Malacandra.me

We Are All Nixonians Now

It's like Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.

- Jeffrey Lewis "Nixon Goes to McDonaldland"
Foreign Policy 3-9-2018

There is no featured post this week. Just covering what happened in the last seven days was already overwhelming enough, without trying to go deeply into any particular story.

For those who don't get the reference in the title: Nixon is supposed to have justified his economic policy by saying: "We are all Keynesians now." The phrase was actually written earlier by Milton Friedman, who appears to have been making a tongue-in-cheek reference to a turn-of-the-century British politician who said, "We are all socialists now."

This week everybody was talking about Trump meeting Kim Jong Un

By now we should be getting used to this pattern: Trump makes some bold statement that his staff knows nothing about until they hear it, and then there's a long back-and-forth about what it means, or if it means anything. Just in the last few months, this pattern has played out with varying results on immigration, on guns, and on tariffs. During the campaign, he did the same thing with universal health care. ("The government's going to pay for it," he said. That turned out to mean nothing.)

This week it happened on North Korea. Thursday, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong came to the White House to talk to lower-level officials and didn't expect to see Trump until Friday, when he would deliver the message that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted a face-to-face meeting. But Trump had Chung shown in to the Oval Office, and cut him off before he was done making his pitch, saying "Tell them I'll do it." Chung then met the press on the White House driveway and announced

I told President Trump that, in our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he is committed to denuclearization. Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue. And he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization. [my emphasis]

Just that morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been pessimistic about North Korean talks:

I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.

So just a few hours later, the whole foreign policy establishment -- both outside and inside the administration -- was trying to figure out what Trump had agreed to. It's not clear Trump himself knows.

“The thing that’s striking here is that there is no letter from Kim. This was an oral message conveyed by North Koreans to the South Koreans," said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

“What they actually said, what they heard him say, and then what they transmitted to Trump could be two or three different things, and it’s not like we haven’t had that in the past,” Edelman added. “There can be elements of wishful thinking here and so I think people really need to be approaching this with a great deal of caution.”

Friday, official sources gave a range of interpretations. In the afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the meeting sound much more iffy:

The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea.

If that's the case, then nothing has changed: Obama also demanded concrete actions, and he didn't get them, so there were no talks. If North Korea actually takes concrete action, or the U.S. stops demanding it as a precondition, then that would actually be news. Trump himself was all over the place at a rally in Pennsylvania Saturday night.

Who knows what's going to happen? It could happen, it doesn't happen. I may leave fast, or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world and for all of these countries, including, frankly, North Korea, and that's what I hope happens.


My interpretation is that the recent series of North Korean missile tests is now complete: They've tested (and demonstrated to the world) all the new developments that seem likely to work any time soon. So there was going to be a pause anyway, while the R&D comes up with new things to test. If that's true, North Korea has nothing lose by announcing a suspension of tests and pretending it's a concession.


I'm skeptical that a Trump/Kim meeting would accomplish anything, but I'm also not reflexively against it.

A point of view President Obama ran into whenever his administration negotiated with Iran was that you can't negotiate with evil regimes. Back in 2014, I responded to this by quoting an exchange from Game of Thrones:

NED STARK: Make peace with the Lannisters, you say? With the people who tried to murder my boy?
PETYR BAELISH: We only make peace with our enemies, my lord. That’s why it’s called “making peace”.

Littlefinger was a slimeball, but in this instance his principle applies: If there's some agreement to be made that will lower the threat of nuclear war in the Far East, the Trump administration should definitely work on it, and shouldn't demand that North Korea become Denmark first.

Another objection you often hear is that a meeting with a U.S. president in itself is something of value that we should hold back until we get something of value in return. (That seems to be what Sanders was saying. The Jeffrey Lewis article I quoted at the top agrees: "THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION.")

I suppose if other countries are willing to play that game, we'd be stupid not to. (If a president can get something just for showing up, there's no sense in refusing those concessions.) But in general I don't like the idea, because it styles the American president as Emperor of the World -- other world leaders are really his subordinates, and should feel honored by his presence. I don't think that's a promising approach to negotiations.

So why am I skeptical? As we saw with the Obama administration and Iran, a de-nuclearization agreement is complicated. We need some way to verify that they've really disarmed. If we agree to end our economic sanctions in return, they'll need some reason to believe that we won't reimpose them as soon as they've gutted their nuclear program. They'll also need some reason to believe that we won't attack them as soon as their mutual-destruction threat is gone. Maybe the only way to establish trust is for an agreement to be divided into phases: We do this, they do that, and then later we both take the next steps. How do you arrange the phases so that each step is more-or-less equal, so that neither side is motivated to get to Step 3 and then bail?

