Idle Words: The Siege of Carrie Lam

On September 26, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held her first listening session after seventeen weeks of protest. Her government, which had spent the summer nearly incommunicado, had settled on these encounters as a way to heal social divisions and identify the mysterious goals of a movement whose five demands, now that school was back in session, could be recited by any schoolchild.

Writing in a New York Times op-ed titled “Hong Kong, I Am Listening” on the eve of the event, Lam promised that this encounter with the public would be “the first of many community dialogues to air the public’s grievances and identify the issues this society faces.” She reminded readers of her 2017 campaign slogan: ‘We Connect.’

Hong Kongers who wanted to open their hearts to the government were invited to enter a random drawing online. Out of some 20,000 people who applied, 150 were chosen by lot to attend the event, at Queen Elizabeth Stadium (despite the name, a very regular looking building in a residential pocket of Wan Chai). The rest of the city tuned in to watch the session on TV.

Police cordoned off the venue with their usual light touch, blocking a dozen streets to traffic and giving a normally busy neighborhood the feeling of a ghost town. The large municipal pool was closed. An LED notice board on the side of Ammar Mosque blinked its friendly greetings to no one. Protesters who filtered into the area lined up opposite the building, while the usual scrum of press milled around, looking for something dramatic to film.

A subversive element had placed a chair out front, with a note that it was reserved for Carrie Lam. No one sat in it. Two hours before the session started, the street was packed with people hoping for a glimpse of their listening leader.

Police were everywhere. Blue-jacketed media liaisons (meant to be the kindler, gentler face of the Hong Kong police force) admonished everyone to stay on the sidewalk. Every so often a red taxi parted the crowd to disgorge a lucky citizen, like the winner of a Willy Wonka golden ticket, who would be allowed inside to ask, for the first time in 17 weeks, just what the hell the Hong Kong Chief Executive thought she was doing.

Carrie Lam is a Theresa May-like figure who seems to thrive on a performative stoicism, standing firm in the face of a self-inflicted crisis that a more capable politician would simply wiggle out of. She is a tragic figure in the same way that a pilot who points the nose of the aircraft at a mountain and refuses to listen to the passengers screaming for her to turn is a tragic figure. You puzzle over her motives while also wishing that someone, anyone, would throw her out of the plane.

But while May was at least an elected politician, Carrie Lam is an administrator down to her bones, a career civil servant who was elevated to power in 2017 and sees her role as a protector of order. Her litany throughout the crisis has been that Hong Kongers who are not the police must respect the rule of law, even when that law (as would happen a week after this event) is imposed by emergency decree. A former head prefect at her Catholic school, she has all the empathy of a supervisor at the department of motor vehicles explaining that your car will be compressed into a cube because of overdue parking fines.

Lam seems to have an innate aversion to the mob, the rabble, the people who in luckier places we would call voters. After a quarter of the city’s population marched in July, she called the protesters “a small minority of people” who “had no stake in their society.”

In November, she would refer to protesters more chillingly as ‘enemies of the people’, language that carries murderous connotations in China.

Lam’s preference is always for closed-door meetings, where she can speak to business leaders and other chosen audiences about how limited her options are, and how she can do nothing without permission from the center. In one such session that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked in August, Lam said she would not allow herself self-pity before reciting a litany of complaints. She wanted nothing more than to apologize and resign, she said, but Beijing wouldn’t let her. On policy matters, her hands were tied. Black-clad protesters had made her life a hell. She couldn’t even visit the hair salon in Hong Kong without fear of getting swarmed.

Tonight, though, she would be facing the public. Her hair looked amazing.

When the crisis in Hong Kong began, it was universally believed that Carrie Lam was executing a subtle plan dictated from Beijing. The attempt to rush an extradition law through the Legislative Council looked like a move in China’s long geopolitical chess game to erase constitutional protections in Hong Kong without spooking international finance.

So it was a shock to everyone when it emerged later in the crisis that the extradition law had been Carrie Lam’s own initiative. Rather than playing six-dimensional chess, it appeared that Beijing had accidentally appointed the most inflexible politician in China to head the Hong Kong S.A.R., and was now watching the ensuing disaster unfold as helplessly as everybody else.

Lam had plunged the financial capital of China into a crisis that required finesse, tact, and strategic retreat, and was attempting to solve it with tear gas and truncheons. Her bumbling radicalized a famously apolitical city, destroyed the Hong Kong police force, and welded an amorphous and diverse set of interests into something like a national identity.

A movement that had started with Christian hymns and a Les Miserables song now had its own national anthem, complete with a professionally produced video in which a symphony orchestra dressed in gas masks plays amidst clouds of tear gas. By September, the whole city had learned it by heart, and performed it at shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and spontaneously on the street. Tonight, if she cared to, she could hear it being sung outside her listening event.

