David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2017

Trump Diary 6: February 21, 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos’ fatal flaw was being English. I’ll explain.

I’m breaking my No Milo policy because while I maintain that Milo Yiannopoulos functions as a decoy to distract his opponents from things of actual importance, the story of his downfall is of some importance for understanding the state of the Republican coalition today. Beginning with a tweet from the anti-Trump ReaganCoalition and an article in Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, Yiannopoulos’ fall took place over the course of late Sunday and Monday: he was disinvited from the CPAC conference, he lost his much-criticized book deal with Simon & Schuster, he has resigned from Breitbart, and there’s generally been a feeding frenzy. Meanwhile, Trump announced a draconian plan for deporting illegal immigrants, particularly non-criminals, and Yiannopoulos is doing a fine job of distracting people from it. So even now he is serving his purpose.

The attack seems to have originated with the NeverTrump wing of the media, though it was quickly taken up by mainstream media as well as some erstwhile allies of Yiannopoulos. (Six employees of Breitbart reportedly threatened to quit if Yiannopoulos was not fired.) And the attack is clearly a product of organized, right-wing research and publicity. This clip had been readily available for a year and somehow only came to prominence just before he was going to have a beachhead into mainstream conservatism via CPAC. Yes, it was a hit job. Since this is the game Yiannopoulos himself plays, the question isn’t whether he “deserves” his present misfortune (you pays your money and you takes your chances), but why a canny operator such as him didn’t see this coming. And the reason is because he’s English. Again, I will explain….

Yiannopoulos’ speech is not uniquely horrible among right-wing pundits. The bulk of Yiannopoulos’ writings remains undifferentiable from that of many other conservative pundits and even other Simon & Schuster authors. If you look back at Robert Bork’s later books, they’re filled with conspiracy theorizing and sweeping attacks that make Yiannopoulos look like an also-ran. (“Feminists within the [Catholic] church engage in neo-pagan ritual magic and the worship of pagan goddesses.”) If you look at CPAC speakers this year, well, they’ve got a guy representing the purported reincarnation of the Buddha. (Thanks to Brett Fujioka for that tip.) They’re a reminder that we’ve been here before.

Simon & Schuster’s other right-wing authors (mostly through their Threshold imprint) that didn’t provoke this sort of outrage include:

  • James O’Keefe
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Michelle Malkin
  • Laura Ingraham
  • Glenn Beck
  • Karl Rove
  • John Bolton
  • Dick Cheney
  • Donald J. Trump

Did Yiannopoulos really cross some boundary, any boundary, that none of these others did? None of these authors caused Roxane Gay to leave Simon & Schuster, peppered my Facebook wall with calls for boycotts and marches, or resulted in Berkeley getting its campus torched. Excluding Trump, these authors kept a low profile outside of the conservative community. (Ann Coulter, who has had more of a mainstream media presence, has suffered some of the same ostracism from the right that Yiannopoulos is now facing, though not to this degree.) So even things like Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke (whom the Daily Caller is still attacking) or O’Keefe’s cons didn’t raise the level of ire that Yiannopoulos did on a regular basis.

What was unique about Yiannopoulos was his audience, which constituted something of a vanguard. Most of the people who listen to right-wing media sources are firmly ensconced in the right-wing bubble. You don’t see Rush Limbaugh fans posting his picture on Twitter and Facebook, nor do you see Pamela Geller getting banned from Twitter. Milo was extremely talented at attracting positive and negative attention from a far younger (and louder) generation than right-wing apparatchiks usually ever manage. He had a legion of young trolls aggressively pushing him, and he had a legion of mindlessly outraged leftist pod people giving him more publicity than his fans ever could. It wasn’t until the Berkeley fiasco that his book shot to the top of the bestseller list.

But speaking at CPAC was a bridge too far. And this is where, I believe, Yiannopoulos lacked a true understanding of America. He only arrived here in 2015; prior to that his experience was entirely in the UK at Breitbart UK, which pushed the UKIP/Farage point of view but lacked any appeal to the vast majority of American Republicans, who care somewhat about immigration but care just as much if not more about abortion, guns, African-Americans, terrorism, Obamacare, and deviancy. That last one is the crux.

Within Tory circles, homosexuality is simply not a dealbreaker, and hasn’t been for a long time. While Michael Portillo’s rejection of his camp, gay past and declaration of present straightness might seem a bit forced, is there a single Republican in America who even has such a past? That’s not to say the Tories haven’t pushed anti-LGBT policies. It’s a cultural issue, not a policy one.

