Is Everything Terrible?

Podcast: is the political culture reaching terminal velocity?

On this week’s first COMMENTARY podcast, Abe Greenwald and I say yes and Noah Rothman says no. Noah makes a valiant effort at being sensible but I’m not sure he prevails over my and Abe’s hysteria. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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Is Everything Terrible?

Must-Reads from Magazine

No Way to Run a Railroad

The cult of the businessman implodes.

If there is one salutary development that should come from the Trump administration, it is to explode for all time the conceit that business leaders with no experience in politics are best qualified to run the government.

It’s not just the overall struggles of President Trump himself, coping with record-low approval ratings. For further confirmation that business experience does not necessarily translate into government success, look no further than the State Department, which is being run by ExxonMobil’s longtime CEO, Rex Tillerson.

By all accounts, Tillerson was very successful as an oil-company executive. He is proving less successful as secretary of state, a job he gives no signs of having mastered.

He ignores the press—one of the most potent instruments that any secretary of state has to spread his message, shape public perceptions, and enhance his own standing with the administration and Congress.

He acquiesces in a White House budget that calls for cutting State Department funding and foreign aid by almost 30 percent—a budget that Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump supporter, called so Draconian that it would be a “total waste of time” to even review it.

He does little to motivate his own personnel or explain his vision to them and, when he did, he gave a talk widely seen as denigrating the importance of “values” in U.S. foreign policy.

He seems to be losing out in a battle for influence over Middle Eastern policy with White House aides such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. He often seems tripped up by the president’s own tweets and pronouncements. For example, in the current crisis in Qatar, Tillerson is trying to play the role of honest broker while the president appears to be offering 110 percent backing to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states blockading Qatar.

Granted, not all of these snafus are entirely Tillerson’s fault. Like many administration officials, he is struggling to keep up with the policy being set, willy-nilly, by Trump’s Twitter feed. He did try to appoint a well-qualified deputy—my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams—but had that request rejected by the president, apparently at Steve Bannon’s instigation, because Abrams wrote one mildly critical article about Trump last year. But Tillerson can’t blame the White House for his failure to fill most of the critical policy jobs at the State Department. That’s on him.

Tillerson is treating the State Department as if it were a poorly run conglomerate that is in need of an urgent overhaul by a new CEO who is waiting for the management consultants to tell him which lines of business to keep and which to sell. According to the Washington Post, Tillerson has “sketched a lengthy timeline for his internal review that would include a period of study and planning through 2017 and changes to the department’s structure and staffing next year. In some cases, senior jobs will remain vacant until then, if they are filled at all.”

This is bonkers. By refusing to fill senior State Department jobs for a year or more, Tillerson is not just hindering the process of policy formation. He is also reducing his own influence in both the administration and the world as a whole.

The New York Times reported: “Three foreign ambassadors — one from Asia and two from Europe — said they had taken to contacting the National Security Council because the State Department does not return their calls or does not offer substantive answers when it does.”

The Times offered some examples of just how dangerous this policy vacuum can be:

Mr. Tillerson, for example, recently shut down the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — whose role had been diminished since Richard Holbrooke had the job during President Barack Obama’s first term — and has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, at a time when the Taliban’s return and Pakistan’s instability are major concerns.

When he attended a series of recent meetings on Afghanistan, Mr. Tillerson was accompanied by only his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, who is a former United States Patent and Trademark official and technology executive with no diplomatic experience.

There is also no one in line for the Asia policy job, just when there is talk about whether the North Korea crisis will be defused by negotiation or steam toward conflict.

This is, quite simply, no way to run a foreign policy. Tillerson’s struggles stand in stark contrast to the surer hand at the Defense Department—Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Mattis has no business background, but he does have a lifetime of military service that has exposed him to the ins and outs of government and how it operates. That is something Tillerson utterly lacks—and it shows.

Business experience can be valuable if combined with government experience. A good example is George Shultz, one of the most respected secretaries of state, who ran the engineering giant Bechtel in between service in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. But Tillerson, along with Trump, is proving that it’s a lot harder to translate private-sector experience into the government than it may appear from a distance. That is something that voters should keep in mind when, inevitably, the next crop of business leaders seek high office.

