Language gaps, extension of remarks

Just for the record, I need to add  to the list of words needed to discuss Trump, especially in view of Helsinki:

groveling

credulous

servile

lackey

abject

cringing

abased

inept

gullible

dupe

Needed: not namecalling, not hyperbolic; evidenced attributes. Without language like this, you cannot get Trump right, and we can’t defend ourselves against him.

Language gaps

I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive.  First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person.  The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.

When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior.  “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that.  People can change their minds, but the general rule applies,  especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.

Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable.   It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action,  only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration.  He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.

 

Continue reading “Language gaps”

Immigration

A moment of sympathy for Republicans.  Trump won’t protect them from the agony of an immigration debate or lead them through it in any useful way, and now they are being tasked by the zero-tolerance fiasco to show (or at least emulate) courage and decency they long ago threw on the political bonfire.  Today, he even denied them the tough, never-settle leader today’s GOP wants to cower behind, left them thousands of kids in secret prisons, and the larger issue remains.

It is an exquisitely difficult issue, especially for the rich and xenophobic. To enact any kind of immigration reform requires keeping the following balls in the air:

(1) Agriculture, hospitality, domestic service, home construction and repair, restaurants, and gardening are all important to rich people, whether as proprietors or consumers. All depend on a docile, cheap work force, often a seasonal one.  Americans will not tolerate lettuce prices high enough to support ag wages that get Americans to work in the fields, or hotel rates ditto.  Fear of ICE is almost indispensable in insuring docility.

(2) The hi-tech industry also depends on a work force that Americans will not pay to educate, especially in red states, so we also need an ample supply of H-1b immigrants who don’t need salaries that will amortize crippling student loan debts; they aren’t as cheap as farm workers, but their docility needs even more reinforcement, and not being able to quit their jobs helps with this.

(3) The Republican game plan, since the party’s consignment of its brain and conscience to Trump, demands that the image of immigrants as murderous brown gangsters, planning their assault on your job and your family in Spanish, be vividly front and center. It also requires a population on which the old, and many young, white  Trump-base frightened haters can look down.

(4) Trump himself requires regular opportunity to hurt the weak, unfortunate, sick, helpless, and poor, and to be seen doing so. Immigrants, especially refugees, are not indispensable for this–plain Americans with pre-existing medical conditions or dependent on Social Security, in any color, qualify–but are still very useful.

(5) Somehow the whole project has to enrich Trump personally, his circle of grifters, and the top 1% who gave him to us, or why bother? It’s really not clear how any particular immigration scheme can be monetized this way, though (1) and (2) are relevant.

[correction 21/VI/18: (5) above is not quite true; there is real money to be made from immigrant

abuse. ]

These criteria comprise pretty fundamental contradictions, and the discovery this week that there really are limits to the official cruelty Americans will tolerate makes everything so much harder. No wonder Republicans scatter like cockroaches at the approach of a reporter these days.

 

 

Aspirational history and political rhetoric

Steve Schmidt – who is as unapologetically conservative as I am unapologetically liberal – had more or less the same reaction I did to the Trump policy that literally tears children away from their mothers’ breasts: that it was horrible to see people in American uniforms behaving like Nazis.

Glenn Greenwald, who has brought anti-anti-Trumpism up to the very border of Trumpism, was horrified: not by the fact that children were being maltreated by people wearing American flag insignia, but by the notion that this was in any way unusual.

Every tweet like this that creates bullshit jingoistic fairy tales about the Goodness of America instantly goes viral. Liberals now love nothing more than über-nationalistic revisionism like this from Bush-era Republican operatives. It’s the most bizarre pathology to observe.

(If Greenwald has criticized the new policy itself, as opposed to criticizing its critics, that critique does not show up on his Twitter timeline. Greenwald is consistent in constantly bashing Trump critics but avoiding criticism of Trump and Trump’s policies.)

Greenwald isn’t alone. This is fairly standard alt-left rhetoric, just as “We’re better than this!” is fairly standard liberal anti-Trump rhetoric.