For contrast, the vast majority of Republican voters and Republican leaders look at Yiannopoulos and do not see a right-wing firebrand forging a new alliance with young Americans. They see him as a repulsive gay foreigner first and foremost, and that is all they will ever see him as. Those in the leadership are not so dogmatic as to think that he can’t be useful as the sort of decoy that he had become, but they do not want him anywhere near their parties. They don’t want him hanging around CPAC, or CCC, or really anywhere in middle America. They want him on university campuses and in liberals’ faces, where he belongs.  There’s already reports that the CPAC board was unhappy with Yiannopoulos being invited in the first place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if CPAC’s chair Matt Schlapp actually loses his job over this.

I have met many foreigners in my time who were shocked at the sheer degree of intolerance displayed by Republican politicians toward traditional objects of Republican ire (queers, minorities, atheists etc.). They tend to think that such rhetoric is just for show and that among the political elites, common sense and tacit tolerance prevail. They are very surprised to find that in fact, those beliefs go very deep indeed and have only been strengthened by the Tea Party’s ascent. They’re shocked that many Republicans genuinely are fanatics, rather than craven hypocritical politicians.

I think that this is where Yiannopoulos being English hurt him.  I think he truly underestimated the degree of intolerance he would face among Republicans as a self-declared cosmopolitan homosexual. Being Catholic (and of Jewish descent) did not help him either, since Republican elites (and Republicans in general) are deeply Protestant. They were willing to overlook such matters in the very special case of heterosexual atheist Trump, primarily because born-again evangelical Pence was on the ticket, but Yiannopoulos is not Trump. And when Yiannopoulos’ remarks on pedophilia/ephebophilia came out, they instantly confirmed every suspicion God-fearing Republicans harbor about Those Homosexuals and the “depraved, decadent” Yiannopoulos. I do not see homosexuality as having any relationship to pedophilia, but a significant swath of Republicans very much do. They still think we are, in Robert Bork’s terms, Slouching Toward Gomorrah. Recall the infamous 2009 DOMA brief (apparently written by Bush administration holdover W. Scott Simpson) that argued that banning gay marriage was merely akin to banning incest and pedophilia. And while pedophilia in particular is, if anything, more alarming to Britons than to Americans, Yiannopoulos would not have faced such powerful forces agitating for his destruction in the UK.

The irony is that for someone who played so well to the stark left/right divide in American culture, Yiannopoulos himself underestimated the width of that divide, thinking he could stake a hip beachhead in liberal youth culture without losing his conservative bona fides. He couldn’t. I don’t think anyone could. You are either of the body or not of the body, and Yiannopoulos was definitely not.

There’s a lesson to be learned here about the limits of the Republican coalition as it stands and the dilemmas it will face as it tries to sustain that coalition in the years to come. Trump turned out to be a one-time gift from God, mobilizing disparate forces against the capital-e Establishment. But I think that the strength of social and religious conservative forces has been underestimated recently in favor of the so-called “alt-right” nationalist and nativist forces, just as social and religious conservatism were overestimated in the wake of George W. Bush. It used to be that these two attitudes were united in the form of people like Pat Buchanan, but decreasing trust in the establishment has fractured the Republican base into more traditional far-right conservatives and the more radical anti-establishment reactionaries from whom Trump draws his most fervent support. Like Trump, Yiannopoulos appealed far more to the latter than the former, but Yiannopoulos was never at home with either. (White nationalist Richard Spencer was celebrating Yiannopoulos’ fall as loudly as anyone, having long derided him as “Alt Lite,” i.e., not sufficiently racist.)

Because of the current polarization, neither side has anywhere else to go. But Yiannopoulos’ success among a bizarre cross-section of America–and the unacceptability of that success to the political establishment he himself promoted–is a very significant indicator of the deep dissatisfaction felt by members on both sides of the political divide. Yiannopoulos may or may not return, but the forces he stirred up definitely will be.

Trump Diary 5: Feburary 15, 2017

Michael Flynn (office 9 in the above pic) resigned under pressure yesterday. The supposed reason being given is that he repeatedly lied to VP Pence about not having discussed sanctions with the Russians last year. Who knows if this is true? Firing Flynn makes Trump look doubly weak, first for having trusted him in the first place, and second for appearing to give into outside pressure days after saying all was hunky-dory. For a “The buck stops everywhere but here” guy like Trump, he’s going to need a scapegoat for forcing him to make Flynn a scapegoat.