In short, a real agreement with North Korea would have to be full of technical details. What kind of inspections need to be made? Do we do them ourselves, or does somebody else (like the UN) do them? Where is the line between acceptable civilian use of nuclear power or rockets, and unacceptable military use? What protocols are needed to assure the Koreans that our inspectors aren't spying on a lot of other things while they're there? And so on.

Now ask yourself: Is Donald Trump going to negotiate all that a few months from now? (I suspect he wouldn't have the patience to hear a briefing about what all those issues are, much less understand them as well as a negotiator needs to.) Is there any agreement he and Kim could make that couldn't be undone later in the details? (Example: Kim agrees to give up nuclear weapons in general, but his technical people insist on loopholes in the verification protocols.) That's why negotiations happen the way they do: Lower-level people work out technical details, and when they think they've got something, they call in the big bosses to finalize the agreement.

I don't believe Trump understands any of that. What he knows how to do is put on a show. That's why the meeting he agreed to, if it happens at all, will just be a big show.

and tariffs

This week I'm wondering what Trump's announcement about North Korea really means. Last week I was wondering the same thing about his announcement of tariffs, which equally shocked the people who thought they were working on this issue for him. (Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned as a result.)

Thursday the steel and aluminum tariffs were officially announced in separate proclamations whose wording is almost identical. They claim that steel and aluminum imports are a national security issue, which I haven't heard from anybody else. Apparently the point of this finding is to match the wording of Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which

authorizes the President to adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives that are being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security.

Starting March 23, steel imports face an increased tariff of 25%, and aluminum imports 10%. Imports from Canada and Mexico are exempted. If some steel consumer in the United States complains that an equivalent product isn't produced in the U.S., an exemption can be granted for that product.

Trump's usual rhetoric on trade is that specific other countries (especially China) are cheating in some way, and so tariffs might be necessary to even the playing field. But by targeting everybody but Canada and Mexico (and implying that he wants some concessions out of them too as part of a NAFTA renegotiation), he seems to be saying that the U.S. steel and aluminum industries aren't competitive with anybody, so they need broad-based protection. (China supplies only 2% of our steel, due to a targeted tariff imposed by the Obama administration.)

The proclamations invite U.S. allies to

discuss with the United States alternative ways to address the threatened impairment of the national security caused by imports from that country. Should the United States and any such country arrive at a satisfactory alternative means to address the threat to the national security such that I determine that imports from that country no longer threaten to impair the national security, I may remove or modify the restriction on steel [or aluminum] articles imports from that country and, if necessary, make any corresponding adjustments to the tariff as it applies to other countries as our national security interests require.

No one seems to know what that means. Politico reports:

The result is that even some of the U.S.’s closest trading partners are bewildered about where the announcement leaves them. After a meeting with [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer over the weekend Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s top trade official, said there was still “no immediate clarity on the exact U.S. procedure for exemption,” so the discussions will continue this week.

Any U.S. industry that exports may soon face retaliation. That includes agriculture, which is particularly vulnerable, given that "the world is awash in grain", according to one Illinois farmer.

Three out of every five rows of soybeans planted in the United States find their way out of the country; half of those, valued at $14 billion in 2016, go to China alone. Mr. Gould estimates that 90 percent of his soybeans are exported, and 70 percent of his corn.

Farmers get hit on both sides: They also buy expensive equipment made of steel, and will probably have to pay more for it because of the tariffs.

It's easy to play games with numbers on this issue and hard to know who to trust. ABC News quotes a study by a pro-trade group, the Trade Partnership:

The tariffs would increase U.S. iron and steel employment and non-ferrous metals (primarily aluminum) employment by 33,464 jobs, but cost 179,334 jobs throughout the rest of the economy, for a net loss of nearly 146,000 jobs.

Who knows how accurate this is, but I suspect the overall point is right: More jobs will be lost than gained. What makes the political calculation tricky, though, is that the jobs gained should be easier to identify than the jobs lost. If you're a laid-off steel worker who gets his job back, you'll be sure Trump's tariffs worked for you. But if the good job you would have gotten in an exporting industry never gets created, you'll never know.


Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress seem upset, since free trade has been a pillar of Republican orthodoxy for decades. Fareed Zakaria writes:

It is the Republican Party’s last stand against a total takeover by President Trump. Having ceded ground to Trump on personal character, immigration, entitlement reform and more, Republican leaders have chosen to draw the line at free trade. If they get rolled on this, Trump will have completed the transformation of the party.

