Does Trump Embarrass You?


About a week ago, CNN pulled the plug on its show “Believer,” hosted by the religion scholar Reza Aslan. Network executives made the decision after Mr. Aslan, angered by what he deemed Donald Trump’s callous response to the terrorist attack at London Bridge, wrote on Twitter that President Trump was “not just an embarrassment to America” but also “an embarrassment to humankind.” (There was an expletive, too.)

While people can debate the merits of CNN’s move, Mr. Aslan’s opinion of the president as an embarrassment is widely shared. Polling by the McClatchy news organization and Marist College shows that while 30 percent of Americans are “proud” to have Mr. Trump as their president, 60 percent say they’re “embarrassed” by him.

Embarrassment is obviously an uncomfortable sensation — and embarrassment at the blundering and misbehavior of the leader of the free world is no exception. But research by sociologists and psychologists suggests embarrassment is, socially speaking, a valuable emotion. For opponents of President Trump, might it prove politically valuable, too?

About a week ago, CNN pulled the plug on its show “Believer,” hosted by the religion scholar Reza Aslan. Network executives made the decision after Mr. Aslan, angered by what he deemed Donald Trump’s callous response to the terrorist attack at London Bridge, wrote on Twitter that President Trump was “not just an embarrassment to America” but also “an embarrassment to humankind.” (There was an expletive, too.)

While people can debate the merits of CNN’s move, Mr. Aslan’s opinion of the president as an embarrassment is widely shared. Polling by the McClatchy news organization and Marist College shows that while 30 percent of Americans are “proud” to have Mr. Trump as their president, 60 percent say they’re “embarrassed” by him.

Embarrassment is obviously an uncomfortable sensation — and embarrassment at the blundering and misbehavior of the leader of the free world is no exception. But research by sociologists and psychologists suggests embarrassment is, socially speaking, a valuable emotion. For opponents of President Trump, might it prove politically valuable, too?

The sociologist Erving Goffman gave a classic analysis of embarrassment in 1956. He started by scrutinizing the sort of personal mortification all of us experience from time to time.

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Alfred E. Newman/Jeff Sessions Ravaged by Amnesia Somehow Able to Hold Down Demanding Legal Job


NYT editorial

How many ways are there to fail to answer a question under oath?

Ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The last time Mr. Sessions appeared before a Senate committee, during his confirmation hearing in January, he gave false testimony.

“I did not have communications with the Russians,” Mr. Sessions said in response to a question no one asked — and despite the fact that he had, in fact, met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during the 2016 presidential campaign. The omission raised questions not only about his honesty, but also about why he would not disclose those meetings in the first place.

On Tuesday Mr. Sessions returned to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian sabotage of the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible ties to those efforts.

That was the plan, anyway. In fact — and to the great consternation of the Democratic members of the committee, at least — Mr. Sessions was not on board. He arrived in full body armor, testy and sometimes raising his voice to defend what he called his honor against “scurrilous and false allegations” that he had colluded with Moscow.

He also defended his misstatements in January, to the Judiciary Committee, as being taken out of context, and he lowered a broad cone of silence around all his communications with President Trump regarding last month’s firing of James Comey as F.B.I. director, claiming it was “inappropriate” for him to discuss them. Did they involve classified information? No. Was he invoking executive privilege? No, he said, only the president may invoke that. Reminded that Mr. Trump has not done so, he said, “I’m protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.”

In lieu of a real excuse, he cited a longstanding policy at the Justice Department — although he couldn’t confirm that it existed in writing or that, if it did, he had actually read it. In other words, Mr. Sessions has no intention to answer any of those questions now or in the future.

Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, angrily accused Mr. Sessions of “impeding this investigation” by refusing to respond, but perhaps the attorney general was wise to keep his mouth shut. When he opened it, he often seemed to contradict himself, his staff at the Justice Department, or the president.

The most glaring example was his claim that the letter he wrote supporting Mr. Comey’s dismissal was based on the former director’s missteps in the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server — even though Mr. Trump himself had almost immediately blown that cover, telling a national television audience that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he decided to fire Mr. Comey.

Mr. Sessions’s explanation would’ve been impossible to swallow anyway, since he, like Mr. Trump, had originally praised Mr. Comey’s actions in the Clinton investigation.

The attorney general also had a strange reaction to Mr. Comey’s plea that he not be left alone with the president again. By his own account, Mr. Sessions seemed less concerned with the president’s highly unusual and inappropriate behavior than he was with Mr. Comey, telling him “that the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policies regarding appropriate contacts with the White House.”