And Trump definitely backed down. When the CIA rejected a security clearance for Flynn’s aid Robin Townley on Friday, it was tantamount to a declaration of war by the CIA on Flynn. Honestly, Flynn and Trump had already declared war on the CIA by denigrating it publicly, accusing ex-director John Brennan of leaking fake news, and generally being an idiot. It affirms what I said last time: if the far smarter Lenin was vexed and foiled by the primitive Russian bureaucracy he inherited after the Russian Revolution, what chance do Trump and Bannon stand against the far larger and more sophisticated American bureaucracy in their supposed revolution?

Here’s where this stops being a purported diary, because there’s a specific reason that makes me quite relieved that Flynn in particular is gone, but I can’t talk about it in public. So I have to break the illusion of writing just for myself and self-censor here. But this anecdote about Flynn speaking to the DIA in 2012 seems to encapsulate as well as any why I think it’s good he’s gone:

NYT: Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his. Some also described him as a Captain Queeg-like character, paranoid that his staff members were undercutting him and credulous of conspiracy theories.

The larger question is how it relates to Russia and Trump’s bizarre inability to say anything bad about Putin. (Update: oops, he just told Putin to return the Crimea. That was a quick turnaround.) I think that’s a question for another day. There’s clearly a lot going on behind the scenes.

What happens next is hard to predict. The administration is already in permanent crisis mode, lines of communication are breaking down, and no one is in charge. As I’ve said before, it more closely resembles a junta at the end of its regime rather than at the beginning. At the center of it is the defective Donald Trump, walking around the White House like a zombie in the evenings, subsisting exclusively on a diet of cable news. And that’s the oddest thing about this spectacle, which is that the spectacle and its spectators are often indistinguishable. Take this:

Were there leaks from inside the NSC? Of course there were. “But the notion that these are political is wrong. These are patriots,” argued a former Obama administration official in comments to The Daily Beast. “They are all staff, from CIA, the State Department and Defense Department. They are…the all-star team from their respective agencies.”

“The reason why they are leaking is because they are cut out of the process and the process is dysfunctional,” the official said of conversations he had with such staffers still working at the NSC. “They are horrified. The general sense that the only way to impact policy is to get it on a morning show.

So much of this is playing out in public because of Trump himself. Because he reacts to appearances, and cares only about his own appearance rather than accomplishing anything in itself, an issue truly does not register with him until it is public. And once it is public, he can’t let it go, whether it’s his 3 million popular vote loss or the size of the crowds at his inauguration. The news media, in turn, mindlessly feed this bottomless hunger by magnifying whatever the object of Trump’s angst is so that he sees it even more. It’s a codependent feedback loop, and it would be pretty funny if it weren’t such a gift to everyone Trump isn’t paying attention to.

But it’s also a comment on the strange medium that is news today. I’m not just talking about CNN here, but about the entire DC news media establishment. What we are effectively witnessing is not a war between the media and the Trump administration, but between the governmental establishment and Donald Trump himself, with the media being used as the vehicle for that conflict. (Some of the establishment is even in the White House: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, VP Mike Pence, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer all have divided loyalties to say the least.)

Most of what constitutes political “news” in this day isn’t really related to investigation. Rather, it’s about connections and sources. There are reporters who come to be strongly identified with a particular set of sources. For example, during the Iraq War, there was Judith Miller on the side of the neocons and Walter Pincus on the side of the CIA veterans. David Farenthold’s much-hailed scoops on Trump’s finances last year were little more than actual reporting; the most remarkable thing about them was that a person such as him got into a position to get them printed by a major paper. I had a few significant scoops during my time as a journalist, and they were studiously ignored by the rest of the press, and others have told me the same thing. National journalism today is about access, not research.

Here are a couple striking recent examples of this sort of journalism:

NYT: Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, expressed concern about upheaval inside the White House. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” he said at a military conference on Tuesday. Asked about his comments later, General Thomas said in a brief interview, “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”

NYT: Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.

Buzzfeed: “I was hoping you could tell me what the fuck is going on over there,” said one European Union intelligence official. “There’s no guide for handling this sort of situation, happening with such an important and powerful ally,” the official said. “If anything, it’s a wake up call to European leaders that counting on America isn’t currently a smart policy. Of course this is exactly what Putin wants — to destabilize the Atlantic alliance — but I have to counsel my policymakers the best I can and right now it’s, ‘Prepare to handle some crises without US support.’”