I think the takeover is complete already; a few congresspeople will squawk about tariffs, but nothing will happen. In a tweetstorm yesterday, David Roberts laid it out: Despite the intellectual voices you will see touted as conservative in the mainstream media, the conservative movement today is not at all about principles or ideas.

It's just a tangle of resentments & bigotries, driven by the erosion of white privilege. ... Trump has swerved this way and that on immigration, taxes, healthcare, guns ... and the base doesn't care. They follow him this way, they follow him that way. It is the resentment, the aggrieved sense of persecution, that they respond to. That's what US conservatism IS now.

and (still) guns

In Florida, the Parkland teens didn't get what they asked for (an assault weapon ban), but they did something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago: Florida tightened some of its famously lax gun laws: The new law raised the age for buying firearms from 18 to 21 (it was already 21 for handguns), put a three-day waiting period on gun purchases, banned bump stocks (used in the Las Vegas massacre), established a process for courts to order the confiscation of guns from people who have threatened violence against others, and did a few other things.

On the more-guns side, it established a program for arming school employees, though not full-time teachers. The program requires the cooperation of local school boards, which could decide not to implement it.

The NRA is suing over the age restriction. It's not clear to me that they have a case.

The big thing here, I believe, isn't in the specifics of the law, it's that it symbolizes a reduced status for the NRA. If the NRA can't inflict revenge on the politicians who voted for something it opposed, the momentum on gun laws might be changing.


In The Atlantic, Garrett Epps gives an interpretation of the Second Amendment not far from what I stated last week.

Anyone who claims that the text of the amendment is “plain” has a heavy burden to carry. The burden is even heavier if an advocate argues that the Second Amendment was understood to upend laws against concealed carry or dangerous weapons—both of which were in force in many parts of the country long after it was adopted.

So it may be that the amendment’s text supports something like where we are now: Dick Heller, a law-abiding citizen, can own a handgun in his home for self-protection. The text and context, however, don’t point us to an unlimited individual right to bear any kind and number of weapons by anyone, whether a minor or a felon or domestic abuser.


In "More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows" Scientific American looked at public-health studies on the results of having a gun in your house: It's a health hazard. A gun in the home makes you more likely to be killed in an argument with a family member or close acquaintance, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be shot by accident, and so on. The event people think about when they buy a gun -- protection against a home invasion -- is much rarer, so even if that works out, the risks don't balance. (I talked about the NRA's immature attitude toward risk in 2015 in "Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies".)

The belief that more guns lead to fewer crimes is founded on the idea that guns are dangerous when bad guys have them, so we should get more guns into the hands of good guys. Yet Cook, the Duke economist, says this good guy/bad guy dichotomy is a false and dangerous one. Even upstanding American citizens are only human—they can “lose their temper, or exercise poor judgment, or misinterpret a situation, or have a few drinks,” he explains, and if they're carrying guns when they do, bad things can ensue. In 2013 in Ionia, Mich., a road rage incident led two drivers—both concealed carry permit holders—to get out of their cars, take out their guns and kill each other.

As I drove from Scottsboro to Atlanta to catch my flight home, I kept turning over what I had seen and learned. Although we do not yet know exactly how guns affect us, the notion that more guns lead to less crime is almost certainly incorrect. The research on guns is not uniform, and we could certainly use more of it. But when all but a few studies point in the same direction, we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth—which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.

Deep down, the NRA knows this. That's why it got Congress to ban CDC and NIH from studying the public health effect of guns. You don't shut down research unless you know the truth is against you.

and sanctuary cities

The Justice Department is suing the State of California over its non-cooperation with the federal government's efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. Resistance to ICE deportations reached a new level two weeks ago, when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a public warning that deportation raids were coming. ICE claims that hundreds of deportable immigrants "with criminal records" may have escaped because of the mayor's heads-up.

That sounds bad until you start hearing stories about the "criminals" ICE targets. As I mentioned a few weeks ago: Dr. Lukasz Niec, a 43-year-old Michigan physician with a green card, was picked up by ICE because of two offenses he committed as a teen-ager, one of which had been expunged from his record, but still counted against him.

Trump's rhetoric is all about protecting the public from "bad hombres". But ICE isn't picking out people because they're dangerous, it's looking for excuses to deport as many people as it can.

and the Stormy Daniels scandal is not going away

A good summary of where we are is Michelle Goldberg's column in Friday's NYT. Unbelievable as it sounds, Trump having an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby ISN'T what makes this story a big deal. (Imagine reading that line about Obama while he was in office. But it's true: We all already know that Trump is the kind of slimeball who would do something like that.) It's the $130,000 pay-off, the unlikely story his lawyer tells about it, and that it supports the most controversial part of the Steele dossier: Trump can be blackmailed by people who know about his sexual exploits.


