. But it’s not what you think.” There are perhaps half a dozen examples equally stark.

In other words, President Trump is open about his discoveries and even eager to share them but universally projects his previous state of comical ignorance onto the general public or whomever he is talking to.

In other cases, this would make sense. If Trump discovered that humans could fly if they hold their nose, close one eye and say “Shazam!” I’d want to know. Because that’s awesome! And I wouldn’t think worse of Trump for not knowing it before – because this is new and amazing information. But learning that health care policy is complicated is a different kind of discovery.

Still, that’s useful:

Remaining ignorant is probably a good adaptive strategy for him because it allows him to pretend that everything is obvious, that he can solve any problem and generally act like he can do anything – in a way, this allowed him to become President.

In fact, those who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump ate that up. Experts don’t matter. Everything is obvious, but it’s more complicated than that:

What is key is to understand that this is not just ignorance. Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him. Those of us who are parents know the wonder of discovery experienced by small children. They find out there were things such as dinosaurs or close primate relatives called lemurs. As loving parents we indulge them, sometimes feigning ignorance of things we actually already knew to support a child’s joy in discovery.

But Donald Trump is a seventy-year-old man. And not a terribly nice man.

His ignorance is not endearing. We don’t need to lie to him to make him feel good about himself. Still it is good to understand his condition. Ignorance is just lack of information. But there’s something wrong with Trump’s brain – maybe cognitive, perhaps simple entitlement or just broad spectrum derp – which appears to make it genuinely impossible not to project his own ignorance onto everybody else.

Trump may be out to prove that Richard Hofstadter and then Thomas Nichols were right about America. His own ignorance is ours – it was there all along.

Still, there’s this curious nugget from the New York Times:

So much of this is new to Mr. Trump that only after he publicly accused Mr. Obama of having wiretapped his telephones last year did he ask aides how the system of obtaining eavesdropping warrants from a special foreign intelligence court worked.

Half of America – and the secondarily accused British intelligence services – were in an uproar about that for two weeks. Trump had no idea what he was talking about. Obama had done him wrong – he was sure about that. He later, much later, asked his aides if Obama could really do that sort of thing. They apparently said no. He’s said little about that since, but the New York Times is charitable:

For any new occupant of the White House, the early months are like a graduate seminar in policy crammed into every half-hour meeting. What made sense on the campaign trail may have little bearing on reality in the Oval Office, and the education of a president can be rocky even for former governors or senators. For Mr. Trump, the first president in American history never to have served in government or the military, the learning curve is especially steep…

But he arrived at the White House surrounded by advisers who, like him, were neophytes to governing. His White House chief of staff, chief strategist, senior adviser, counselor and national economic adviser have no prior government experience of consequence. Nor do his secretaries of state, Treasury, commerce, housing or education.

Maybe that’s not so charitable – he chooses those who know next to nothing for key positions – but there is what he didn’t do:

He delayed his vow to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after King Abdullah II of Jordan rushed to Washington to warn him of a violent backlash among Arabs. He abandoned his intention to bring back torture in terrorism interrogations after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him it was ineffective.

He has not appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, ripped up or renegotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran, reversed Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy or terminated his predecessor’s program permitting younger unauthorized immigrants to stay.

America will be fine, but for this:

Karen Hughes, who was White House counselor to President George W. Bush, said no president can be fully informed about all the issues that will confront him.

“Obviously, most presidents aren’t nuclear scientists,” she said. “What is important is that the White House provides a disciplined process for the experts to present their views, which are often differing. The president’s role as the chief executive and decision-maker is to listen to, question and probe the expert recommendations, and then apply informed judgment to the decision.”

A militantly uninformed man cannot apply informed judgment, and then there was this:

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal… Over the last week, several members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees have reviewed intelligence reports related to those requests at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

Even the Republicans looking into Susan Rice “unmasking” the names of Americans in NSA intercepts when she was Obama’s National Security Advisor said that’s what she was supposed to do – that was part of her job. She did nothing wrong. Who knew? It seems everyone knew.

And then there’s Michael Tomasky:

Everyone, including The Daily Beast, took note of the president’s six-flip-flop Wednesday. And it’s true that every one of those huge reversals was in the direction of sanity. He embraced NATO, kind of. He recognized that the North Korea-China thing is complex. He acknowledged that Janet Yellen is a serious policy person. And so on.