So here are a few more questions that Mr. Sessions should answer, but probably won’t.

Why did he not resist when Mr. Trump asked him and others to leave the Oval Office so he could have a private conversation with Mr. Comey? At the very least, why did he not take steps to find out what had happened?

Why does he believe he did not violate the terms of his recusal by taking part in Mr. Comey’s firing? His recusal extended, in his own words, to “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States” — which clearly includes the Clinton email investigation.

If his recusal was truly based, as he claimed, on his closeness to the Trump campaign, why not announce it immediately upon his confirmation, rather than wait weeks, until after news of his undisclosed meetings with Mr. Kislyak broke?

And perhaps most pressing: Why, since he agreed with the committee that Russian interference in the election represents a profoundly serious attack on American democracy, has Mr. Sessions never received or read any detailed briefing on that operation?

“Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy:” Masha Gessen for the New York Times


On those few occasions when Trump now emerges from behind his self-imposed Twitter wall, Americans are provided a brief glimpse of just how fundamentally inept and unsuited he is for the task of the Presidency. His European trip provided the most recent example as he proceeded to stumble through simple photo-ops and interviews, making juvenile gaffes and clumsy mistakes. If nothing else was accomplished on that trip, it underscored his incapacity at the job. For some, that was a source of a peculiar relief—after all, how much harm can an incompetent do?

Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen has emerged as well, as one of the most perceptive critics of the Trump Administration since the election. Her article, Autocracy: Rules For Survival is now mandatory reading for anyone seeking to make sense of the national catastrophe that has befallen us. As a longtime, outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin (she is the author of The Man Without A Face: The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin”) Gessen often teases out uncanny parallels between the Russian despot and his sycophantic admirer in the Oval Office. In doing so she opens a window into a dark world of autocratic misrule that we as Americans– until this point in time– had the good fortune to escape.

Writing for the New York Times this weekend, Gessen takes on the assumption that Trump’s painfully obvious incompetence at mastering the art of the U.S. Presidency might somehow prevent or forestall the horrendous damage he has already begun to wreak on the country and the world:

Can an autocrat be ridiculous? Can a democracy be destroyed by someone who has only the barest idea of what the word “democracy” means? Can pure incompetence plunge the world into a catastrophic war? We don’t like to think so.

Trump’s grandiose buffoonery, lack of social skills, manners or class, and sheer ignorance have made him the butt of withering jokes and sneers from whole swaths of the American population, particularly the educated and professional classes. The Western European Democracies have demonstrated their contempt as well, but their disdain is more reflexive, grounded in painful historical experience. Reflecting on the recent French election in which voters resoundingly repudiated the ultra-nationalist, “Trumpian”  Marine Le Pen, the writer James Traub commented:

A tragic history has taught the French never to take their values for granted….The French know that you cannot trifle with history; Americans have had fewer reasons in modern times to worry about the dark consequences of political choices.

Unfortunately, Americans have never had to contend with quite the same situation: an impervious, rigid, autocratic presence in the White House, coupled with the reality that the same Autocrat with pretensions of grandeur is an utter fool. A nation that historically prides itself on its sophistication and competence, even mastery, of all things from economy to warfare will naturally have a hard time internalizing the fact that a delusional egomaniac with no demonstrable intellect, talent, or other redeeming quality can bring the entire nation down with his fumbling grasp.  Even George W. Bush, seen by many as a President far out of his depth, had the political experience to surround himself (mostly) with competent, if rigidly ideological people with at least a cognizance of basic governmental protocols. Trump’s modus operandi appears to be to obstinately thumb his nose at all of the country’s institutions, with a heedless disregard to history or the consequences of his acts.

But that utter lack of interest, that stunning embrace of ignorance, is exactly what Trump tapped into in order to get where he is today. By and large his voting base is made of those who shun complexity and deliberately shut their ears to complicated solutions.  These are people for whom ignorance is a warm cocoon against the realities of modern existence. These are the people who want to “build a wall” or “bring back coal.”  They embrace the rejection of reason and science that Trump embodies. This simplistic, anti-intellectual attitude, with a dose of media-generated charisma thrown in, is terribly appealing to many millions of Americans.

Gessen questions the popular perception that history’s worst actors, the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Mussolinis, were the “evil geniuses” that the scope of their crimes suggest. In fact, they were starkly mediocre men:

We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined.


But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Gessen has personal experience with Putin, having been, as she notes, one of the few people to have been permitted an unscripted interview with him:

I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him.