When I wrote "Trump's Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand" back in January, mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress hadn't yet weighed in on Trump's Stormy extra-marital affair, or the legally suspicious payoff to keep her quiet before the election. (Maybe he was still tired from his defense of Trump's "shithole countries" comment.) But Thursday, he appeared on Fox News to spend down more of Christianity's capital shoring up the defenses of his morally bankrupt president.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=92&v=icGlGHVeFAk[/embed]

Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him. ... Evangelicals understand the concept of sin and forgiveness. Look, we are all sinners. We all need forgiveness. That forgiveness is available through Christ for anyone who asks. And whether the President needs that forgiveness for this particular allegation, whether he's asked for it, is between him, his family, and his God.

[I have to pass on Steve Benen's comment: "Let's pause to note that anytime a prominent Christian evangelist begins an argument by saying, 'Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However...' the sentence probably won't end well."]

Jeffress was basically echoing the anything-goes interpretation of forgiveness that Jerry Falwell Jr. gave in January when the Daniels scandal broke:

Our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.

[Benen again: "Many Christian conservatives appear to have discovered the virtues of moral relativism."] I would guess that neither of these preachers has ever offered this vision of forgiveness to their congregations: "Do whatever you want, show no indication of remorse, and none of us will ever condemn your sin, because we will all just assume that you're forgiven and everyone else is just as bad. In fact, we will support you in continuing to hold positions that require high moral character."

This interpretation of Christianity isn't meant for you and me. It's a special gospel for the Powerful, and in particular, for powerful men who are allies of Evangelical leaders. It's a complete reversal of the Bible's prophetic tradition.


In addition to its integrity, support for Trump is costing the Evangelical movement the tangible progress it had made in the last few decades towards racial integration. Evangelical congregations have never been a fully representative sample of American diversity. (No major American denomination is.) But to their credit, many of them had managed to become less racially segregated than liberal churches that have made a bigger deal out of fighting racism.

The NYT describes a "quiet exodus" of blacks from majority-white Evangelical churches since the election. The stories are all different, but there's a clear theme: The black Evangelicals had tried to ignore their church's lack of interest in racial issues ("her fellow congregants did not seem to even know the name Trayvon Martin"), but they were shocked that Trump's open racism wasn't a deal-breaker for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, they were told both from the pulpit and by their fellow parishioners that voting for Trump was the Christian thing to do.


Another NYT article describes another erosion: White Evangelical women are staying in their churches, but starting to have doubts about Trump.

but I'm still thinking about the Democrats' possible strategies

Tomorrow there will be a special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, which is just south of Pittsburgh, in the corner of the state that makes a right angle with Ohio and West Virginia. It had been represented by Republican Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who resigned in October after it came out that he (1) had an extra-marital affair, (2) got his mistress pregnant, and (3) urged her to get an abortion.

It's a solidly Republican district. Murphy ran unopposed in 2016, and Trump beat Clinton there by 19%. A poll in January had Republican Rick Saccone ahead of Democrat Conor Lamb by 12%. But the race has tightened. Two polls have been done this month, and each has a different candidate up by 3%.

Lamb is 33 years old, a lawyer, and a former Captain in the Marines. He's not making a big deal out of being a Democrat or opposing Trump. The big print on the home page of his web site says:

That biggest issues facing the 18th Congressional District aren't partisan. Heroin kills both Republicans and Democrats. Health care is too expensive. The roads and bridges we all use are crumbling. But the people we send to Washington aren't solving these problems.

He's not big on gun control, supports Trump's tariffs, and doesn't support either a $15 minimum wage or Nancy Pelosi for Speaker.

Tomorrow, we'll see if that works.


Trump held a rally in the 18th Saturday night. It was supposed to be for Saccone, but like all Trump speeches, it was really about himself, his accomplishments, and his endless struggles against his enemies. One of his claims was that he got 52% of women's vote; actually he got 52% of white women's votes. Apparently, women of color don't count.


In yesterday's NYT, four political science researchers compare two groups of 2012 Obama voters who didn't vote for Clinton in 2016: those who voted for Trump and those who didn't vote. Both groups are sizeable: 6 million Obama/Trump voters and 4.4 million Obama/Nobody voters. Pundits have done a lot of hand-wringing about how to appeal to the O/T voters; that's what all those interview with middle-aged white working-class men are about.