Like a player scoring an own goal through an otherwise impenetrable defense, Lam had achieved by accident what no Chief Executive could have done through years of toil. She had forged Hong Kong into a nation. She was the accidental mother of her country.

Xinqi Su is a dynamo of Hong Kong journalism who finds a way to livetweet every significant protest event. True to form, on this night she was translating and posting audience questions almost in real time. Groups of six questioners were chosen by lot out of the audience. Each person got three minutes to speak. After everyone in a group had spoken, Lam (flanked by silent members of her cabinet) made her reply.

Many of the questioners wore masks. Perhaps they were mindful of what had happened the last time Lam held such a televised debate. All five student leaders who confronted her on television in the summer of 2014 were later arrested; three of them went to prison.

Possibly the audience was thinking of more recent events, like the August 29 attack in broad daylight on Jimmy Sham, head of the Civil Human Rights Front (Sham would be viciously beaten again on October 16), or a similar attack on legislator Roy Kwong, assaulted just two nights before the listening event.

(These fears were not misplaced. A second legislator, Stanley Ho, would be beaten three days after this event, on September 29, while several prominent opposition figures would be arrested on September 30.)

Two of the questioners stressed in their remarks that they were not suicidal, reflecting a pervasive belief among young people that a spate of police murders had been disguised as suicides. While not supported by evidence, these rumors, along with stories of deaths and disappearances at the Prince Edward MTR station, were deeply woven into the fabric of fear in Hong Kong, and no one in government had the moral authority or legitimacy to refute them.

Not surprisingly, this toxic level of mistrust was the central theme of the night. Person after person got up and asked Lam essentially the same thing—why did she refuse to set up an independent public inquiry into police brutality? Why had no one resigned or faced any disciplinary action after a summer of escalating abuses of power?

The sole questioner who used her time to praise the police and call for an investigation into the demonstrators was soon outed by internet sleuths as an off-duty cop. The message was not flattering: the government was so incompetent they couldn’t even rig their own listening event.

Lam gave each of these questioners the same answer as ever, which was no answer at all. There’s already an organization for handling police complaints, she said, shall we wait for them to finish their work?

No one on either side of the conflict , then or now, has a satisfactory theory of why Carrie Lam won’t form an independent inquiry into police violence, the demand that is the emotional core of the protests.

It’s obvious why the fifth demand, universal suffrage, poses a serious threat to China.

But why couldn’t there be an independent investigation into the police? Surely a career bureaucrat like Lam could think of a thousand ways to set up a commission that wouldn’t have teeth? It could study the situation for years, immunize everyone against prosecution, and eventually emit a report criticizing both sides for the excesses of the summer. If done with finesse, such a commission might even split the protest movement, the government’s cherished dream.

In other word, it was a bureaucratic lay-up. And yet Lam wouldn’t budge.

This was still September, before the police had shot a high schooler in the chest, before Lam’s government invoked emergency law for the first time since 1967, before the siege of the universities, before anyone had died at a protest. Total arrests on the eve of her listening session were 1,500 (today they are over 5,500). But already the police were the greatest threat to public safety in Hong Kong.

An emotional point of no return had come on July 21, when triad thugs burst into the Yuen Long MTR station and beat passengers at random. Two police officers who were witnesses to the scene had simply walked away. Nearby police stations pulled down their steel shutters as residents banged on them pleading for help. A police commander later revealed that five triads had spent weeks planning the event, either undetected by the police, or with their tacit connivance.

The Yuen Long attack was too much even for some Hong Kong cops to stomach. The triads were the enemy, not an auxiliary force to call in when a crowd needed to be roughed up without directly implicating the police. To the public, Yuen Long was the ultimate proof that the police were irredeemable.

When riot cops burst into Prince Edward station six weeks later and beat up passengers in an echo of the July attack, it simply confirmed the police and triads were interchangeable. 721 and 831 became numerical shorthand for the lawlessness and perfidy of the police.

Lam insisted at this listening event (and continues to insist today) that police should only investigate itself through the Independent Police Complaints Council, a sort of administrative oversight board for internal investigations. The IPCC lacks subpoena power and cannot protect witnesses against police retaliation.

It also can’t take complaints directly from citizens. Instead, they are supposed to report it first to a local police station, through a group ominously called CAPO (Complaints Against Police Office). The requirement that abuse be reported to the perpetrators puts people in absurd, awful situations—if you are assaulted at a police station, for example, the correct procedure is to turn around and go back inside to file your complaint.

When police officers involved in misconduct took to removing their badge numbers, which was the universal behavior by August, citizens had no redress at all. The police simply lied, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. In one famous incident, they insisted that film showing a man in a yellow shirt being beaten by police in an alley showed only a “yellow object” who could not definitively be called a human being.

