Weak-Kneed and Getting Weaker

Are the Republicans preparing to run for the exits?

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We should discuss this week’s heated meeting between Nancy Pelosi and the president. You know the one I mean—the meeting that was the subject of the now famous photograph of the House speaker rising above the table of power, index finger poised like a figure of supreme moral authority, demanding that Donald Trump, who looks like a petulant teen, explain why all roads lead to Russia and Vladimir Putin.

It seems that some Republicans are either discovering for the first time that everything the president’s critics have been saying about him, including that he’s puppet president in league with the enemy, is devastatingly true; or they are developing a narrative by which they can run for the exits while pointing to his worsening mental state as reason why they are fleeing for their lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

All roads lead to Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Our discussion should begin with reporting from CNN’s Jamie Gangel. At suppertime Thursday, she reported a conversation she had that afternoon with a Republican source in the room when Pelosi allegedly “stormed off.” The GOP source was “alarmed at [Trump’s] demeanor.” “Everyone left completely shaken, shell-shocked,” the source told Gangel. “He is not in control of himself. It is all yelling and screaming.” 

Gangel asked the source if the president’s state of mind was getting worse. “100 percent,” the source said. Are you worried about his stability. “Yes.” Gangel said the source had talked to other Republicans who were in the room. According to Gangel’s source, one used the word “sickened” to describe their reaction to the president’s behavior during the meeting. The source added that the “generals were upset.”

Gangel concluded with a chilling implication. Republicans appear increasingly less concerned about Trump’s terrible decision to pull out Syria, betray our allies, and leave the region vulnerable to Russia. Gangel implied that Republicans are growing more worried about Trump’s mental health. “They were concerned about his demeanor.”

What should we make of all this? 

First, that Kevin McCarthy is a liar. The House Minority Leader told reporters after the meeting that the president had been calm and reasonable, eager to get work done, while the House speaker had been the one to “storm off.” Pelosi has a reputation for being meticulous about decorum. She’s been on the Hill for decades. She doesn’t even tolerate cussing within earshot. It was never credible to accuse her of “storming off” from any meeting, much less one with the president of the United States. Now we know McCarthy is a sexist liar (who also takes illegal Russian money, but I digress). 

Second, that the Republicans are starting to see more clearly that the president’s monumental weakness in foreign affairs has the makings of a nonstop crisis at home. Domestically, the Republican Party can shield Trump from his laziness, incompetence and impotence. Party actors can lie, right-wing media allies can amplify the lie, the president can see the lie on Fox, then repeat it himself—all of which gives the impression to his supporters that all is well. This process, or a rough variation of it, is probably why Trump’s approval rating, though terrible, is nonetheless rock steady.  

The Republicans can’t protect Trump from himself as well in international relations. For one thing, he’s the head of state. Today’s Congress is a weak actor in that area. For another, the “adults in the room,” the people the GOP hoped and prayed in 2017 would steer Trump away from disaster, have been purged and replaced by yes-men. Without a superstructure to restrain him, the president has been going with his gut, which is to say, negotiating from a position of abject weakness, as he has throughout his career. 

I mean, get this: at the meeting, he actually told Pelosi and the Democrats that the US had to pull out of Syria, because Turkey’s leader said he was going to invade whether he liked it or not. At the same time, Trump presented the Democrats with a letter he wrote to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying he’d destroy the country’s economy if he crossed the line, whatever that is. The BBC said Erdogan threw the letter in the bin. Mike Pence negotiated a cease-fire. The AP said today that the shelling continued.

The president has been going with his gut, which is to say, negotiating from a position of weakness.

Chuck Schumer of all people was so very right. “The president could have said, ‘You go in, and you’re going to have real trouble,’ and 99.9 percent, Erdogan wouldn’t have gone in,” the Senate minority leader told the Post Wednesday. “He’s very tough with the media, with his letters. But when it comes face to face, he’s weak-kneed.”

Weak-kneed, getting weaker, and the Republicans know it.