I guess this is growth. But let’s be real here: This is “growth” in the most remedial sense possible…

Here’s a metaphor for you. Having Donald Trump as president is like the Dallas Cowboys hiring as their head coach a guy who’d never even coached a Pop Warner team. Who knew nothing about different defensive coverages. Nothing about stunts. Nothing about offensive formations. And then somebody sat him down after he was coach and told him these things, and he said ‘Gee, nobody knew that all this was so complicated.'”

Perhaps he’ll grow into the job, and Jonathan Chait says he sort of has:

Donald Trump ran an ethno-nationalist cult-of-personality presidential campaign, in which his status as a (real) nonpolitician and (imaginary) business genius would allow him to transcend and solve every policy problem. He has retained the ethno-nationalist themes, while abandoning, one by one, almost every other populist element differentiating him from the generic Republican brand.

The idea is that the office did change Trump. He didn’t become presidential, but he did become a Republican:

As he has come into contact with a concrete agenda, every heterodox promise has given way to conventional GOP positions. Trump’s pledge not to cut Medicaid while replacing Obamacare with a terrific plan that would include “insurance for everybody,” with better coverage than they have now, turned into endorsement of a conventional Republican plan that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and throw tens of millions of people off their insurance. He has oriented his domestic policy around traditional Republican priorities: deregulation, especially of the financial sector and fossil fuels, and regressive tax cuts. Report after report finds chief executive officers streaming into the White House and essentially dictating policy.

The economic-nationalist elements of Trump’s agenda have all either quietly disappeared or been reversed outright. He has ignored his loud promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He has admitted that China, another longtime bête noir, is not, in fact, a currency manipulator. He came out in favor of the Export-Import Bank, after Boeing’s CEO educated him on it (“Instinctively, you would say, ‘Isn’t that a ridiculous thing?'” he told The Wall Street Journal. “It turns out that lots of small companies are really helped!”) and turned his ballyhooed lobbyist ban into Swiss cheese. On economic policy, Trump has become a conventional party man whose ideas reflect the agenda of the lobbyists and wealthy individuals who have his ear…

The ideological distance between Trump’s economic policy and foreign policy and George W. Bush’s has collapsed…

It has:

H. R. McMaster, Trump’s chief national security adviser, is formulating plans to send tens of thousands of ground troops to Syria for an extended campaign to destroy ISIS and allow for reconstruction afterward – i.e., an occupation. That is an astonishing turn for a president who has not only presented himself as an original opponent of the Iraq War, but endlessly lamented the sums spent on the war and the occupation, which he said could have been used for rebuilding the United States. Indeed, Trump used his imagined status as farsighted Iraq War opponent to beat back every attack on his manifest ignorance of foreign policy, during both the primary and the general election. There is no telling whether Trump will follow McMaster’s plan; but the mere fact that he has ceded so much authority to a conventionally hawkish interventionist, after having ridiculed his party’s neoconservative wing, shows how far he has lurched already.

In fact, Donald Trump became George Bush, and then he became the real thing, a pre-Bush Republican:

Trump’s ethno-nationalism reverses a trend in the Republican Party: Beginning with Bush, it had repudiated its Southern strategy and attempted to craft a racially inclusive message that would broaden the constituency for its oligarchic economic agenda. Bush and his ideological heirs sought to compromise on immigration while taking seriously minority concerns about discriminatory law enforcement. Trump has reversed Bush’s aspiration for a racially inclusive party completely, while rediscovering his economic blueprint.

Well, that’s something. That’s not good, but it’s something. Combine that with a bit of proud all-American militant ignorance and it’s even worse – but this had to happen. America does have a culturally-established distrust of experts and expertise. We were warned. We might as well embrace it. Actually, there’s no choice now. Maybe there never was.

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Assorted Bombs

Americans keep their politics simple. The Democrats are the Mommy Party. The Republicans are the Daddy Party. Democrats want everyone to get along, even if that’s often clearly impossible. Republicans want everyone to comply – the rules are the rules. Democrats seek understanding – diplomacy is their thing. Republicans seek order under time-tested tradition that shouldn’t be tossed aside lightly – and they bomb things. Democrats seem to think that the way to peace in this troubled world is through cooperation and gracious compromise, by both sides. Republicans seem to think that the way to peace in this troubled world is through slapping down the troublemakers. And so on and so forth.