This abusive behavior at the hands of the Hong Kong police force was no longer an aberration, but policy. The police had adopted a counterinsurgency strategy that assumed the existence of a hard core of several hundred frontline demonstrators. The sooner those troublemakers could be arrested, the police logic went, the quicker the protests would come to an end. All other considerations went out the window.

The transformation of police into an occupying army left ordinary Hong Kongers without redress. The IPCC had been set up to catch the occasional corrupt cop, not to second-guess policy decisions made at the highest levels. Its members were all appointed by the Chief Executive.

A clear example of how broken the system was came just a day after this listening session, when a 22 year old woman was taken into in the Tsuen Wan police station, in the New Territories, and allegedly raped by four masked men. On October 22, she filed a complaint with the Complaints against Police Office. A few days later, the police obtained a search warrant for her medical records, including closed-circuit footage from her doctor’s clinic.

While the search warrant was finally quashed in court on November 28, the message it sent to potential accusers still hangs over Hong Kong: if you accuse the police, your life will be an open book, with the most private details leaked by the investigators you were forced to turn to in your search for justice.

And so it was that by early September, half of Hong Kongers said that on a scale of zero to ten, they had zero trust in police. Stories continued to surface about physical and sexual abuse in custody. Wilder rumors circulated, too, with no way to gainsay them. Carrie Lam’s approval rating dropped below twenty percent, a record for a Hong Kong chief executive. Seventy four percent said that if there were an election, they would vote against her.

But of course, there wasn’t going to be an election. That was the whole problem.

Once the listening event was over, Carrie Lam faced a new challenge—how to get out of the building. It was 10 PM and there were perhaps a couple of hundred protesters outside. Word had filtered out that Lam had told police not to disperse the crowd—even her awful political instincts could tell her not to tear gas her own listening event. I had gone home for the night, but this situation seemed too ripe to miss, so I retraced my steps through the now empty streets of Wan Chai.

It was eleven by the time I reached the stadium. The listening event had been over for an hour, and the neighborhood was quiet. Around Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the ranks of the protesters had thinned. Most of the chanting was being done from a garden wall by an elderly uncle who was working his way through a six pack.

The police officers occupying the glass-walled lobby looked tired. Sometime towards midnight, their commander gave them permission to sit along the base of the wall, and within minutes several were sleeping. A long weekend of oppression and police violence lay ahead of them, as the city braced for the National Day celebrations on October 1. Tonight’s event was supposed to have been an easy night off. Instead, Hong Kong’s finest were in for another cold dinner and cheerless homecoming.

Hong Kongers are savage when it comes to taunting the cops. They find the most resourceful ways to get under the police’s armor and sting them in the heart. At a recent rally, somebody had yelled “while you’re here, your wife’s at home banging a frontliner!” Tonight, the policeman’s wife and the frontliner would have time to cuddle. No one was coming home anytime soon.

A few minutes past midnight, the drunk uncle finished his last beer and zigzagged away. The police were sound asleep. The protesters sat and waited, while the press corps continued their stakeout of the parking garage. Every once in a while, the journalists would spook themselves into a burst of activity, like chickens do when the fox is near. But it was always a false alarm, and they retreated back into their phones.

By one o’clock, only a dozen or so protesters remained, far outnumbered by the press. I saw the blinds part in a window above the parking garage, and two eyes peer out through the gap. A small voice from the street called out in English:

“Carrie Lam, come out!”

But Carrie Lam stayed in.

Around 1:30, a senior policeman woke up his colleagues in the lobby. They shuffled off somewhere, and soon after, a squad of them in riot gear burst out a side door into the alley, flashing strobe lights and making a racket. Two cameramen jogged over to film them and got yelled at. The police unit trotted off into the night.

More waiting. Then, finally, an unmistakable burst of activity in the parking garage. SUV doors opened and engines rumbled to life. The reporters rushed forward to film, forming a semicircle in front of the parking ramp. A few hoarse voices, all that was left of the protesters, began to chant. I counted no more than ten. The SUVs roared up the ramp, then turned off their engines.

It was a feint. The handsome black SUVs had been sent to deke us out while Carrie Lam was hustled out the door on the opposite side of the building, where a camera captured her escape. She looked serene as ever, still smiling, still poised, surrounded by the police who from now on would be her only point of contact with the public. They led her to a waiting car, protecting her from a threat that existed only in her imagination.

And that was the last time the government held a listening session in Hong Kong.