If you’re both anti-Trump and pro-American, it’s natural to say when Trump does something awful, “This is contrary to American principles and a disgrace to the flag.”

If you’re pro-Trump or anti-American or both, the natural rebuttal is, “Nonsense! America has always sucked! Are you just noticing now?” (When Trump himself was asked about his buddy Putin’s habit of murdering critical journalists, he responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”). The far left and the alt-right are united in thinking that Trump is perfectly normal and that any objection to him (or to Putin or Kim Jung un) by liberals is hypocritical.

Of course Trump and Glenn Greenwald have actual facts to point to. Disgraceful things have been done in the name of the United States, from the Trail of Tears and the Fugitive Slave Act onwards. Abroad the record is at least equally equivocal: the U.S. has not been – to put it gently – a consistent friend of democracy and human rights in this hemisphere. More than once, we’ve backed the tyrants FDR referred to as “our sonsofbitches.” Whether a hypothetical historian from Mars would regard those as characteristic, or instead as unfortunate deviations from national principles, it’s hard for someone with less perspective to say.

But, as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago, “critical” history isn’t the only kind. National myths are, themselves, potent realities. A country where the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions.  A country where that belief isn’t widespread – where criminality is an accepted part of the political culture – lacks that resource, which of course is a benefit to criminal political actors within that country. The accuracy of the underlying belief is an independent question.

Or, as Matt Yglesias put in in a Tweet

Talk about how “this is not who we are” is not a literal claim about American history, and it’s permissible (praiseworthy, even) to engage in some rhetorical gambits while trying to Do Politics.

So, as a liberal and a patriot, I’m going to keep saying “This. Is. Not. Like. Us.” Saying so is one way to make it so.

Update  Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the torture question first arose, Glenn Reynolds (“Instapundit”), who had been vociferously pro-war, was briefly anti-torture. (He changed his mind when torture was defined as a partisan issue, with Democrats plus McCain against it and Republicans for it.) Reynolds approvingly quoted another warblogger as answering the question, “Why shouldn’t we torture terrorists?” with “Because we’re the f*cking United States of America, that’s why!” Seemed to me an excellent answer, in part because it claimed the high ground of patriotism for the anti-torture position.

Arbeit Macht Frei

The Casa Padre internment camp for child migrants.

A photo in a handout given by the management of the Casa Padre detention centre in Brownsville, Texas, to MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff. The centre houses child migrants separated from their parents by officials acting in the name of the United States. Twitter source.

Trump mural at Casa Padre

It reminds you of something else, doesn’t it.

Gate at Sachsenhausen

Unfair? Soboroff saw no evidence of abuse by the Casa Padre staff – beyond the inherent cruelty of separation.  The analogy is the sickening bad faith and institutionalised in-your-face lying to cover up horrific policies. Oh, and mass incarceration outside the rule of law.

Footnote: I deliberately took Sachsenhausen not the better-known Auschwitz gate. Konzentrazionslager – KZ – was a broad Nazi term for a variety of civilian camps, including pure extermination camps like Treblinka, slave labour camps like Sachsenhausen, political prisons like Dachau and Flossenburg, and of course Auschwitz, an unusual combination of an extermination and labour camp, giving rise to the infamous selections. The slogan was common but not universal; it was up to the camp commandant.

 

The smoking gun and the scarlet letter

The emerging case against Trump for simple bribery.

To review. Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as President of the United States, by either mental capacity or moral character. The procedure for removing an unfit President is basically by way of impeachment. I’ve covered removal for mental incapacity by the 25th Amendment before, and maintain my view that it may still come into play as a shortcut, but let’s follow the CW that it’s down to impeachment. I will also follow constitutional lawyer Stephen Griffin’s argument that contrary to the intentions of the authors of the US Constitution, who saw impeachment as an essentially political safeguard, conviction now requires proof of an indictable offence – though I would add that nothing stops the Congress from taking wider aspects into consideration. Griffin’s reasoning is even more convincing in the near-certain political environment for Trump’s impeachment: that is, a Democratic majority in the House after November, but either a continued narrow Republican majority in the Senate, or a large blocking minority. (If the GOP holds the House, it won’t arise at all.) It will take a knockdown case to secure conviction.

