Trump Has Made Us All Stupid

The decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber.

Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.

But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.

For example, there’s a complex policy problem at the heart of this week’s Iran episode. Iran is not powerful because it has a strong economy or military. It is powerful because it sponsors militias across the Middle East, destabilizing regimes and spreading genocide and sectarian cleansing. Over the past few years those militias, orchestrated by Qassim Suleimani, have felt free to operate more in the open with greater destructive effect.

We’re not going to go in and destroy the militias. So how can we keep them in check so they don’t destabilize the region? That’s the hard problem — one that stymied past administrations.

In the Middle East, and wherever there are protracted conflicts, nations have a way to address this problem. They use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.”

The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.

These sorts of operations have risks and rewards. A risk is that it won’t cease the escalation, just accelerate it. The radicals on the other side will get enraged and take to the streets. Their leaders will have to appease that rage.

A reward is that maybe you do halt the escalation. The other side implicitly says: “Message received. We’ll do some face-saving things to appease the streets, but we don’t want this to get out of hand, either.” Another reward is that you’ve managed to eliminate an effective terrorist like Soleimani. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.

The decision to undertake this sort of operation is a matter of weighing risk and reward. And after the Soleimani killing, you saw American security professionals talk in the language of balancing risk and reward. Stanley McChrystal, a retired general, and Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, thought it was worth the risk. Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, thought it wasn’t.

But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?

A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”

This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors

  • the Mueller report!
  • Impeachment!
  • The Steele dossier!

that lead ultimately nowhere.

Most of this week’s argument about the Middle East wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was all narcissistically about ourselves! Democrats defend terrorists! Republicans are warmongers! Actual Iranians are just bit players in our imperialistic soap opera, the passive recipients of our greatness or perfidy.

The world is more complicated than this cartoon. Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not like recent Republicans. He is, as my colleague Ross Douthat put it, a Jacksonian figure, wanting to get America out of foreign entanglements while lobbing a few long-distance attacks to ensure the crazy foreigners stick to killing one another and not us.

And this is the final paradox. For all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds Trump, populist Republicans and Democrats are gravitating toward the same foreign policy: We’re in the middle of a clash of civilizations; the Middle East is so screwed up, we should just get out; we’re too stupid/ineffective/racist/imperialistic to do any good there anyway.

We fight viciously about Trump, but underneath, a populist left-right curtain is descending around America, separating us from the Mideast, China, even Europe. The real high-risk move is the one both parties are making together: that if we ignore the world it will ignore us. (It won’t.)

Maybe once the Inflammatory One is finally gone from the scene we can have an intelligent conversation about that.

Why Brett Kavanaugh Wasn’t Believable

Judge Kavanaugh, when it was his turn, was not laughing. He was yelling. He spent more than half an hour raging against Senate Democrats and the “Left” for “totally and permanently” destroying his name, his career, his family, his life. He called his confirmation process a “national disgrace.”

“You may defeat me in the final vote, but you will never get me to quit,” Judge Kavanaugh said, sounding like someone who suddenly doubted his confirmation to the Supreme Court — an outcome that seemed preordained only a couple of weeks ago.

Judge Kavanaugh’s defiant fury might be understandable coming from someone who believes himself innocent of the grotesque charges he’s facing. Yet it was also evidence of an unsettling temperament in a man trying to persuade the nation of his judicial demeanor.

.. As he put it in his testimony, “What goes around, comes around,” in the partisan vortex that has been intensifying in Washington for decades now. His open contempt for the Democrats on the committee also raised further questions about his own fair-mindedness, and it served as a reminder of his decades as a Republican warrior who would take no prisoners.

.. He gave coy answers when pressed about what was clearly a sexual innuendo in his high-school yearbook.

He insisted over and over that others Dr. Blasey named as attending the gathering had “said it didn’t happen,” when in fact at least two of them have said only that they don’t recall it — and one of them told a reporter that she believes Dr. Blasey.

.. Judge Kavanaugh clumsily dodged a number of times when senators asked him about his drinking habits. When Senator Amy Klobuchar gently pressed him about whether he’d ever blacked out from drinking, he at first wouldn’t reply directly. “I don’t know, have you?” he replied — a condescending and dismissive response to the legitimate exercise of a senator’s duty of advise and consent. (Later, after a break in the hearing, he apologized.)