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Is Trump Turning It Around?

Podcast: Did the Supreme Court and Congress rescue the Trump presidency?

On the first podcast of the week, we (that is, Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I) look at the Supreme Court’s decision to allow parts of the Trump travel ban to go through and the possibility of the passage of the health care bill in the Senate. And we ask: Does this mean that next week we’ll be saying the Trump administration has scored victories and is now far more formidable than it has thus far appeared? Also, I quote a medieval English song to the mystification of Noah and Abe. Give a listen.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

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A Moment of Truth for Trump Defenders on Health Care

Trump puts the commentary class in an uncomfortable position.

Conservative opinion-makers are struggling to strike the right tone in the effort to defend the specifics in the latest iteration of ObamaCare’s replacement bill.

Those on the right invested in policy outcomes, like The Federalist’s David Harsanyi and Forbes contributor Avik Roy, have observed that the bill does not repeal the ACA but it makes great strides in annulling its most onerous elements, devolves power to the states, and reforms Medicaid. Conservative pundits disinclined to tether themselves to the Senate’s ephemeral health-care sketch have argued that to vote against this bill is to scuttle the Republican agenda and sacrifice the party’s majorities to the fury of their betrayed base voters.

This is a complicated endeavor, and the stakes are high. Its participants are engaging in it in good faith. Notably absent from the barricades is the man in whose name they are ostensibly acting. President Donald Trump has not been absent from the fight to shape the public’s perception on the health-care bill; he’s been actively undermining the Republican position. In the effort to avoid tough choices at the likely expense of his political allies, Trump has put a test to his phalanx of fans in the commentary class.

Will pro-Trump voices note honestly that their party’s leader is exacerbating the headwinds the GOP faces in making good on a campaign-trail pledge to repeal and replace ObamaCare? So far, the answer to that question is “no.”

Last week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer showed no compunction about confirming anonymously sourced reports that alleged the president told Senate Republicans that the House’s compromise version of the American Health Care Act was “mean” and that it needed “more heart.” When asked what the president meant by “heart,” Spicer let forth a word typhoon designed to distract from the fact that he had no idea.

Conservatives know exactly what Democrats mean when they say legislation lacks “heart.” It means, unfailingly, that the draft in question doesn’t include enough tax dollar-funded spending proposals. A day later, the president confirmed conservatives’ worst suspicions about what he meant by “heart.”

At a campaign-style rally before supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last Wednesday, President Trump confirmed other anonymous reports indicating that he only wanted to see “more money” in a new health-care bill.

“I hope we are going to surprise you with a really good plan,” Trump told Hawkeye State rally-goers. “I’ve been talking about a plan with heart. I said, ‘Add some money to it!’” How much and to what, you might ask?

Not only did the president fail to back off his private contention that the GOP’s work was “mean” and “lacked heart,” he appeared annoyed when Barack Obama used the same language to describe the repeal of his namesake legislative reform. “Well he used my term: mean,” Trump boasted the hosts of Fox & Friends for an interview broadcast on Sunday.

On Monday, frustrated by the lack of acquiescence from Senate Democrats, Trump floated the prospect of not holding a vote at all. “Perhaps just let OCare crash [and] burn,” read a petulant presidential tweet.

None of this helps the Senate GOP get on the same page when it comes to health-care reform. In fact, it’s actively counterproductive.

The Trump White House has made it plain that the president has no intention of absorbing any criticism over the version of health-care reform that emerges from Congress until he’s aware of how dangerous that could be for his political brand. Trump spent the 2016 campaign promising to extend insurance to all, regardless of the unfeasibility of that prospect. Even ObamaCare failed in that charge despite the mandate on all citizens to purchase insurance.

“The government’s gonna pay for it,” Trump further declared while promising to avoid reforming imperiled entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Trump took pride in taking what he called “un-Republican” positions on the expansion of federal entitlement programs. Today, Trump is both deferring to the Republican-led legislature on the specifics and heckling from the stands when those specifics don’t meet his impossible standards.

Perhaps unable to reconcile the contradictions or fearful of the conclusion that would result from an honest appraisal of Trump’s actions, his defenders in media have taken to filing dispatches from an alternate universe.