« A Week With No Tear Gas

Timothy Snyder, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The 20th Century”

13:42
there are very different ideas there are
still very different ideas the hypnosis
of the end of history is something that
we have to break ourselves out of the
fist thing that I think I’ve understood
is that the catalyst or if you want the
lubricant of regime change is mistrust

right the sense of uncertainty the sense
that nothing is real or nothing is true

if you are having that feeling now as
many Americans are you are right we’re
Russians were about a decade ago okay
they’re much further along now right
there they’re in a different place now
as people say but if you have that sense
that you don’t know who to trust as
journalism real as history real you know
should I listen to white men wearing
ties actually the answer is generally no
right and make it but but make an
exception right make an exception oh no
no I think I feel I feel like Sean
Spicer has totally ruined this look for
me but but i but i don’t know where else
to go so like maybe you know maybe you
can help you out afterwards anyway that
that mistrust is the rubric mistrust
makes it happen right because if you
don’t think anything’s true and you
don’t trust anyone then the rule of law
can’t work
and if the rule of law can’t
work then democracy is going to fall
right democracy depends on the rule of
law rule of law has depends on a certain
basic level of trust that basic level of
trust it’s not that we agree about
everything but that we agree there’s a
world in there facts in it if you lose
that then you lose rule of law then you
lose democracy right and the people who
are going after trusts the people who
are tweeting random things at 5:30 in
the morning right they are consciously
ripping out the heart of democracy it’s
not the skin right it’s not the muscle
that’s going to resigned it’s not the
bones it’s going right for the heart
it’s skipping the step of democracy
right it’s going right for the heart
it’s ripping out the thing which makes
democracy possible the final thing the

 