That’s all anyone needs to know about American politics. Democrats and Republicans will never agree on anything. That’s not even possible. It’s not the issue at hand. America has two different concepts of how the world works, or should work – and to prove their concept of how the world really works, Republicans often point to Ronald Reagan. He ended the cold war. The Soviet Union collapsed, because he goosed up our military. We scared them to death – and Ronald Reagan tore down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands.

He didn’t? Well, at least he was strong. No one would mess with America. That’s what brought peace to the world – the end of history as Francis Fukuyama put it. This was “peace through strength” – although Fukuyama would later admit he got it all wrong. America soon found itself slapping down troublemakers in the Middle East – and from the Middle East – and we’re still at it.

Republicans did their thing. This called for more strength. That would bring peace to this troubled world – so we were off to Afghanistan and then Iraq. That didn’t work out, even with this “surge” or that, but Dick Cheney was committed to the Reagan way of fixing things. Even torture was fine, even if he didn’t call it that. Torture may or may not work, but that didn’t matter. It mattered that everyone knew that America would do such a thing. Troublemakers would be scared shitless. They’d never fly another jetliner into a skyscraper ever again.

The troublemakers found alternatives. A subway in London would do, so would a mess hall at Fort Hood – so would an office Christmas party in San Bernardino. No one was scared shitless.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink that Reagan thing. In fact, he was not what Republicans had been saying he was. The real Ronald Reagan, in 1983, suddenly pulled all our troops out of Lebanon when an obscure group calling itself ‘Islamic Jihad’ claimed responsibility for the bombings that killed 241 of our Marines in their barracks in Beirut. That’s all we did. We left. The real Ronald Reagan wasn’t going to start a major war over there, to fix things once and for all. We left and Reagan immediately invaded Grenada – that would do, to make folks feel better, and it was easily done and over quickly – but as a show of strength it was a bit of a joke. We took care of the Cuban Menace – and the Islamic Jihad smiled – and the rest is history. Fidel Castro died of old age and his brother still runs Cuba. America has decided to just get along with those folks.

Still, Ronald Reagan is an American hero. Slapping down troublemakers makes some sense, even to Democrats. Sometimes that has to be done. Sometimes you have to lob fifty-nine cruise missiles into Syria. All Americans like that sort of thing, but that troubles Bill Moyers:

The theatrics were perfect. The Pentagon shopped to the media a video of the missiles as they were lofted up and away. MSNBC’s Brian Williams was among those moved by the aesthetics of violence: “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.'”

When I heard those words, I thought back to that night in 2003 when another president lit up the skies over Baghdad with the “shock and awe” of his air attack on Iraq. Suddenly the press was talking about George W. Bush as if he were George Washington, George Marshall and George Patton rolled into one. A touch of George III came later, as our newly refurbished president donned a flight suit and strutted aboard the aircraft carrier with the banner behind him that read: “Mission Accomplished.” Not quite.

That’s an understatement, but Donald Trump would like to be George Washington, George Marshall and George Patton all rolled into one, so this was inevitable:

The United States dropped the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal – on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan on Thursday, the Pentagon said, unleashing a weapon so massive that it had to be dropped from the rear of a cargo plane.

The strike was the first combat use of what is formally named the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. President Trump has bestowed additional authority on the Pentagon in his first months in office, which the military has argued will help it defeat the Islamic State more speedily. Mr. Trump did not say whether he had personally approved Thursday’s mission.

“What I do is I authorize my military,” Mr. Trump said after a meeting with emergency workers at the White House. He called the bombing “another very, very successful mission.”

ISIS is the big problem in Iraq and Syria – Afghanistan was lost long ago and doesn’t much matter now – but this was a big beautiful bomb, and he one-upped the imaginary Ronald Reagan. He didn’t even order that this big beautiful bomb be dropped – he just told our military to do its thing.

He trusts them. They’re real men, or something. Obama didn’t understand that, but Trump needs to be careful:

In a separate announcement, the Pentagon said that an airstrike in Syria by the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State there had killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the United States, raising concerns about whether the White House is applying any rigor to the process of approving airstrikes in hot spots from Afghanistan to Syria.