“Are Republican senators doing enough to have your back to get that health care bill through?” the president was asked by Fox & Friends host Pete Hegseth. Laura Ingraham’s online magazine Lifezette published a takedown of Democrats for calling the health-care bill “mean,” while making no mention of the fact that President Trump apparently agrees.  Ann Coulter attacked the Republican Congress for abandoning the principles of market capitalism in writing their “disaster” of a health-care bill. A psychologist might call all this projection.

The congressional Republican effort to get their party’s various factions on board to repeal and replace ObamaCare is hopelessly complicated by the fact that the President of the United States does not fully share their objectives. Donald Trump wants to minimize his political risk and maximize political benefit, and he has no qualms about throwing his party overboard in the process. It is terribly revealing of conservatives in the pro-Trump commentary class that they would rather wrap themselves in cozy and familiar security blankets than grapple with a discomfiting reality: Their leader isn’t always on their side.

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The Pernicious Effects of Defining Deviancy Up

The perils of hype.

Imposing reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is like jailing activists. Criticizing journalists is like physical violence against them. Repatriating citizens of a wealthy, stable democracy is like sending them to death camps. All of the above follow logically from real statements made recently by respected people or organizations, and they reflect a pernicious modern trend that might be called “defining deviancy up.”

Take, for instance, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer’s assertion that Hungary’s legislation banning foreign donations to NGOs puts it in “the ranks of countries like Russia, China, and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act.” His purpose was to shame both Hungary and Israel by lumping them in the same category as Russia and China in their treatment of NGOs.

But while all four countries do impose some restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs (and in Israel’s case, for good reason), in China and Russia, this is part of a systematic attempt to silence criticism of the government that includes jailing and torturing activists (China) and even killing them (Russia). In Israel, NGOs can and do criticize the government without fear. The only “restriction” they face is that if more than 50 percent of their funding comes from foreign governments, all their published material must note that fact (unlike Russia or China, Israel places no restrictions on funding from nongovernmental foreign sources).

By lumping these countries together, Schaefer didn’t merely smear Israel; he also paradoxically legitimized Russian and Chinese abuses. After all, if Russia and China are no worse than Israel, they can’t be that bad.

Moreover, such comparisons eviscerate one of the West’s main weapons against human rights abuses: the power to name and shame. By treating non-issues like NGO reporting requirements as major rights violations, Western officials are like the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, many people will simply stop listening to them.

Worst of all, however, if jailing and killing activists provoke no more outrage than imposing financial reporting requirements on NGOs, brutal dictatorships have no reason not to go straight to the torturing and killing. That provides more effective suppression for the same price in international opprobrium.

For another example of this pernicious approach, consider Freedom House’s lowering of Israel’s press freedom ranking earlier this year “due to unprecedented personal attacks by the prime minister on leading investigative journalists, which contributed to a hostile environment for the press.”

Once, press freedom was measured by objective factors like whether journalists could write what they please without fear of physical or financial consequences—a standard by which Israel does fine. As Freedom House admitted, “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected … Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust … The Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference.”

But today, that isn’t enough: Politicians must also serve as the media’s cheerleaders. Should they dare to criticize it–something politicians have done since the dawn of time–then, in Freedom House’s view, that’s just as bad as the overt oppression practiced by other countries on its list of “most noteworthy” declines.

India, for instance, “declined due to violent reprisals against journalists” and “government blocking of internet service and halting of printing presses” in Kashmir. Hungary “declined because independent media have been squeezed out of the market, partly through the acquisition and creation of outlets by presumed government allies.” Hong Kong “declined due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.”

Such inane comparisons clearly undermine Freedom House’s credibility. But worse, if governments can use violence against journalists, block internet service and take over the independent press without suffering any more international criticism than they’d get for making petulant remarks about journalists, what is to deter any government unhappy with the media–i.e. every government that ever existed–from taking such forceful measures?

Finally, consider the new trend of Holocaust survivors speaking out against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies because, as one told the Michigan state legislature: “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” and the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust that resulted in most of his family being murdered at Auschwitz.