Which brings me to my final point: Are the Republicans starting to see for the first time that everything Trump’s critics have been saying about him, including that he’s a puppet president in league with the enemy, is devastatingly true—that dude gonna err on Russia’s side every damn time; or are the Republicans crafting a clever story about a president in rapidly declining mental health, so they will have a reason, one beyond their control, for turning against him? After all, all roads do seem to lead to Putin.

I suppose we’ll find out soon.

—John Stoehr

Warren Isn't the Candidate of the 1%

And neither is the GOP a workers party.

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The reason the Democratic debates have had so little affect on what primary voters think of the candidates running for the party’s nomination is simple: Donald Trump. An authoritarian incumbent has been a stabilizing force in what might have been a more volatile landscape without his presence. The stakes are sky high, especially for Democrats of color, and as a result, people are making conservative preliminary choices, erring on the side of trust (mostly in Joe Biden) and less on the side of hope.

To my mind, this explains why there really has not been winners or losers in the Democratic debates, and also why the top three or four candidates have been and will continue to be the top three or four candidates. The only exception to an otherwise static state of play, of course, has been Elizabeth Warren. While everyone else is either struggling for attention or trying to maintain the attention they already have, the Massachusetts senator is steadily rising. That should tell us a lot about her strengths, and also why she is the subject of grotesque slander from the ideological extremes. 

This isn’t brain surgery. This is classic class politics.

In the past week, articles in The American Conservative, which is pro-Trump, and in Jacobin, which is pro-Bernie Sanders, have tried to argue that Warren is actually the candidate of the 1 percent or that the Republicans are now a workers party. These arguments make sense, I suppose, if you swallow news framing by the mainstream press, but these arguments make no sense at all if you have a working knowledge of political reality. In other words, if you are not motivated to argue obvious absurdities.

Yes, the president won three states in the Midwest thanks for the racist resentments of the “working class.” But it depends on what you mean by “working class.” If you define class by education, then yes: Trump won the (white) working class. If you define it by income, well, things look a bit different. Turns out the “working class” voters who supported the president last time around were making a nice middle-class income or better despite not having gone to college. Voters earning less than $50,000 a year, which is a pretty good class threshold, didn’t. They voted for his Democratic rival.

It also turns out that fault line has defined American class politics for ages. The poor, the working poor and the real working class, if they vote, tend to choose every four years the Democratic candidate. This isn’t brain surgery. This is classic class politics, and it’s simpler than elites would have you believe it is. The trick is paying more attention to political reality and less attention to all the well-reasoned absurdities.

There are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to make what’s simple appear more complex than it is.

Class attitudes are simpler too. We’re often told that Americans don’t believe a class system exists in this country. We’re often told that Americans don’t like welfare because we don’t like the idea of individuals getting something without first having worked for it. We’re often told that Americans don’t resent the rich for their wealth and power, because we believe we may one day be rich, too. Total bosh, all of it.

Fact is, a majority of Americans is very much conscious of their place in the class hierarchy. A majority resents the rich. A majority has sympathy for the poor. A majority even wants the government to do more the underprivileged, not less. All of this is argued in Spencer Piston’s 2018 book, Class Attitudes in America. He wrote:

These three sources of evidence—Americans’ own words, their responses to original survey questions, and their behavior in an experimental setting—all lead to an unambiguous conclusion. Sympathy for the poor and resentment toward the rich are widespread, and under predictable conditions these attitudes powerfully influence the political preferences of the American public.

I’ll have more to say about Piston’s book later. For now, it’s a powerful indictment of the well-reasoned absurdities I’m talking about. There are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to make what’s simple appear more complex than it is. Most Americans greatly sympathize with the poor and they deeply resent the rich, and that would be much clearer if the political right stopped exploiting bigotry, and if the political left (well, Bernie Sanders’ devotees, anyway) stopped nattering about “socialism.”

Elizabeth Warren gets it, I think. She understands how class politics actually works in this country. She keeps it clear. She keeps it simple. That’s why she’s under attack.