.. Judge Kavanaugh gave categorical denials a number of times, including, at other points, that he’d ever blacked out from too much drinking. Given numerous reports now of his heavy drinking in college, such a blanket denial is hard to believe.

.. then there’s the fact that she gains nothing by coming forward. She is in hiding now with her family in the face of death threats.

.. cowardice of the committee’s 11 Republicans, all of them men, and none of them, apparently, capable of asking Dr. Blasey a single question.

.. Eventually, as Judge Kavanaugh testified, the Republican senators ventured out from behind their shield. Doubtless seeking to ape President’s Trump style and win his approval, they began competing with each other to make the most ferocious denunciation of their Democratic colleagues and the most heartfelt declaration of sympathy for Judge Kavanaugh, in a show of empathy far keener than they managed to muster for Dr. Blasey.

.. Pressed over and over by Democratic senators, Judge Kavanaugh never could come up with a clear answer for why he wouldn’t also want a fair, neutral F.B.I. investigation into the allegations against him — the kind of investigation the agency routinely performs, and that Dr. Blasey has called for. At one point, though, he acknowledged that it was common sense to put some questions to other potential witnesses besides him.

.. When Senator Patrick Leahy asked whether the judge was the inspiration for a hard-drinking character named Bart O’Kavanaugh in a memoir about teenage alcoholism by Mr. Judge, Judge Kavanaugh replied, “You’d have to ask him.”

Asking Mr. Judge would be a great idea. Unfortunately he’s hiding out in a Delaware beach town and Senate Republicans are refusing to subpoena him.

.. Why? Mr. Judge is the key witness in Dr. Blasey’s allegation. He has said he has no recollection of the party or of any assault. But he hasn’t faced live questioning to test his own memory and credibility. And Dr. Blasey is far from alone in describing Judge Kavanaugh and Mr. Judge as heavy drinkers; several of Judge Kavanaugh’s college classmates have said the same.

.. If the committee will not make a more serious effort, the only choice for senators seeking to protect the credibility of the Supreme Court will be to vote no.

The Revenge of the Lesser Trumps

They’re imitators. They’re operators. And they’re turning their teacher’s lessons against him.

The problem with being Donald Trump isn’t just being Donald Trump. It’s all the other, lesser Trumps around you. It’s the versions of yourself that you create, the echoes of yourself that you inspire. They’ll devour you in the end.
.. From the master she learned how to draw and hold the spotlight: Mete out revelations. Hurl accusations. Contradict yourself. Leave everyone gasping, gawking and coming back for more.
.. “Trump and Omarosa Are Kindred Spirits” reads the headline on a new Bloomberg column by Tim O’Brien
.. The president, he notes, was “fascinated by her self-absorption and nastiness.” Trump stares into every mirror he passes.

“She may be the purest of all the Trump characters,” an unnamed former Trump administration official told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “She may be the most Trumpian.” No maybe about it.

She made secret tapes, just like Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. No one should be surprised, least of all Trump. When you grease the walls of your sanctum with lies and put fun-house mirrors everywhere, is it any wonder that the dazed people inside try to protect themselves with a lifeline like proof?

And didn’t Trump himself record people who called him at Trump Tower and later taunt James Comey by suggesting that he had audio of their conversations? Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the cleverest kind of revenge.

Ask Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’s lawyer. He’s flirting with a presidential bid or at least realizing that such a flirtation is a brand multiplier. Last week he visited Iowa, and not for the soybeans. He made a big speech. Said that when they go low, he’ll go subterranean. He’ll tunnel. He’ll spelunk.

He’s not just Trump’s adversary. He’s Trump’s analogue, with a similar timbre and bag of tricks. Like Trump, he vents his scorn in crude put-downs. Like Trump, he views media ubiquity as a credential in its own right.