number 19
is the one about patriotism in general
the ones towards the end of the book are
meant to come later but you know
sometimes events outpace you or catch or
catch you up as Vic and I like to say
catch you up be a patriot set a good the
generations to come they will need it
what is patriotism let us begin with
what patriotism is not it is not
patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock
war heroes and their families
it is not patriotic to discriminate
against active duty members of the Armed
Forces and one’s companies or a campaign
to keep disabled veterans away from
one’s property it is not patriotic to
compare one search for sexual partners
in New York with the military service in
Vietnam that one has dodged it is not
patriotic to avoid paying taxes
especially when American working
families do pay it is not patriotic to
ask those working taxpaying American
families to finance one’s own
presidential campaign and then to spend
their contributions in one’s own in
one’s own companies it is not patriotic
to admire foreign dictators it is not
patriotic to cultivate a relationship
with Muammar Gaddafi or to say that
Bashar al-assad and Vladimir Putin are
superior leaders it is not patriotic to
call upon Russia to intervene in an
American presidential election
it is not patriotic to cite Russian
propaganda at rallies it is not
patriotic to share an advisor with
Russian oligarchs and is not patriotic
to solicit foreign policy advice from
someone who owns shares in a Russian
energy company it is not patriotic to
read a foreign policy speech written by
someone on the payroll of a Russian
energy company it is not patriotic to
appoint a national security advisor who
is taking money from a Russian
propaganda organ it is not patriotic to
appointed Secretary of State an oil man
with Russian financial interests who is
the director of a Russian American
energy company and has received the
order of friendship from Putin the point
is not that Russia and America must be
enemies the point is that patriotism
involves serving your own country the
president is a nationalist which is not
at all the same things a patriot a
nationalist encourages us to be our
worst and then tells us that we are the
best a nationalist quote although
endlessly brooding on power victory
defeat revenge wrote Orwell tends to be
quote uninterested in what happens in
the real world
unquote nationalism is relativist since
the only truth is the resentment we feel
when we contemplate others as the
novelist bunnyville keys put it
nationalism quote has no universal
values aesthetic or ethical a patriot by
contrast wants the nation to live up to
its ideals which means asking us to be
our best selves a patriot must be
concerned with the real world which is
the only place where his country can be
loved and sustained a patriot has
universal values standards by which he
judges his nation always wishing it well
and wishing that it would do better
democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s
1930s and 1940s and it is failing
not only in much of Europe but in many
parts of the world today it is that
history and experience that reveals to
us the dark range of our possible
futures a nationalist will say that it
can’t happen here which is the first
step towards disaster a patriot says
that it could happen here look that we
will stop it thank
41:03
I don’t I don’t have a silver bullet for
that but I do have some ways of trying
to get one’s mind around it the first is
that is is technological I mean it just
it just turns out that the Internet does
not open the broad you know the broad
sweep towards the positive globalization
that Al Gore was dreaming of right in
the 1990s that just isn’t true just like
it wasn’t true with a book which brought
us the Wars of Religion right just like
it wasn’t true a radio which brought us
fascism all of these new I mean not
alone right but all of these new
technologies are extremely unpredictable
for some like transition period that may
last a hundred years right there they’re
very unpredictable so art like our kind
of and this is something this is a
bubble that I think Hillary Clinton
herself was caught in her campaign was
caught in people on these coats were
thought and people did not realize what
the internet actually was right what it
was actually doing and this is I mean
there’s an empirical thing here there’s
a technical thing here the empirical
thing is people just did not realize how
how siloed off we had become I didn’t
realize it until I actually started
talking to real took when I was
canvassing and talking to Trump voters
in the Midwest and then I realized like
this is so dumb but it was at that
moment that I realized just how
different my facebook feed was from
other people’s because if you hear from
what seemed to be 25 independent sources
that Hillary Clinton is a murderer and
you’ve been hearing it for six months
you might well believe it
all right I mean that’s not surprising
which is the technical thing not enough
people again really a Clinton campaign
whatever realized that
Donald Trump actually had a campaign
advantage right we talked incessantly
about being a ground game ground game I
saw the ground game you know it’s like
it’s twice all agree I what the ground
game in the AK in the ground game which
is below the ground game right and what
the Russians called a psycho sphere
Trump had a tremendous advantage how
much of that was actually is campaigning
how much there was actually the Russians
I don’t know but in terms of the bots in
terms of the technical distribution of
the false news at the generation and
technical distribution he had a huge
advantage and what turned out almost
certainly be a decisive advantage these
are things that we have to understand
and get our mind around now in terms of
what we can do I mean obviously like you
know Zuckerberg can do a lot and people
who are in charge of news distribution
can can do a lot there are two little
things I mean one is kind of just a
declaration I think 2017 is already and
is going to be a heroic year for
journalism I mean and I be absolutely
mean heroic like if this is going to
turn around it’s going to be because of
people pursuing old fashioned stories
and old-fashioned ways and printing and
publishing very often in print journals
who can afford or at least try to try to
afford to be able to do such things and
and I mean it’s also generationally like
there are a lot of really interesting
young people who now see journalism as
edgy and they’re right right like the
whole threat like that the phrase
mainstream media that’s not like what’s
mainstream is the derision of the media
that’s the mainstream right being a
journalist is now edgy and dangerous and
interesting right and I think maybe
historically meaningful and you know the
little thing I say in the book which is
obvious I’m sure you all do it is that
we need to pay for a bunch of
subscriptions because if everybody pays
for subscriptions that will actually be
enough to subsidize investigations right
and that I mean even we know that people
like us often don’t do that right and if
we all did it that would make a huge
difference and then finally there’s like
there’s the internet self policing which
is it we have to think we have to
remember that we are all now publishers
right and so therefore we all every
every individual makes a difference in
terms of what is actually being
distributed right if we think about it
that way then each of us can make us
feel better to write like if you picked
reporters from the real world follow
their work
get to know them as it were and then
distribute their work online then you’re
being a publisher who’s doing a little
bit of good so let the day-to-day level
that’s something that we can do thank
that the cleat and actually the question
we just had the cleavages are going to
change they’re already changing and in
Europe they’re it’s further along than
than here because certain things are
further along in Europe and here but I
think the real dividing lines are fact
and post fact and and
anti-authoritarianism authoritarianism
and I think the anti I think I agree
with your premise the anti-authoritarian
case is unfortunately a case that has to
be made right it can lose but I think
that’s the case that has to be made and
it goes back to how one wins also the
anti-authoritarian z– have to include a
good deal of my view conservatives
people who vote Republican right people
who people who think there should be a
Constitution although they would have
they would disagree about policy you
know perhaps with me right the
anti-authoritarian camp is gonna have to
include a lot of folks like that as well
so so so my answer is that of course
you’re right I mean the Bill of Rights
is there for the reason you give that’s
why the Bill of Rights is there it’s not
there because it’s popular it’s there
because it would be unpopular right who
wants to separate church and state it’d
be so much more fun to have my you know
my church right I mean who’s not tempted
by that right few people okay so like
okay I was going to list all I want a
favor anyway there are a few
denominations who have maybe not beats
but in general like we you belong for
rare tradition if you belong to a
tradition which has never try to take
over the state at some point or found a
state right so how is dividing church
and state popular it’s not meant to be
popular it’s meant to be sensible these
things are not meant to be popular and
so that means they have to be defended
precisely but I think I think there is
enough of a consensus around
Constitution that one can at least start
there as a way of shaming people or
gathering people but I mean my basic my
basic notion is that you get yeah it
goes on very deep it’s whether you’re
going to authoritarian or
anti-authoritarian and the people who
are trying to change things already know
they’re authoritarians right so here we
just one of the comments when Hillary
Clinton stated at the time that Russia
was taking over Crimea and invading rule
and she compared it to sedating land
takeover and everybody scoffs better she
had to pull it back but I don’t know
whether you thought that was more apt
than some B’s well I mean on and
Elizabeth who was a very gifted and
conservative Russian historian made the
same comparison and lost his lost his
job for it no of course it’s apt right
so here’s like here’s how Americans join
you with history the Americans deal with
history as though history were an mp3
and if it doesn’t sound exactly the same
when you punch the button as it did the
previous time then you think something’s
wrong right that’s what American says if
it does if it doesn’t repeat perfectly
so if Americans will say oh well there
no there no swastikas so no jackboots
I’m changing the channel I’m afraid like
that’s our Nats our national response to
the history this whole taboo thing about
the 1930s is a way of saying well in the
in the naive view and the naive view
it’s a way of saying okay we don’t know
anything about history that’s fine right
because no analogies can be perfect
I mean Crimean sedate land is actually
an extremely good analogy it’s a very
close analogy right but none is going to
be perfect right and so saying oh that’s
just an analogy or that’s a way of just
not thinking about history and once you
don’t think about history you’re done
you’re finished because history is the
only thing which teaches you how people
have successfully resisted it’s also the
only thing we teaches you how
institutions are constructed right so
the moment you say oh no comparisons
you’re done forget it right it’s over so
it’s a very it’s a very dangerous very
dangerous move and in the dark version
the non naive version in the dark
version it’s quite deliberate you know
you say well I you know I am NOT exactly
like Hitler and therefore it’s okay
right and we’re getting to that point
right you know they’re nothing is wrong
I’m overstating this slightly but not
much
nothing is wrong because they’re on
concentration camps yet no no no no you
know and there weren’t you know the
wrong concentration camps in in January
1933 either right okay