So far, the possible charges have been:

1. Collusion with agents of the Russian government to manipulate the Presidential election in 2016.

2. Obstruction of justice by interference in the investigation of 1.

The second is a matter of public record: Trump admitted on TV that he fired James Comey as Director of the FBI because of the Russia investigation. The trouble here is that lying to police officers investigating you as a suspect is widely seen as fair self-defence, a technical crime like speeding on an empty rural road. The counterargument is that higher standards apply to the head of the executive, including federal law enforcement, who has sworn an oath to uphold and enforce all the laws. This is not likely to sway Trump’s core supporters, who are also now also the core supporters of Congressional Republicans.

The former is overwhelmingly likely from the Steele dossier, numerous credible press accounts of funding flows and meetings involving Trump’s inner circle and Russians close to the Kremlin, the charges against and convictions of Papadopoulos, Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and van der Zwaan, and Trump’s pattern of leading over backwards in favour of Russian interests in foreign policy. Mueller is no doubt filling out the details. The trouble is that Vladimir Putin is a career intelligence officer trained (partly in his work with Mischa Wolf’s Stasi) to cover his tracks with great care, and unless Mueller gets very lucky there won’t be conclusive evidence of the involvement of the Russian government. It will all just be persons “close to” Putin. Again, there will be a reasonable doubt that Republican senators can draw on to justify a vote to acquit.

But now, for the first time, we can see the outline of a third charge that could in principle be proven conclusively and has no such ambiguities: bribery.

The story is incomplete and in some parts speculative. But it stacks up. Continue reading “The smoking gun and the scarlet letter”

Inquiring Minds Want To Know

Most of the questions surrounding the President’s payments to Ms. Clifford could be answered if the President would only provide us with copies of a few documents:

  1. Copies of the cancelled checks used to pay Mr. Cohen.  We would then know the amounts and dates of all payments and the identity(ies) of the payors, e.g., Mr. Trump or one or more of his business entities.
  2. Copies of those portions of Mr. Trump’s income tax returns and/or those of one or more of his business entities reflecting the payments.  We would then be able to determine whether the payments were considered business deductions or were treated as non-deductible personal expenses.  We don’t need to see all of the returns, only those portions that reflect the payments.
  3. Copies of the written retainer agreement(s) or engagement letter(s) between Cohen, on one side, and Mr. Trump or one or more of his business entities on the other.  In this regard, in New York the Rules of Professional Responsibility, § 1212.1, requires, in pertinent part, that: “[A]n attorney who undertakes to represent a client and enters into an arrangement for, charges or collects any fee from a client shall provide to the client a written letter of engagement before commencing the representation, or within a reasonable time thereafter (i) if otherwise impracticable or (ii) if the scope of services to be provided cannot be determined at the time of the commencement of representation.”  If this (or these) agreement(s) were disclosed, we would then be able to determine the identity(ies) of Mr. Cohen’s client(s) and various other relevant information.  (Section 1212.1 requires that the engagement letter “shall address the following matters: 1. Explanation of the scope of the legal services to be provided; and 2. Explanation of attorney’s fees to be charged, expenses and billing practices.”)
  4. Copies of Mr. Cohen’s invoices.  We would then be able to determine whether the payment to Ms. Clifford was specifically disclosed to Mr. Trump and, if so, when that disclosure was made.
  5. Copies of any Forms 1099 reflecting payments to Mr. Cohen, his law firm, or Ms. Clifford.  This would provide confirmation of the amounts of all payments and the identity(ies) of the payors, e.g., Mr. Trump or one or more of his business entities.

I rarely instruct other professionals (in this case, journalists) as to how to practice their professions.  But here it would seem obvious that one gains little insight by journalists continually phrasing and rephrasing questions to spokespersons and surrogates for Trump.  Just demand that Trump show us the evidence.