.. Avenatti was “a perfect foil for Trump, because he actually sees the world just like Trump does.”
.. In a way, Cohen sort of is Trump, too, with shady ties, bendy rules and limber ethics. His exposure is now Trump’s vulnerability. There’s actually a scene in Manigault Newman’s book where she and Cohen watch Trump eat a piece of paper rather than leave it around for presidential record-keepers.
.. Manafort faked an altitude of affluence that he no longer possessed, forgoing any salary as Trump’s campaign chairman, because he suspected that this would impress Trump, who has exaggerated his own wealth.
  • His hunger for attention became Rudy Giuliani; his
  • thirst for pomp, Scott Pruitt; his
  • taste for provocation, Avenatti; his t
  • alent for duplicity, Manigault Newman.
They’re an army of emulators, adding up to Trump. And they’re on the march.

How to Lose the Midterms and Re-elect Trump

Dear Robert De Niro, Samantha Bee and other Trump haters:

I get that you’re angry. I’m angry, too. But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning. You think you’re raising your fist when you’re really raising a white flag.

You’re right that Donald Trump is a dangerous and deeply offensive man, and that restraining and containing him are urgent business. You’re wrong about how to go about doing that, or at least you’re letting your emotions get the better of you.

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves.

Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.

You permit them to see you as you see Trump: deranged. Why would they choose a different path if it goes to another ugly destination?

.. If you want to make sure that at least one chamber of Congress is a check on Trump, talk to them about that.

..  the Melania madness. Floating the idea that she’s a victim of domestic abuse merely supports Trump’s contention that his critics are reflexive and unfettered in their contempt for him and that all of their complaints should be viewed through that lens.

As G.O.P. Bends Toward Trump, Critics Either Give In or Give Up

Despite the fervor of President Trump’s Republican opponents, the president’s brand of hard-edge nationalism — with its gut-level cultural appeals and hard lines on trade and immigration — is taking root within his adopted party, and those uneasy with grievance politics are either giving in or giving up the fight.

.. The Grand Old Party risks a longer-term transformation into the Party of Trump.

There is zero appetite for the ‘Never Trump’ movement in the Republican Party of today,” said Andy Surabian, an adviser to Great America Alliance, the “super PAC” that is aiding primary races against Republican incumbents. “This party is now defined by President Trump and his movement.”

.. Many of those who remain will have to accommodate the president to survive primaries from the pro-Trump right.

.. governor races in Virginia and New Jersey and a special Senate race in Alabama — Republican candidates are mirroring Mr. Trump’s racially tinged campaign tactics.

.. Many of their voters prefer the Trump way.

“We’re not an element,” said Laura Ingraham, a pro-Trump talk show host. “We’re the party.”

.. Ms. Ingraham .. the conservatism of market-oriented internationalism simply has little mass appeal.

“There’s no constituency for open borders, endless war and these international trade deals that are skewed against the United States,” she said.

.. As for the limited government pitch that defined Mr. Flake’s career, Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, scoffed.

.. “It’s very nice. But it’s a theoretical exercise. It can’t win national elections.”

.. “We have a leader who has a personality disorder,” said former Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, “but he’s done what he actually told the people he was going to do, and they’re not going to abandon him.”

.. “I don’t think the rank-and-file Republican believes that corporations are people,” said Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who has also worked with Mr. Bannon.

.. For now, though, the vision for a more populist-nationalist party sketched out by Mr. Bannon is being won as much through intimidation as through actual purges in Republican primaries.

.. “The message they’re sending is: The way to survive is by accommodating him, changing their tone and professing loyalty to Trump,” said William Kristol
.. former Representative Tom Tancredo, who was shunned by the Bush-era Republican Party for his harsh anti-immigration views, is considering a comeback bid for governor in 2018.

.. Mr. Graham believes that the president is not as wedded to some of his nationalist policies as his supporters want to believe.

“The best thing that could happen to Trump and the future of the Republican Party is for Trump to fix a broken immigration system,” Mr. Graham said.

.. Establishment Republicans are attempting to convince Mr. Trump that “if you join with Bannon, you cut your own throat,” Mr. Graham said, because it could lead to an impeachment effort by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

But these arguments cause the early Trump enthusiasts only to roll their eyes. The party establishment, these Trump backers say, wants to govern as if the election never happened.