—John Stoehr


Today’s edition is about repetition. So please bear with me while I repeat myself: if everyone who reads the Editorial Board supported it financially, I wouldn’t ask anyone to be a supporter. Actually, the same would be true if only half of my readers staked a claim in this daily newsletter in plain English for normal people. So please do your part. Subscribe for the year, and get 20% off the monthly price! Many thanks! —JS

Trump Is the 'Greed Is Good' President

Naturally, he's an apex fraud.

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My writing life is guided by a few nuggets of wisdom.

One is normal people have something better to do—kids, school, jobs, good health, etc.—than pay attention to politics. Another is that you can’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Then there’s this from the ever-pragmatic Dr. Samuel Johnson: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

So today I’m reminding you that lots of people do not, or will not, understand what corruption is, especially if they profit from it. But profit isn’t the only blinding force.

Blindness is systemic.

We the people get the presidents we deserve.

We inhabit a transactional materialist culture, after all, in which something I can do for you is exchanged amorally for something you can do for me. That was more or less a benign state of affairs, I’d say, until the elites themselves started convincing everyone that greed is not only OK; it’s something American society should encourage. 

That’s about the size of what happened starting around 40 years ago. It has only gotten worse. Institutions are no longer built on the ideals of responsible citizenship and the common good but instead on the premise of self-interested individuals competing, even if that means cutting each other down. Donald Trump is a terrible person, but it shouldn’t be surprising that his career as an apex fraud has tracked with the last four acquisitive decades. Another nugget of wisdom: we get the presidents we deserve.

At the moment, I don’t suggest we be less greedy to change things. For now, I think it’s enough to say and keep saying what should be completely obvious but it is not: corruption is bad. We need to say this and keep saying this, because our culture is corrupt. If we say this and keep saying this, the resulting awareness might trigger necessary reform. More importantly, by raising awareness, and laying the groundwork for reform, we might prevent the next apex fraud from becoming president. 

What is corruption? “Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery” is what the dictionary says. But it’s more complex than that. Any definition must include the compromise of morality. Is there anything dishonest or fraudulent about the president saying Saudi Arabia is going to pay the US for sending troops to protect that country? In and of itself, no. In proper context, hell yeah.

Trump announced that decision after ordering US forces out of Syria, paving the way for Turkey to launch attacks against the Kurds. Put another way: It was OK to betray our allies while turning self-sacrificing servicemen and -women into mercenary units, making the president’s decision a double betrayal. We are now forfeiting a moral claim of being a force for good in the world. New message: American might is for sale.  

Is there anything dishonest or fraudulent about the wife of a man charged with a crime in a foreign country asking the president for help? Again, the context is key. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that his career as an apex fraud has tracked with the last four decades.

Kallie Hapgood is married to a wealthy Connecticut banker who ended up killing a man in self-defense after the hotel worker threatened his family’s safety while they were at a Caribbean resort. Scott Hapgood now faces manslaughter charges on Anguilla. His wife has no doubt been advised the best way to get Trump’s attention isn’t through normal channels but cable news. On Monday, she went on “Fox & Friends” knowing he’d be watching to plead her husband’s case. Within minutes, Trump tweeted that “something looks and sounds very wrong” in the Hapgood case and that “Anguilla will want to see this case be properly and justly resolved!”  

The merits of Hapgood’s case aside (a toxicology report showed the hotel worker had toxic levels of cocaine in his body), Trump corrupted another country’s justice system by expressing an opinion about it. By casting doubt on the known facts of the proceeding, Trump prejudiced potential jurors. Plus, he sent a message to American elites, the same people who convinced everyone over four decades ago that greed is good: if you have the money and the connections, don’t worry about due process and legal liability. With a single tweet, Trump made a mockery of equal justice for all.

I’m under no illusion that the president is reformable. He has lived the life of a crook. He will die a crook. But an apex fraud isn’t the cause of our moral decay. He’s a symptom. The rest of us therefore must do what may seem completely obvious but isn’t. We must say and keep saying that corruption is bad. Don’t bother making an argument. Just say it. People need reminding more than they need instruction.

—John Stoehr

No, Trump Isn't Losing Evangelicals

If Middle East Christians must die, so be it.

