Archive

January 27th, 2017

Progressives, use the march to make a movement

    It matters that the crowd for the Women's March on Washington was far bigger than that for President Trump's inauguration. The new president often boasts of having started a great movement. Let it be the one that was born with Saturday's massive protests.

    If size is important, and apparently to Trump it is, there was no contest. The Metro transit system recorded 1,001,613 trips on the day of the protest, the second-heaviest ridership in history -- surpassed only by former president Obama's inauguration in 2009. By contrast, just 570,557 trips were taken Friday, when Trump took the oath of office.

    Those are the true facts, not the "alternative" ones the administration wants you to believe. A president obsessed with winning began his term by losing.

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On Day 1, Trump starts making China great again

    The Chinese New Year holiday, approaching this weekend, is traditionally a time of gift-giving and celebration in the Middle Kingdom. This year, no one is likely to be celebrating more than China's President Xi Jinping.

    On Monday, Xi's U.S. counterpart signed an order withdrawing American support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The move fulfilled one of President Donald Trump's central campaign pledges. Since the 12-nation free-trade pact was a Washington initiative, and other signatories made concessions largely in expectation of access to the huge U.S. market, his signature all but issued the deal's death warrant. Trump touted the move as a "great thing for the American worker."

    In fact, it's a great thing for the Chinese economy and government. One of the few things that seemed clear about Trump's foreign policy was that he wanted to get tougher on China -- to limit its geopolitical ambitions and end its allegedly unfair trade practices. He's just made both tasks much harder.

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Women delivered a body blow to Trump's populism

    The White House can't get over the disparity between Donald Trump's modest inaugural crowd on Friday and the massive protests that took place the next day.

    But what matters most is not how the numbers of marchers across America surpassed the numbers celebrating the inaugural. What matters, now and over the long term, is how those protesting bodies challenged the words of Trump's inaugural address, and neutered them.

    Millions of Americans took to the streets for a "Women's March" that, in the end, had less to do with sexual politics than with a broad defiance of Trump's new order. They turned out in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Washington D.C., but also in places like Boise, Idaho, and Anchorage, Alaska.

    Trump being Trump, he probably would've been unnerved by the size of the protests regardless: Size is a simple handle for an unsubtle mind. But White House strategist Steve Bannon and the shrewder members of the Trump team surely grasped that the protests had just obliterated an inaugural address that was less than 24 hours old.

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Why Trump's staff would lie from the start

    One of the most striking features of the early Trump administration has been its political uses of lying. The big weekend story was the obviously false claim of Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump pulled in the largest inauguration crowds in American history. This raises the question of why a leader might find it advantageous to promote such lies from his subordinates.

    First and most obviously, the leader wishes to mislead the public, and wants to have subordinates doing so, in part because many citizens won't pursue fact-checking. But that's the obvious explanation, and the truth runs much deeper.

    By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

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Trump's dark utopian nationalism

    A green lawn, a white picket fence, a shining sun. Small children walk home from school; their mother, clad in an apron, waves to greet them. Father comes home in the evening from his well-paid job, the same one he has had all of his life. He greets the neighbors cheerfully - they are all men and women who look and talk like he does - and sits down to watch the 6 o'clock news while his wife makes dinner. The sun sets. Everyone sleeps well, knowing that the next day will bring no surprises.

    In the back of their minds, all Americans know this picture. We've seen this halcyon vision in movies, we've heard it evoked in speeches and songs. We also know, at some level, what it conceals. There are no black people in the picture - they didn't live in those kinds of neighborhoods in the 1940s or 1950s - and the Mexican migrants who picked the tomatoes for the family dinner are invisible, too. We don't see the wife popping Valium in the powder room. We don't see the postwar devastation in Europe and Asia that made U.S. industry so dominant, and U.S. power so central. We don't see half the world is dominated by totalitarian regimes. We don't see the technological changes that are about to arrive and transform the picture.

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Trump and the press live in interesting times

    When Donald Trump calls reporters and editors "the most dishonest human beings on earth," it's worth remembering that Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, accused the press of engaging in "falsehood and defamation" while covering his administration.

    So presidential hostility toward the press is hardly new. Still, Trump has cultivated a new level of acrimony and seems determined to make the White House-press relationship the most adversarial in well over four decades.

    I covered the White House a little bit and directed coverage for two big news organizations over almost 20 years. It's important to have good reporters chronicle the history that presidents make every day.

    But the most important reporting is not done inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That's what reporters should remember in the heat of battles over the size of inauguration crowds, belligerent tweets and threats to shut down the White House press room.

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How to cover Trump? Literally and seriously

    Facing the looming realities of President Donald Trump, media outlets have been chewing nervously on an unusual question: How do we cover this guy?

    Of course, although one would be hard-pressed to name any president who has made the reporter's life easy, none until now have been known to taunt the press -- and urge their supporters to join them -- as eagerly and unpredictably as Trump has done on Twitter.

    But the chilliness in Trump's media relations almost iced over amid reports a few days before his swearing-in that press secretary Sean Spicer was considering pulling news media offices out of the White House.

    After reporters put up a howl, Trump said in the friendly confines of "Fox and Friends" he decided not to move the press briefings, even though he still wanted more room to invite more reporters. The reporters, he said in a mocking tone, will "be begging for a much larger room very soon. You watch." Ha, ha.

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The consequences of weak crowd numbers

    When it comes to presidential popularity, perceptions can matter in less than intuitive ways. Anything that can affect perceptions might actually make a difference to whether a new president gets his way with Congress and to how his party fares in the midterm elections -- even if it is something that, rationally, shouldn't make any difference.

    The easiest argument in the world is to make the case that turnout at either Donald Trump's inauguration on Friday or at the nationwide demonstrations against him on Saturday just doesn't matter very much. After all, in either case the number of people is far, far fewer than the numbers who voted for Trump (almost 63 million) or against him (about 74 million, including almost 66 million for Hillary Clinton). Nor is there any reason to believe that either attendance number predicts future election outcomes. Barack Obama's record-setting swearing-in ceremony gave way to unpopularity and a Republican landslide in 2010; massive protests against the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970, the first two years of Richard Nixon's presidency, didn't stop him from winning 49 states in 1972.

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Listen to the river, Mr. President

    “The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too.”

    Herman Hesse’s line is about an actual mass of water droplets, but it certainly could apply to a stream of people – the one that flowed through the nation’s capital Saturday, and in state capitals, and in cities overseas -- all connected: one river.

    Listen to it.

    Was it 2.5 million people gathered worldwide to peacefully make a statement the day after Inaugural Day? Hard to say. Hard to count.

    Exact numbers aside, what a sight.

    And what dignity: protest in the greatest American tradition – peaceful, solemn, stoic. On decorum alone, the new president could learn much from the marchers.

    Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who said 7,500 people arrived from her state of Michigan in 100 buses, saluted them, then offered words more conciliatory than may be permitted in Donald Trump’s DNA.

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Kellyanne Conway is wrong: Trump's election doesn't prove America agrees with his positions

    One of the flukes of the American democratic system is that we vote for people who embody a broad range of ideas, rather than weighing in on the ideas themselves. This is advantageous from a practical sense; plebiscite votes on everything that came before Congress would be impractical for a hundred reasons. But it affords those we elect an opportunity to blend and obscure what it is that people are actually voting for.

    A good example was manifested on Sunday by Kellyanne Conway, adviser to President Trump.

    Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos how the administration would respond to a petition on the White House website calling for the release of Trump's tax returns, Conway was dismissive.

    "The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns," Conway replied. "We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care. They voted for him. And let me make this very clear. Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like."

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