America the Cowardly Bully

What the world has learned from Trump’s trade war.

This is the way the trade war ends. Not with a bang but with empty bombast.

According to multiple news organizations, the U.S. and China are close to a deal that would effectively end trade hostilities. Under the reported deal, America would remove most of the tariffs it imposed last year. China, for its part, would end its retaliatory tariffs, make some changes to its investment and competition policies and direct state enterprises to buy specified amounts of U.S. agricultural and energy products.

The Trump administration will, of course, trumpet the deal as a triumph. In reality, however, it’s much ado about nothing much.

As described, the deal would do little to address real complaints about Chinese policy, which mainly involve China’s systematic expropriation of intellectual property. Nor would it do much to address Donald Trump’s pet although misguided peeve, the imbalance in U.S.-China trade. Basically, Trump will have backed down.

If this is the story, it will repeat what we saw on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump denounced as the “worst trade deal ever made.” In the end, what Trump negotiated — the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, or U.S.M.C.A. — was very similar to the previous status quo. Trade experts I know, when not referring to it as the Village People agreement, call it “Nafta 0.8”: fundamentally the same as Nafta, but a bit worse.

Why is the president who famously declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” effectively waving the white flag? Mainly because winning turns out not to be easy, at all.

Trump’s beloved stock market hates talk of trade war. There is no broad constituency for protectionism — in fact, public opinion has become much more pro-free trade under Trump. And Chinese retaliation has hit hard at voting blocs Trump depends on, especially in farm states.

Now, agreement with China isn’t a done deal. Trump may also yet open another front in the trade war, against European automobiles. And the Village People agreement awaits congressional approval, and it’s not clear what Trump will do if that isn’t forthcoming.

Still, it looks possible, even likely, that within a few months most though not all of the trade war will have been unwound. So will it all look in retrospect like a passing storm, with few long-term consequences?

After Cohen’s testimony, how much longer can Ivanka Trump play dumb?

Ivanka plays dumb about Russia a lot to the media, telling ABC News that she knew “almost nothing” about the negotiations to open a massive Trump Tower in Russia that continued, as we now know, long into the general election campaign. But as Dan Friedman of Mother Jones has detailed, the evidence suggests otherwise. It was Ivanka who emailed Cohen in 2015 with a lead she thought could produce a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure the deal. She also reportedly suggested an architect for the Moscow tower. The building plans included a spa named after Ivanka and a notation that “all interior design elements of the spa or fitness facilities” were to be approved by her.

More broadly, Cohen’s testimony on Wednesday was a reminder that the Trump Organization wasn’t the sprawling corporation that Republicans would have people imagine, but a sparsely staffed and closely held family company. Unlike at a large corporation with a complicated hierarchy and many moving parts, the leadership of the Trump Organization — consisting of Donald Trump himself and his three eldest children — were intimately involved in the company’s dealings.  Under those circumstances, it’s preposterous to imagine Ivanka wasn’t involved in the Moscow talks, which were clearly geared towards one of the biggest projects — if not the very biggest — the Trump company had ever developed.

But so far, Ivanka has not received even close to the level of scrutiny her husband or brother has received. Even after Cohen’s testimony, the headlines have been more focused on Donald Trump Jr. than his sister:

Part of the difference is that Don Jr. has testified under oath about this project, and could now potentially be investigated for perjury. But sexism almost certainly plays a role, as well.

Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, bumbling idiots though they are, are men who wear expensive suits. They better fit the stereotype as the kind of person who might be involved in a conspiracy involving electoral meddling crimes and seedy real estate deals. Ivanka, however, presents herself a the “first daughter” — no one calls any of her brothers a “first son” — hiding behind the stereotype that women are involved in domestic matters and not criminal intrigue. Even Ivanka’s “businesswoman” persona is tilted towards the domestic, with an  emphasis on her fashion lines and not on her role in her father’s real estate empire.

Time for Netanyahu to Go

Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.

When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.

The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.

Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.

Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.

That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.

Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.

That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his

Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.

Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.

Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.

Afraid? Weak? Egotistical? Attack!

Trump doesn’t want a free press; he wants free propaganda.

.. It is simply not healthy for the country to have a president stuck perpetually in attack mode, fighting enemies real and imagined, pushing a toxic agenda that mixes the exaltation of grievance and the grinding of axes.

The president’s recent rallies have come to resemble orgies for Donald Trump’s ego, spaces in which he can receive endless, unmeasured adulation and in which the crowds can gather for a revival of an anger that registers as near-religious. They can experience a communal affirmation that they are not alone in their intolerance, outrage and regression.

At these moments, the preacher and the pious share a spiritual moment of darkness.

.. They believe that America was founded as a white, Christian nation and should be governed as one. They pine over lost culture and lost heritage. They rage against blossoming minority groups and immigrants.

.. He does none of this because he is brave and strong, but rather precisely because he isn’t. His attacks are a compensatory disguise for his own fear and insecurity.

Trump is weak. Very weak. Unbelievably weak. But he knows now that his weakness is bolstered by the incredible power of the presidency and the overwhelming economic and military power of the country.