“They still think the election was about Trump’s personality,” Ms. Ingraham said. “It wasn’t. It was his ideas.”

The Donald Trump Gold Rush

But who’s laughing now? Upon exiting his job he apparently had his pick of posh lecture-circuit agents, one of whom told Mike Allen of Axios that Spicer scoffed at the suggestion that he might be worth only $20,000 to $30,000 per speech, which is what other former press secretaries made.

.. Ask Anthony Scaramucci. He was sent packing after just 10 profane and ignominious days as the White House communications director, and what do you suppose he did? Change his name and enter the political equivalent of witness protection? Retreat to a monastery for prayerful atonement until the shame dissipated?

.. For decades, it has been customary for the former attendants of presidents and presidential candidates to cash in. The Clintons were a money train with no shortage of passengers, and Bill and Hillary themselves never shrank from turning political pain into financial gain. She’ll mint fresh millions from her new book, “What Happened,” and from engagements to promote it.

.. They weren’t idealists in grateful thrall to some coherent vision or exalted principles that he was advancing. They were more or less flunkies for a bully whose top priorities have always been an immense fortune and immeasurable celebrity, though not necessarily in that order. Spicer and Scaramucci are paying their onetime boss the highest of compliments. They’re emulating him.

.. Mike Flynn ..  He’s weighed down by actual scandal, while Spicer and Scaramucci are weighed down only by their volitional debasement, and that’s apparently no drag at all.
.. The ethos of enrichment in this administration starts at the very top, with Trump and his family, for whom the presidency represents the ultimate branding opportunity.
.. This separates Trump from his predecessors, none of whom had or held onto the array of business interests that remain in his possession, managed by his flesh and blood. And he’s hardly shy about advertising that empire. He and members of his cabinet swan and sup at the Trump International Hotel in Washington whose earnings since his inauguration have handily exceeded expectations.
.. Of course the initiation fee to join Mar-a-Loco doubled shortly after his election, to $200,000
.. To judge by what has happened in only its first seven and a half months, the office’s degradations under Trump may well include its commercialization beyond anything seen before.
.. And the marketability of the Trump clan and those around them proves anew that visibility and notoriety are their own rewards, regardless of how they come about
.. No matter what people thought of him, they wanted to ogle him, and he’ll be merrily monetizing that for some time to come.

So will Spicer, who at least had the good sense to turn down an offer from “Dancing With the Stars,” which is more than Energy Secretary Rick Perry can say.

.. “His name ID is massive,” said the speaking agent who talked with Mike Allen, referring to Spicer. “He’s obsessed with that.”

.. Spicer bragged to Allen about how his White House press briefings had been nightly prime-time viewing in parts of Europe. “I’m one of the most popular guys in Ireland,” he crowed.

.. So what if he trashed his previous reputation as a reasonably straight shooter? Who cares if he spread the lies of a serial fabulist? That’s entertainment! And it’s lucrative.

I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money,” Scaramucci told reporters as Spicer left the White House. What a poignant farewell. And what a perfect tell.

The White House is imploding

A master legislative tactician such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can get you only so far; the rules of the Senate make it easier for McConnell to block (see, for example, the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland) than to enact. A president distracted by infighting, inattentive to detail and sagging in the polls can announce all he wants that “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand.” No wobbly lawmaker is going to rally to that cry.

.. He constructed, enabled, even encouraged an organization lacking clear lines of authority and ridden with factions.

.. As dogs have an uncanny tendency to resemble their owners, so Scaramucci channels Trump —

  • bullying,
  • vulgar,
  • egotistical and
  • undisciplined.

.. The truest — and scariest thing — that Scaramucci said on CNN was that “there are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.”

 .. Trump appears incapable of allowing his presidency to be saved, primarily because he is incapable of and unwilling to change. He will not allow himself to be governed; he cannot govern himself. Perhaps things will settle down, but that is hard to imagine. The past six months feel like prologue to even more turbulence.
.. CNN describes national security adviser H.R. McMaster as “increasingly isolated” and at odds with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, worrying those of us calmed by the idea of an adult buffer against presidential pique. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, publicly undercut by Trump, took time off last week, generating rumors of a “Rexit” to come.