I wouldn’t presume to judge any survivor’s emotional response. But on a rational level, even opponents of Trump’s immigration policies ought to recognize that this is ludicrous. The biggest source of illegal immigration to America is Mexico–a democratic country which, by global standards, is both wealthy and stable (hence its membership in the OECD). Moreover, the migrants are Mexican citizens with full rights in Mexico. Whether or not deporting illegal immigrants makes for good policy, it’s not remotely comparable to France deporting its own citizens to a foreign country where they had no rights and which was ruled by a genocidal dictatorship.

Once again, by treating all deportations as equally unacceptable, opponents make the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. There are countries to which America shouldn’t be deporting people. But if activists treat deportations to Mexico as no less outrageous than deportations to genuinely repressive or dysfunctional countries, they’ll have no credibility left to combat the latter. Moreover, supporters of mass deportation will see no advantage to exempting certain countries from the deportation list, because doing so won’t diminish opposition to their policy.

In 1993, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” he was concerned that formerly unacceptable behavior had become unexceptionable. But it turns out that defining deviancy up can have the same effect: Treating behavior which should be unexceptionable as if it were unacceptable makes the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. That’s precisely why moral hierarchies are critical to any properly functioning society: If everything is equally evil, then “evil” loses all meaning.

Thus, by defining deviancy up to include even completely legitimate actions, people who genuinely seek to increase respect for human rights are instead creating a system of moral equivalence in which even the worst offenses are no longer beyond the pale.

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Trump’s Addiction to Self-Destruction

He just can't help it

On Thursday, the president released a statement—where else?—on Twitter.

“With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” the president asserted.

The carefully worded statement, complete with subordinate clauses and series commas, was probably not crafted like most of Trump’s tweets are: on a whim. The impulsive tweet that compelled the president to legally indemnify himself was, however, a perfectly characteristic Trump tweet. It was a missive that was also indicative of the president’s penchant to bluff himself into dangerous corners.

“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” Trump tweeted on May 12. The tweet, seemingly composed for no discernable reason, is now believed to have been a response to a May 11 New York Times story. That dispatch cited conversations the former FBI director had with the president, as related to reporters by Comey’s associates, in which he described Trump’s demanding “loyalty.” If Comey had not directly leaked those conversations to reporters, he got right to work covering his hide immediately after Trump issued this threatening tweet.

In testimony before Congress, Comey said that he revealed the existence of memos he took regarding his conversations with Trump explicitly because of the “tapes” tweet. Moreover, Comey said he did so in order to compel Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to overtake the Bureau’s investigations into the Trump campaign. Some have speculated that, based on Trump’s shifting explanations for Comey’s dismissal, the FBI director was relieved of duty because he would not publicly state that Trump was not personally under investigation, which he wasn’t. Because of the president’s paranoid, self-defeating behavior on Twitter, however, he is now personally under investigation.

This tale of self-destruction is not unfamiliar. It’s reasonably similar to the sequence of events that was set in motion as a result of a fit of presidential pique on social media involving the allegation that Barack Obama’s administration “had my ‘wires tapped.’”

That March 4 tweet compelled House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to jump out in front of the scandalous revelations and provide the president some political cover. Seventeen days later, Nunes traveled to the White House to meet with an administration source at a secure location to review intelligence involving the “unmasking” of Trump administration associates swept up incidentally in foreign surveillance. Nunes spent the next few weeks vaguely insinuating that Trump’s tweet was accurate, leading the president to agree that he had been “vindicated” by the House chairman.

Two days later, Nunes reversed himself and the source of his information became a scandal. Just over one month after Trump’s original tweet, Nunes was compelled as a result of ethics complaints to join Attorney General Jeff Sessions in recusing himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign. Thus, only as a result of his own imprudence and urge to seek self-gratification, Donald Trump purged himself of one of his closest and most powerful allies in the House.

Republicans in Congress already have ample reason to keep their distance from the president. His determination to keep the Senate’s health-care bill at arm’s length and allow the congressional GOP to absorb all the criticism until he’s sure it’s not politically toxic should communicate to Congress that they are on their own. It is, however, Trump’s habit of setting himself on fire in moments of paranoid agitation that should give Republicans pause.

The president is not predictable, and he has a habit of making his allies fall on grenades. For now, the president has plenty of troops to call on, but he’s going to run out.

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