Politico: Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject — to “seem in control at all times,” one senior government official said — or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay — or even stop — him from filling positions and implementing policies.

Politico: If there is a single issue where the president feels his aides have let him down, it was the controversial executive order on immigration. The president has complained to at least one person about “how his people didn’t give him good advice” on rolling out the travel ban and that he should have waited to sign it instead of “rushing it like they wanted me to.” Trump has also wondered why he didn’t have a legal team in place to defend it from challenges.

WaPo: Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Donald Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. “The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,” says one experienced Republican. “This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.”

WaPo: [Trump friend and Newsmax CEO] Christopher Ruddy went on to detail his critique of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus: “It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff — and Donald trusted him — but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head. He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.” [Ruddy later backed down.]

These are killer quotes, but they’re not really “news” in the traditional sense. All such accounts and quotes from anonymous or even non-anonymous sources are given with some agenda in mind. They may be true, but they’re certainly all spun. And most of the spin these days is in a distinctively anti-Trump direction, because Trump scares the living daylights out of them and is incapable of reassuring them. They’re also given with a specific audience in mind, and that audience is sometimes Trump himself.

To stop the flood of leaks and trash talk, all Trump would have to do is to give in and agree to do things their way (that is, the way they’ve been done since Eisenhower, loosely speaking), but because he believes he’s suffered injury at the hands of the CIA, the State Department, the news media, the Democrats, most Republicans, and more or less anyone who’s ever had to deal with him, he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction. So he’s stuck with Bannon and Miller’s vague ideas of taking on the establishment, just so he can show them all. I have been quite critical of the intelligence establishment over the years, and yet I find it incoherent to think of siding with Trump against them because Trump doesn’t stand for anything except his own self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t even pretend to care about anything else. The man is a void.

So now Trump is stuck getting angry at the media for printing verbatim words of executive branch employees. This is classic authoritarian paranoia, and it quickly will make any government sclerotic. With Trump, though, it takes on an ironic dimension because it’s only through the media that anything gets through to him at all. He has no interest in anything other than the vision of himself reflected through the television screen, and all the TV says is how that vision is screwing up royally. That moves him to action, but unpredictably. I imagine it as being like Hamlet if all Claudius ever did was watch plays. Suddenly Hamlet’s ridiculously circuitous plan to ascertain Claudius’ guilt is now the only way to get through to him.

And yet there’s a hollowness to it all, because all these news accounts are not striving to ascertain the facts or determine the truth, but are themselves mere receptacles for the parroting of other people’s images of the world. Reporters don’t fact-check these statements, because it’s not their claim, it’s just what a source said. If they can get nine sources to say it, that’s not an insignificant detail, but at the end of the day the assurance provided by papers of record is only that their sources are who they say they are and that they really said the things they are saying. It’s not that what the sources said is true.

Next to Trump’s view of the world, almost anyone’s will appear more convincing, but at the end of the day we are only eavesdropping on telegrams delivered between two distant planets at war with one another, without ever being able to see the actual combat. The thing is, I suspect even a lot of people in DC feel this way as well. In the short time I spent in DC, it was the land of cocktail parties and dinners, where everything takes place in person and people communicate through backchannels. It is an island working with its own vision of the world–or more accurately, multiple competing visions of the world. It is the world of governance, but not of the governed. It’s perfectly fitting that DC itself has no Congressional representation.

But we just elected a president whose world vision is at odds with very nearly everyone in DC (very nearly everyone period), so now a lot of those internecine fights (about health care, for example) are taking a back seat to dealing with the sheer clash of competing realities. Maybe it’s not fair to call Trump’s vision a reality at all, since it’s so premised on the presentation given him through the news. He’s a man who would rather watch CNN than read classified briefings, so making informed policy requires him to pull himself up by his bootstraps. He wants to hear about how great he is before he does the thing that’s going to make him great. This may explain why he has already made two humiliating climbdowns on the travel ban and on Flynn: nothing (neither principle nor ambition) stops him from deciding that something was always a bad idea once it starts making him look bad. So despite the damage Trump is evidently capable of doing through negligence if nothing else, I don’t see how his “reality” wins. It literally has nothing to offer anyone but Donald Trump.

There are two types of people in the world today: people who Donald Trump doesn’t care about, and Donald Trump. DC is going to increasingly see itself in the first category.