The Syria strike – on Tuesday near the town of Tabqah, which Syrian fighters and American advisers are trying to capture – was the third American-led airstrike in a month that may have killed civilians or allies. Earlier bombing runs killed or wounded scores of civilians in a mosque complex in Syria and in a building in the west of Mosul, Iraq.

“We have the greatest military in the world,” Mr. Trump said. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing, and frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

That depends on how you define success:

American commanders in Iraq and Syria have been given more authority to call in strikes, a loosening of the reins that began in the last month of the Obama administration. But some national security experts said that Mr. Trump and the Pentagon risked inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world with their approach to fighting the Islamic State.

Donald Trump doesn’t seem concerned with that, but maybe he should be concerned with that:

In addition to the greater leeway granted to commanders in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Trump has relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen.

“Trump has ceded responsibilities to his military commanders, and it appears he’s paying little attention to operational details,” said Derek Chollet, who was the assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration.

“Here’s the question,” Mr. Chollet added. “Trump takes great pride in his authorizing the military when things go well, but one wonders if he’ll have the same sense of shared accountability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.”

That’s a worry, but so is this:

Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is. “What they haven’t been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with,” he said. “They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it’s hard to be sure you’re having the desired effect.”

Just bomb things… That’s not a strategy. Even Ronald Reagan knew better. He didn’t level Lebanon. Bye-bye Beirut and hello Grenada. But there may be a strategy here:

President Donald Trump said Thursday that he does not know whether the U.S. military’s use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan will send a message to North Korea, but he said “the problem” with that country “will be taken care of,” regardless.

“I don’t know if this sends a message,” Trump told reporters in the White House. “It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.”

That was a bit coy, but this isn’t:

The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test, multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.

North Korea has warned that a “big event” is near, and U.S. officials say signs point to a nuclear test that could come as early as this weekend.

If the big beautiful bomb we just dropped in Afghanistan didn’t scare the North Koreans shitless, then these intelligence officials blabbing to NBC news should do the trick. We do preemptive stuff – at least Republican presidents do. We took out all of Saddam Hussein’s WMD – including his nukes – and took him out too – and Saddam Hussein didn’t even have any WMD or nukes. That chubby young fellow with the bad haircut needs to think about that. This was signaling, and it came with details:

The intelligence officials told NBC News that the U.S. has positioned two destroyers capable of shooting Tomahawk cruise missiles in the region, one just 300 miles from the North Korean nuclear test site.

American heavy bombers are also positioned in Guam to attack North Korea should it be necessary, and earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was being diverted to the area.

The U.S. strike could include missiles and bombs, cyber and special operations on the ground.

And then all hell breaks loose:

The danger of such an attack by the U.S. is that it could provoke the volatile and unpredictable North Korean regime to launch its own blistering attack on its southern neighbor.

“The leadership in North Korea has shown absolutely no sign or interest in diplomacy or dialogue with any of the countries involved in this issue,” Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told NBC News Thursday.

So, what are you going to do? There are no other options here, but still, the price is high:

On Wednesday, North Korea said it would “hit the U.S. first” with a nuclear weapon should there be any signs of U.S. strikes.

On Thursday, North Korea warned of a “merciless retaliatory strike” should the U.S. take any action.

“By relentlessly bringing in a number of strategic nuclear assets to the Korean peninsula, the U.S. is gravely threatening the peace and safety and driving the situation to the brink of a nuclear war,” said North Korea’s statement.

North Korean has no nukes that can reach the United States, but they don’t seem scared shitless, and this becomes a game of signals:

The U.S. is aware that simply preparing an attack, even if it will only be launched if there is an “imminent” North Korean action, increases the danger of provoking a large conflict, multiple sources told NBC News.

“It’s high stakes,” a senior intelligence official directly involved in the planning told NBC News. “We are trying to communicate our level of concern and the existence of many military options to dissuade the North first.”

That doesn’t seem persuasive – there are things we could do in the next hour but we don’t really want to do those things – and there’s this:

Implementation of the preemptive U.S. plans, according to multiple U.S. officials, depends centrally on consent of the South Korean government. The sources stress that Seoul has got to be persuaded that action is worth the risk, as there is universal concern that any military move might provoke a North Korean attack, even a conventional attack across the DMZ.