But the researchers see the O/N people, who are younger and nearly evenly split between white and non-white, as a more promising target to win back: The O/T voters don't identify as Democrats and are more conservative than Clinton voters on racial and social issues that the party would have a hard time compromising on.

In stark contrast, Obama-to-nonvoters share the progressive policy priorities of Democrats, and they strongly identify with the Democratic Party.

The O/T voters didn't just turn against Clinton, they didn't support down-ballot Democrats either. But surveys indicate that the O/N people would have supported down-ballot Democrats, if they could have been motivated to vote.


In the journal Democracy, Laura Putnam and Theda Skocpol point to a different group as the energy-center of the resistance to Trump: middle-aged, college-educated suburban women.

For those wondering who is going to rebuild the foundations of U.S. democracy— assuming the national guardrails survive—the answer across much of the U.S. heartland seems clear. The foundation rebuilders in many communities across most states are newly mobilized and interconnected grassroots groups, led for the most part by Middle America’s mothers and grandmothers. They see the work to be done and are well into accomplishing it.


If you do want to reach out to white working-class Trump voters, read "Can the Democratic Party be White Working Class Too?" in The American Prospect. It looks at the success of Democrats like Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.

Some of the themes here resonate with the ones I outlined a few weeks ago in the context of Alaska, especially "run everywhere", "think locally", and "don't settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run".

Bullock tells young people interested in politics to make a life in something else first. It will make them authentic and connect them with voters, rather than with issues, political insiders, and the process of governing.

I would change your major out of political science or law. Get a practical trade, study science or math. Go out and try to change the world in the private sector. Start a business and lose it. Start a family. … Do not learn how to run this country by working for people who already do.

Montana Democratic Party executive Nancy Keenan says:

A lot of the people who run as Democrats think that if we could just get into the depths and detail of the policy and make people understand it, then we’ll get elected. Oh, hell no! The detail doesn’t matter, people! What’s the first rule of politics? Show up. Everywhere. The second rule is: Show up where they didn’t want or ask you to come. I used to show up at the stock growers’ convention or the Chamber of Commerce conventions, and they’d all ask, "What the hell is she doing here?" And I’d tell everyone how terrific it was to be with them.

The article concludes:

Integrating Montana’s template into Democratic success will entail integrating Montana’s constituents—white, working-class, often rural voters who, despite their cultural differences, face many of the same frustrations with debt, health care, and labor as other working-class people in the Democratic coalition.

And that sounds a lot like Lamb's message.

and you also might be interested in ...

I'm barely touching the week's craziest story, because despite all the noise about it, it seemed to have no serious consequences: Monday, Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg was on literally ALL the TV news networks, claiming that he was going to defy a subpoena to appear before Robert Mueller's grand jury. He seemed not to believe that Mueller would arrest him if he did that, though the lawyers on the talk shows eventually seemed to get through to him. Friday, he appeared on schedule and testified.


For years, Sam Brownback's Kansas has been the prime example of how tax cuts can drive a state into a fiscal crisis. The NYT's David Leonhardt says:

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana. ... Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged.

Leonhardt suggests they simply roll back Jindal's corporate tax cuts, but that's not even on the table. Instead, a special session of the legislature debated raising the sales tax, couldn't find the votes to do it, and adjourned, having done nothing to close the looming $994 million shortfall. The regular session can't raise taxes, so they'll be looking for cuts in things like education and health care.


Trump continues to use words that have special meaning in alt-Right circles. Thursday, he paid dubious tribute to his soon-to-exit economic adviser Gary Cohn.

He’s been terrific. He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He is seriously a globalist, there’s no question. But you know what, in his own way he’s a nationalist because he loves our country.

If you don't pay attention to racist groups, you may read through that without seeing anything wrong. But globalist is a common right-wing euphemism for Jew, which Cohn is. A fellow "globalist", Peter Beinart, explains:

The term “globalist” is a bit like the term “thug.” It’s an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. Just as “thug” is often used to invoke the stereotype that African Americans are violent, “globalist” can play on the stereotype that Jews are disloyal. Used that way, it becomes a modern-day vessel for an ancient slur: that Jews—whether loyal to international Judaism or international capitalism or international communism or international Zionism—aren’t loyal to the countries in which they live.

Trump seems to grasp this connotation, so he tempers it by reassuring everyone that Cohn "loves our country" -- implying that most globalists don't. But Trump is not anti-Semitic; some of his best friends are "globalists".

and let's close with something otherworldly

If you think our weather has been strange lately, take a look at the swirling cloud formations on Jupiter.