Trump is weaponizing evangelicals’ mistrust. And he’s succeeding.

Are the dominant voices of white evangelical Christianity in the United States destined to be angry and defensive? Is President Trump making sure they stay that way?

I found myself asking these questions after I read my Post colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s revealing and deeply reported essay about her journey to Texas to probe why evangelicals have been so loyal to Trump and are likely to remain so.

Hers was a venture in sympathetic understanding and empathetic listening. What she heard was a great desire to push back against liberals, to defend a world that sees itself under siege and to embrace Trump — not as a particularly good man but as a fighter against all of the things and people and causes that they cannot abide. Even more, they believe liberals and secularists are utterly hostile to the culture they have built and the worldview they embrace.

I confess I don’t really see the “roll over” part. Conservative politicians, Fox News commentators and talk-radio hosts have engaged in plenty of bullying of their own. But I have no doubt that Jeffress was telling the truth about how he and like-minded folks feel.

This means that the nastiness that makes Trump so odious to many of us comes off to his evangelical Christian supporters (even when it makes them uneasy) as a hallowed form of militancy against what one evangelical whom Bruenig interviewed called “a den of vipers” engaged in what another called “spiritual warfare.”

Bruenig summarized the approach to politics she kept running into as “focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture.” She wondered whether conservative evangelical Christians will “continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes.”

What struck me in reading Bruenig’s chronicle is that the undoubtedly serious faith of those she encountered was less central to their embrace of Trump than a tribal feeling of beleaguerment — remember: Defending a culture is not the same as standing up for beliefs about God. Their deeply conservative views are not far removed from those of non-evangelical conservatives.

Above all, there was a Republican partisanship that has been around for a long time. In some cases, it goes back to 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights incited many white Southerners, including evangelicals, to bolt the Democratic Party. In other cases, Republican loyalties were cemented by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In the end, party triumphed over any qualms evangelicals may have felt about the “Access Hollywood” candidate. Long-standing conservative desires (for sympathetic Supreme Court justices) and inclinations (a deep dislike of Hillary Clinton) reinforced what partisanship recommended.

I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.

But reasoned dialogue is far removed from what’s happening in our politics now, and the irony is that the Trumpification of the evangelicals will only widen the gaps they mourn between themselves and other parts of our society. In her recent book “America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life ,” Kathleen M. Sands, a University of Hawaii professor, writes of a long-standing conflict between “anti-modernist religion and anti-religious modernism.” Trump has every interest in aggravating and weaponizing mistrust that is already there. And judging from Bruenig’s account, he’s succeeding brilliantly.

Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!

Rogue nations thrive when the good lose all conviction.

Most of human history has been marked by war. Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without some great power fighting another great power. Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.

Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. That order consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power — military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.

Building any community requires exercising power. America’s leaders made some terrible mistakes (Vietnam, Iraq). The nation never got to enjoy the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy.

But the U.S. having been dragged into two world wars, leaders from Truman to Obama felt they had no choice but to widen America’s circle of concern across the whole world. This was abnormal. As Robert Kagan writes in “The Jungle Grows Back,”“Very few nations in history have ever felt any responsibility for anything but themselves.”

Trump Hasn’t Killed the Global Trade System. Instead, He Split it in Two.

Allies find relations modestly tweaked, despite the president’s rhetoric, while relations with China are entering a deep freeze

When Donald Trump entered the White House on a platform of defiant nationalism nearly two years ago, many feared he would dismantle the global trading system the U.S. and its allies had built over the past 70 years.