There are things we could do in the next hour but we might not be allowed to do them. That’s a threat?

A week earlier it was this:

The National Security Council has presented President Donald Trump with options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program – including putting American nukes in South Korea or killing dictator Kim Jong-un, multiple top-ranking intelligence and military officials told NBC News…

The U.S. withdrew all nuclear weapons from South Korea 25 years ago. Bringing back bombs – likely to Osan Air Base, less than 50 miles south of the capital of Seoul – would mark the first overseas nuclear deployment since the end of the Cold War, an unquestionably provocative move.

“We have 20 years of diplomacy and sanctions under our belt that has failed to stop the North Korean program,” one senior intelligence official involved in the review told NBC News. “I’m not advocating pre-emptive war, nor do I think that the deployment of nuclear weapons buys more for us than it costs,” but he stressed that the U.S. was dealing with a “war today” situation.

He’s not advocating pre-emptive war, but he is, one way or another:

Two military sources told NBC News that Air Force leadership doesn’t necessarily support putting nuclear weapons in South Korea. As an alternative, it’s been practicing long-range strikes with strategic bombers – sending them to the region for exercises and deploying them in Guam and on the peninsula as a show of force.

All of this seems insanely dangerous, but these folks have their orders:

The Trump White House, through the National Security Council, asked for blue sky options in early February, a senior official told NBC on background. “Think big,” the official said that the agencies were instructed.

They thought big. Perhaps we should invade and occupy Portugal, just for the hell of it, as a warning to everybody everywhere. That would scare everybody everywhere shitless. No one anywhere would mess with us. They missed that one. That’s thinking big too.

There may, however, be a reason that all this is happening now, and that would be this:

Donald Trump’s true believers are losing the faith.

As Trump struggles to keep his campaign promises and flirts with political moderation, his most steadfast supporters – from veteran advisers to anti-immigration activists to the volunteers who dropped their jobs to help elect him – are increasingly dismayed by the direction of his presidency.

Their complaints range from Trump’s embrace of an interventionist foreign policy to his less hawkish tone on China to, most recently, his marginalization of his nationalist chief strategist, Steve Bannon. But the crux of their disillusionment, interviews with nearly two dozen Trump loyalists reveal, is a belief that Trump the candidate bears little resemblance to Trump the president. He’s failing, in their view, to deliver on his promise of a transformative “America First” agenda driven by hard-edged populism.

That’s nothing a big beautiful bomb, the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in any war, wouldn’t fix, or maybe not:

“Donald Trump dropped an emotional anchor. He captured how Americans feel,” said Tania Vojvodic, a fervent Trump supporter who founded one of his first campaign volunteer networks. “We expect him to keep his word, and right now he’s not keeping his word.”

Earlier this week, Vojvodic launched a Facebook group called, “The concerned support base of President Trump,” which quickly drew several dozen sign-ups. She also changed the banner on her Facebook page to a picture of Bannon accompanied by the declaration: “Mr. President: I stand with Steve Bannon.”

“I’m not so infatuated with Trump that I can’t see the facts,” she said. “People’s belief, their trust in him, it’s declining.”

That calls for a big bomb, as does this:

The deflation of Trump’s base threatens to further weaken a president who’s already seen his public support drop to historic lows. Frustration among the president’s allies has intensified in recent days, with many expressing worry that Bannon, the intellectual pillar of the nationalist movement that catapulted Trump to the presidency, is being pushed out.

As Bannon’s influence wanes, on the rise is a small group of Wall Street-connected advisers, whose politically moderate and globalist views are anathema to the populist cause.

Forget those Wall Street-connected advisers. Look at that bomb! And we’re going to bomb North Korea! We’ll get them before they get us!

That should work, but then again, maybe not:

Many of Trump’s most stalwart supporters, including radio show hosts Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham, called last week’s bombing of Syria a betrayal of Trump’s pledge to be an “America First” commander in chief who would avoid unnecessary conflicts overseas.

Okay, that’s a problem, but Trump can still pull a Reagan. Forget Beirut. Trump should liberate Grenada again – and use that big bomb. Everyone, guided by the beauty of our weapons, likes big bombs – even Democrats, now and then. Otherwise, it’s real war.

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