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I’ve been hearing lots of talk about the president losing support among evangelical Christians, his most loyal supporters. The occasion was his order to pull the US military out of Syria, thus giving way to Turkey, which aims to wipe out the Kurds. 

The problem for evangelical Christians, as I understand it, isn’t so much the betrayal of our Middle East allies, the very people who fought and died with American soldiers against the murderous Islamic State (ISIS), but the Christian minorities who would surely be slaughtered without protection from a US-Kurdish military alliance. 

Trump is precisely the kind of president they want. He is an authoritarian nihilist through and through. So are they.

Once the Americans depart, the Kurds would abandon all responsibility for overseeing jailed ISIS fighters, and they would realign with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to defend themselves against Recep Erdoğan’s ethnic-cleansing-in-all-but-name. That’s what the experts said would happen. Over the weekend, that’s precisely what happened. 

The Times’ Elizabeth Dias wrote Friday that leading evangelical figures appeared to “break ranks” with the president. Erick Erickson, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson —all influential voices—have said in one way or another that Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds is appalling, shameful, or “in great danger of losing the mandate of heaven,” as Robertson put it. Without them, many Christian innocents would perish.

But all of this is wrong. 

Erickson, Graham, Robertson and others are not breaking ranks. They will never break ranks. Trump is precisely the kind of president they want. He is an authoritarian nihilist through and through. So are they. They will offer prayers for Christian minorities—lots and lots of prayers—but they will not use power to bend Trump’s ear.

They will instead continue to support the president, because he is “fighting for them” against “leftists barbarians,” according to Sahil Kapir’s reporting. If standing idle while fellow Christians are massacred is the price they must pay, so be it. Besides, they were the wrong kind of Christian. They were already destined for Hell anyway.

Too uncharitable? I don’t think so. 

In fact, mainstream reporters, in their coverage of Trump’s evangelical Christian base, are far too charitable. They take Erickson and others at their word, accepting uncritically the assertion that they have normal and genuinely held beliefs, like any other American. Getting overlooked is that those values are not like any other American’s beliefs. They are perniciously in keeping with various and sundry forms of fascism. These people are opposed to democracy, which matters only to the extent they can use it to achieve their authoritarian goals. I mean, ISIS fighters have “values,” too. Yet ISIS fighters do not get sympathetic play in America’s premiere news outlets.

That’s not the only problem. 

Because evangelical Christians are Trump’s most loyal supporters, they get the lion’s share of attention. In doing so, mainstream reporters inadvertently give the impression that these Christians are the only ones that matter. Overlooked is a galaxy of Christian belief entwined with the anti-Trump resistance. This sociopolitical dynamic is such that Trump’s liberal critics end up blasting all of Christianity, alienating allies and undermining a powerful religious argument against fascism.

ISIS fighters have “values,” too. Yet ISIS fighters do not get sympathetic play in premiere news outlets.

This is important to point out for two reasons. 

One, there’s not enough scrutiny of evangelical Christians as Christians. A closer look suggests they have scandalously strayed from God’s path, permitting the sacrilege of autographing copies of the Bible (yes, Trump did this), and turning the president into a kind of Golden Calf. Peter Wehner was right Sunday in saying Trump voters are impervious to facts. Trump is they and they are Trump, so much so that “now it's not just a defense of Trump, it's a defense of their defense of Trump. To indict him is to indict themselves, to indict their own judgment, and that's hard for any human.”

So they have become idolaters, yet reporters are, even now, looking for reaction among evangelical Christians to someone making a video of Trump shooting reporters in a church. They don’t care about murder in a church. It does not offend them, not enough to “break with Trump.” Evangelicals have their Golden Calf, and they can’t quit him.

The other reason why whitewashing all of Christianity is important is because resistance to fascism can’t be premised on mere politics alone. It must be a majoritarian enterprise. It must make room for a liberal religious argument against Trump. Fascism isn’t just anti-democratic. It’s a deep moral wrong opposing liberty and equality. Trump and his evangelical supporters stand on the outside of what many would call the American creed. You could say (I would) that they oppose God.

But we never talk about it that way.

—John Stoehr

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