He hasn’t. Instead, he is presiding over its realignment into two distinct systems.

  1. One, between the U.S. and its traditional, democratic trading partners, looks a lot like the system that has prevailed since the 1980s: free trade with a smattering of quotas and tariffs like those Ronald Reagan once deployed.
  2. The second reflects an emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China carrying echoes of the Cold War. On trade, investment and technology, the U.S. is moving to undo some of the integration that followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

There are two big questions hanging over this realignment. The first is deciding how far the U.S. is prepared to decouple from China. The U.S. has given China until March 1 to avoid higher tariffs by addressing complaints it discriminates against foreign companies and steals their technology. Mr. Trump is counting on a deal that avoids a trade war. But many in his administration and Congress don’t trust China to make the necessary concessions and would likely advocate a sharper break.

The second question is whether the U.S. can persuade allies to join a united front to contain China. Other countries don’t relish the choice. Their economic ties to China are far greater than they ever were to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Two years ago, it was easy to predict a grimmer fate for the global trading system. Mr. Trump campaigned as a protectionist willing to tear up trade agreements and raise tariffs to shrink the trade deficit and bring back factory jobs.

In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.

Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.

These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.

.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Douglas Irwin, an economist and trade historian at Dartmouth College, calls these results the “status quo with Trumpian tweaks: a little more managed trade sprinkled about for favored industries. It’s not good, but it’s not the destruction of the system.”

.. Yet the status quo with China is crumbling. Businesses have grown disillusioned with China’s restrictions on their activities, forced technology transfer and intellectual-property theft, all aimed at building up domestic competitors at foreign expense. Meanwhile, legislators in both parties are alarmed at increased military assertiveness and domestic repression under President Xi Jinping.

.. When Mr. Xi visited the U.S. in 2015, Mr. Sullivan urged his colleagues to pay more attention to China’s rise. On the senate floor, he quoted the political scientist Graham Allison: “War between the U.S. and China is more likely than recognized at the moment.”

Last spring, Mr. Sullivan went to China and met officials including Vice President Wang Qishan. They seemed to think tensions with the U.S. will fade after Mr. Trump leaves the scene, Mr. Sullivan recalled.

“I just said, ‘You are completely misreading this.’” The mistrust, he told them, is bipartisan, and will outlast Mr. Trump.

While delivering one message to China, Mr. Sullivan gave a different one to the administration and its trade negotiators: Don’t alienate allies needed to take on China.

“Modernize the agreements but stay within the agreements,” he says he counseled them. “Then we have to turn to the really big geostrategic challenge facing our country and that’s China.”

His was one voice among many urging Mr. Trump to single out China for pressure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to change China’s behavior through dialogue and engagement. Obama officials had begun to question engagement by the end of the administration. Last year, in its National Security Strategy, the Trump administration declared engagement a failure.

The Trump administration regards economic policy and national security as inseparable when it comes to Beijing, because China’s acquisition of Western technology both strengthens China militarily and weakens the U.S. economically.

The administration has yet to publicly explain its goals. In 1946, at the start of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan made the case for containing the Soviet Union in his famous “long telegram.” The Trump administration hasn’t done anything comparable for China. One reason might be that administration officials are divided. Mr. Trump appears torn between wanting to halt China’s rise at any cost and hoping for “a big and very comprehensive deal” that lifts the cloud of a trade war.

.. U.S. and domestic concerns have prompted Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and Canada to restrict or consider restricting Huawei equipment in their telecom infrastructure, in particular for the next 5G mobile phone standard.

The U.S. is also seeking to wall China off from future trade deals. It insisted the pact replacing Nafta include a clause letting the U.S. quit if either Canada or Mexico signs a free-trade agreement with a “non-market economy,” i.e., China.

.. The first goes to the heart of Mr. Trump’s goal. If his aim is to hold back China’s advance, economists predict he will fail. China’s innovative capacity has expanded dramatically. China now accounts for 18.6% of articles in international scientific journals, according to one study, and nearly a quarter of global venture-capital investment, according to another.

Indeed, some China experts fear that the U.S., by adopting a more adversarial approach, weakens China’s reformers and strengthens its nationalist factions, making conflict more likely. They predict China will intensify its pursuit of technological self-sufficiency.

.. Persuading other countries to hold China at arm’s length will be harder than containing the Soviet Union. China accounts for 11% of world exports, whereas the Soviet Union in the 1980s accounted for less than 3%,

.. China is 22% of Japanese imports and exports; the Soviet Union was less than 1%.

.. Many of China’s close neighbors depend far more, economically, on China than on the U.S.