Trump Diary 4: February 2, 2017

The White House backed off. That, at least, is the major takeaway from the chaos that followed the incompetently-drafted, ambiguous, and massively overreaching travel ban issued late last Friday.

(Many left orgs are still calling it a Muslim ban, which is too imprecise. It applies to Muslim-majority countries, but there’s no religious test. Precision counts for something in these waning days of the truth.)

On Sunday, Priebus (who seems to be in real conflict with Bannon) announced the ban did not apply to green card holders, contrary to what Bannon had told DHS on Friday night. The order itself turned out to have been drafted by Bannon’s protege Stephen Miller, the young far-right speechwriter who along with Jared Kushner constitutes the baffling Jewish presence in Trump’s inner circle. Priebus, representing the Republican establishment, pulled back even as reports were coming in that CBP and even US Marshals had disobeyed court orders. These reports are very anecdotal–scary, but anecdotal. CBP are quite Trump-sympathetic (their union immediately endorsed the travel ban), but it doesn’t seem like their resistance was coordinated or particularly thorough. The US Marshal story is even vaguer. It’s a crucial issue because the judiciary depends on having their orders executed in order to serve as a check and balance, but so far the injunctions seem to have been mostly respected.

On Monday I spent a fair bit of time arguing against a viral incursion into paranoia written by a Google engineer, which argued that the whole immigration order had been a carefully planned trial balloon to test the waters for an executive branch coup. This was presented not as a possibility but as a fact. Littered with mistakes and assumptions, it showed up 10 times on my Facebook feed, each time with comment streams of freak-outs and doom. I remember too well how badly I reacted to unjustified nightmare scenarios after September 11, 2001, and so I felt an irresistible duty to try to dissuade as many people from paralyzing fear as I could. I argued with the author on Twitter, who admitted to the holes and admitted it was a worst-case scenario, but refused to change the piece on the grounds that it would send the wrong message–or something. His argument and those of his supporters amounted to Chicken Little logic: “The cost of not worrying about scenario X is so high we must worry about scenario X, and you’re naive if you don’t think so.” This logic has the strength of appealing both to paranoia and smugness at the same time, since it casts the skeptic as ignorant and complacent. But there’s no stopping point to this argument.

I posted others’ rebuttals to the piece in many places. I wrote my own rebuttal. Some people did seem grateful for the reassurance. (Others called me a Trump shill and a naive ignoramus, which reaffirmed the effect such pieces have on the fearfully credulous.) Was it worth the time and stress it cost me? I don’t think it was a rationally considered action; I felt I had to do it and I did.

I speculated in my last entry that the travel ban’s implications were not well thought out when it was drafted. That looks like it was indeed true. A lot of what happened after that was improvisation. If Bannon has some “master plan,” this didn’t line up with it except in causing chaos. The administration continues to leak like a sieve and seems paralyzed in several respects. The White House moves in fits and starts when Trump acts or when someone (Bannon mostly) gets something in front of Trump for him to sign. On Sunday, when Trump took time out to watch Finding Dory, nothing happens. The White House isn’t even able to provide a named spokesperson to the Post for comment on many occasions. Trump and Bannon are getting their chaos. Bannon used it to appoint himself to the National Security Council, an unprecedented move for an adviser.

I recently finished a short biography of Lenin by Lars Lih, which showed how little in Lenin there is for Bannon to learn from at this point. Perhaps in terms of building a movement based on propaganda, Bannon has been successful in emulating Lenin, but Lenin’s governance strategy after October of 1917 was more or less disastrous. In attempting to force through the new conditions of production he wanted, Lenin and the Soviet leadership starved the country, and what arose after that was a step back toward capitalism because the existing bourgeois and bureaucratic institutions were the only ones capable of keeping the country functioning.

By 1922, Lenin’s anger about the deficiencies of the state bureaucracy had become an obsession. As he remarked to a colleague in February 1922, ‘departments are shit, decrees are shit. Find people, check up on work–these are everything’. All through the year he continued to excoriate the gosapparat (state apparatus) and to trace all its inefficiencies and failures to the original sin of tsarism. Again and again Lenin worries that the party is not controlling the state machinery, but the other way around. The state machinery was ‘like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.’