.. U.S. officials note that China’s aid, such its Belt and Road infrastructure program, often saddles recipients with debt. Yet the U.S. offers no alternative, said Mr. Rudd.
.. Some of Mr. Trump’s trade policies undermine the united front he wants against China. He hasn’t sworn off protectionism against U.S. allies, promising to withdraw from Nafta even if its replacement isn’t ratified by Congress. His steel and aluminum tariffs, most of which remain in place, outraged such allies as Canada.

U.S. officials play down such frictions as easily worked out. Abroad, they are seen as more serious. Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaugton said he told U.S. trade negotiators that if Mr. Trump carried through on his threatened 25% tariff on Canadian autos, it would fundamentally change bilateral relations for the worse for years to come. In a letter accompanying Nafta’s replacement, the U.S. agreed not to levy the tariffs.

What happens when the intelligence community decides that Trump is too dangerous to be president?

A surge of public activism by former CIA personnel is one of the most unexpected developments of the Trump era

Two former CIA officers — both Democrats, both women, both liberal — were elected to Congress on November 6. Abigail Spanberger, former operations officer, was elected in Virginia’s 7th District. Elissa Slotkin, former analyst, won in Michigan’s 8th District. Both Spanberger and Slotkin incorporated their intelligence experience into their center-left platforms. Their victories tripled the number of CIA “formers” in Congress.

At the halfway point in Trump’s first term, these formers see themselves as a bulwark of an endangered democracy. The president and his supporters see a cabal of “deep state” radicals out to overturn the will of the people. With the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an unqualified political operative, as Attorney General, Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching. The clash between a willfully ignorant commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community seems sure to deepen.

..I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told me in an email. “. . . Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”

.. in the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.

..After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense. But, of course, adopting “extreme interrogation tactics” was a deeply political decision that President Bush embraced, and President Obama repudiated. The agency deferred to both commanders in chief.

.. The problem with Trump in the eyes of these CIA formers is almost pre-political. The president’s policy decisions matter less than his contempt for intelligence and the system that collects it.
.. When we see things that are blatantly wrong, and the president is responsible, it is fair to speak out,” Bakos said in an interview. “If you’re silent, you’re part of the problem.”

.. Former personnel know better than anyone that the CIA has a license to kill. The agency can spy, capture, bomb and assassinate. It can overthrow governments, foster (or smash) political movements, even re-organize entire societies, according to the inclinations of the president and his advisers.CIA operatives could trust both neoconservative George W. Bush and internationalist Barack Obama with that arsenal because they believed, whatever their politics, both presidents were rational actors. With Trump, they can have no such confidence.

Trump’s contempt for the intelligence profession, weaponized in his “deep state” conspiracy theories, has agency personnel feeling professionally vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. An irrational chief executive has shattered their apolitical pretensions and forced them to re-examine what their core beliefs require.

.. Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to Hayden, told me, “Until now I’ve been mostly a Republican voter at the national level because Republicans shared my views on national security. For a lot of people inside the national security community, that is not necessarily the case anymore. The Republican Party under Trump has abandoned people like us.”

.. When Pfeiffer told me, “Who knows? I might have to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders in 2020,” he sounded amazed by the possibility but not averse to it. Two years of Trump can do that to a former spy.

The point is not that the CIA is getting more liberal, says John Prados, author of “The Ghosts of Langley,” a history of the agency. Rather, the election results show that the voting bloc that supports the president now skews even more to the hard right. “The migration of [the] political spectrum to the right makes the agency look more liberal than it is,” he said in an interview.

.. “I find it sad — and maybe a few other adjectives — that Brennan now gets a pass for some of [the] things he did as director, just because he’s combatting Trump,” Prados said.

.. “If Trump is going to carry out a secret war against Iran as he seems to want to do, who is our ally?” Prados asked. “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service]? Who can work with Mossad? The CIA. If that is Trump’s Middle East agenda, the interests of current CIA people and the formers may diverge.”

.. “Trump is not only relying on lies and falsehoods in his public statements, but I have to believe he is pushing back on the realities that are brought to him. Imagine Gina Haspel goes to the White House with a briefer to talk about the latest intel on — fill in the blank:

  • North Korea’s missile program.
  • What China is doing to supplant America in Asia.
  • Where Europe wants to go with NATO.

Does the president listen or care? Or even understand? We’re not in crisis on any one issue, but can we really say the government is functioning?

.. Harrington expects the mistrust between the president and the intelligence community to grow in the next two years.

“No director of any federal agency can turn away the inquiries of the Democratic House,” Harrington said. “CIA people have to deal head on with the consequences of a president who is fundamentally not dealing with reality.”

If there’s one thing to be learned from talking to former CIA personnel, it’s the sense that the CIA system — powerful, stealthy, and dangerous — is blinking red about the latest news of an authoritarian leader in an unstable nation.