The underlying point is that having broken something, putting it back together is very difficult, especially if you want to remake institutions in the process. Even after two revolutions and the top-down enforcement and abandonment of the NEP, Lenin can’t get past existing practices of the state bureaucracy. Lenin remarks on the fundamental inertia of bureaucracy, which should be very familiar to anyone who has seen Yes, Minister. As for American bureaucracy, the Post ran a story discussing how there wasn’t too much actual resistance coming from civil servants (the “resistance” discussed is mostly within proper channels), but I think that is missing the point. Indeed, I think everyone including myself is constantly falling prey to the intentional fallacy, because people’s intentions, even Bannon’s, are increasingly only tangentially related to the effects their actions have. Federal bureaucracy is going to resist Trump’s autocratic maneuverings not because of explicit resistance but because of its inherent self-preserving conservative structure. Yes, Trump and Bannon could potentially decimate the entire federal bureaucracy a la Stalin, but the degree of disruption would be so great that it could very well provoke even Republicans to desert him. They like their sinecures too.

And recall, Lenin was senior statesman, beloved by the party, and had purged all opposition within the party. Bannon, as far as I can tell, has few friends, few connections to the Republican establishment, and a lot of enemies, who are leaking constantly to the papers. He’s not really in a position to be playing Lenin. Kissinger, perhaps (which is enough of a scary thought on its own), but not Lenin. Not even Cheney.

Despite my perverse suspicion that Trump would nominate someone totally off the wall to the Supreme Court (Pryor, or Thiel, or Cohen, or himself), he went with Scalia clone Neil Gorsuch, who is almost certainly the nominee any other Republican would have picked. A brief return to normalcy followed in which the media and experts analyzed his views as if the functioning of this country wasn’t in total disarray, but within 24 hours we were back to the races with saber-rattling at Iran (they’re “on notice,” says Michael Flynn) and, uh, Mexico and Australia (belligerent bloviation from Trump in phone calls to their leaders).

And in the middle of this came what worries me the most, which is a different international situation altogether, entirely unremarked upon by the White House: Russia and the Ukraine. Russia has significantly escalated its attacks against Ukraine forces and support for the separatists. (A supposed relaxation of sanctions on Russian security services appears to have been a technical fix planned under Obama, though it seems such lifting of sanctions is still likely imminent.) The Ukraine wants to join NATO. Putin does not want this. Europe is scared. And America is silent. The “what-ifs” then include whether Putin’s dream of a renewed Rus extend to the Baltics, which already are a part of NATO.

When asked about Russian aggression in the Baltics last July, Trump complained of NATO states not paying their dues. Would he aid them if attacked? “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” Since Trump’s attitude is that no one ever fulfills their obligations toward him, this quote looks ominous in today’s light. Abandoning the Baltics would, presumably, presage the dissolution of NATO, even if the US doesn’t officially drop out. NATO would no longer hold any credibility or strength. The precise implications of this are beyond me to tease out, but I think major global instability and conflict would be guaranteed. And again, America is silent.

(The paleocons seem all right with the sudden detente because Russians are white and Christian (I’ve got news for them on that front…), but the calculus of that logic is beyond dumb.)

There is something going on between Putin and Michael Flynn, who seems to be the point person between Putin and Trump. No one else, not even Bannon, appears to be guiding the evolution of that relationship, though they’ve certainly been sworn to silence on it. Whether there is any quid pro quo or kompromat or whatever remains purely hypothetical, and the promised investigations from the Republicans have, unsurprisingly, not materialized. It’s strange to think the post-war world order could be upended so quickly, but foreign policy is a far more unilateral and executive affair than domestic policy, and if Trump and whoever controls him decides to turn on that dime, the future will become far more uncertain in a hurry. I admit this is all speculation, but Putin indisputably has an aggressive agenda, and I’d feel a lot more comfortable if I had some idea of where he would stop. The events of 2016 were almost uniformly good for Putin, and I’m sure he feels quite emboldened. And for the time being, America is silent–or rather, making a lot of noise to obscure Russia’s actions.

(Late update: UN ambassador Nikki Haley criticized Russia at the UN on her own initiative, but this barely made a blip next to all the swirling noise around Iran, Australia, Mexico, and whatever else.)

These are my gloomiest thoughts because I think they hold the most danger of large-scale deaths and suffering. We have been spoiled since the 70s by a dearth of war and non-war atrocities; the worst consequence of that seems to have been that we have forgotten the danger of them. That bill may be coming due.

Oh, and a bunch of black bloc morons set fire to Berkeley while protesting some right-wing bozo’s speech there. For all the well-organized activity by the ACLU and the legal community in response to the travel ban (cheers to them), large parts of the left are still addicted to exhibitionistic own goals.

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