This same lack of imagination and mediocrity,–a “militant incompetence”– is exactly what Trump has demonstrated in virtually every significant action he has taken thus far, from his Cabinet appointments of people who revile the agencies they are now tasked to lead (read: “dismantle”), to his interactions with foreign leaders. As Gessen points out, Trump is far more interested in being seen as someone who is “in charge” than whatever consequences of his decisions may follow.

The arbitrary and senseless withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement is simply the most recent example of this. The travel ban on Muslims was one of the first. The pointless launch of Tomahawk missiles wasted on a Syrian airfield, the dropping of a MOAB bomb for the spectacle of it, are others. The sole goal is to appear “decisive,” no matter how abominably bad and uninformed the “decision” turns out to be, no matter what terrible consequences may flow from it, and many in this country—including many in the media—are all too eager and willing to accept it and genuflect to the simple exercise of raw power.

Gessen concludes that Trump’s basic mindset is simply the mindset of other autocratic tyrants throughout modern history:

Mr. Trump has admitted that being president is harder than he thought. He does not, however, appear to be humbled by this discovery. More likely, he is, in keeping with his understanding of politics, resentful because his opponents — his predecessor, the elites, the establishment — have made things so complicated. If they had not, things would be as he thinks they should be: One man would give orders, and they would be carried out. He would not have to deal with recalcitrant legislators or, worse, meddlesome investigators. One nation, with the biggest bombs in the world, would dominate every other country and would not have to concern itself with the endlessly intricate relationships among and between all those other countries.

From Hitler to Mao to Pol Pot, ordinary, untalented and barely marginally competent people placed into positions of power in the right place at the right time have wreaked tremendous, lasting damage on human society, during the last century alone. The fact that they happened to be mundane, incompetent human beings didn’t save the world from the consequences of their acts.  All they needed was a set of tools at their disposal, and a willing segment of their society to cheer them on.

“I helped prosecute Watergate.” Comey’s statement is sufficient evidence for an obstruction of justice case. ~ By Philip Allen Lacovara ~ June 7 at 9:27 PM

Philip Allen Lacovara, a former U.S. deputy solicitor general in the Justice Department, served as counsel to Watergate special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski.


In prepared testimony released on the eve of his appearance Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James B. Comey placed President Trump in the gunsights of a federal criminal investigation, laying out evidence sufficient for a case of obstruction of justice.

Comey proved what Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers carefully avoided admitting in their testimony on Wednesday — that the president had specifically attempted to shut off at least a major piece of what Trump calls the “Russia thing,” the investigation into the misleading statements by fired national security adviser Michael Flynn concerning his role in dealings with the Russians. This kind of presidential intervention in a pending criminal investigation has not been seen, to my knowledge, since the days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Comey’s statement meticulously detailed a series of interventions by Trump soliciting his assistance in getting the criminal probe dropped. These details are red meat for a prosecutor. Presumably, the team of experienced criminal prosecutors that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has assembled will be following up on this crucial testimony, which rests on contemporaneous memorandums that Comey was sufficiently alarmed to prepare immediately after receiving the president’s requests.

That both Coats and Rogers denied that they “felt pressured” provides no comfort for the president’s position. The obstruction of justice statute prohibits not only successful interference with pending criminal investigations but also any use of “threats” to “endeavor” to obstruct an investigation. Thus, it is the attempt or objective that is criminal, and Coats and Rogers were apparently unable to deny that the president had solicited their interference in the pending FBI investigation. If Coats and Rogers did not yield to the endeavor, kudos for them, but that is no excuse for the president.

Moreover, Comey’s testimony also supplies the element of “threats.” He vividly describes a dinner with the president on Jan. 27, which the president surprisingly limited to just the two of them. The president asked Comey whether he liked his job and wanted to continue in it, even though, before the inauguration, the president had asked Comey to stay on the job, and Comey had eagerly accepted.

Leaving little doubt about the price of continued retention, the president twice, according to Comey, told him that he expected “loyalty” from Comey, just as he did from everyone else around him.

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Dunning-Kruger Effect ~ How dumb are Trump supporters? By Rika Christensen


How the hell can anybody call themselves intelligent when they’re supporting Donald Trump? It’s a question that baffles people who are able to think critically, able to read and comprehend both history and current events, and able to see through Trump’s thin façade of know-it-all-ism and deep into what he is – an ignorant, narcissistic, and dangerous conman.

Trump supporters not only don’t see this, they’re happy that there’s someone running for president that thinks exactly like them. Take Melanie Austin, of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. She thought her beliefs about Obama being a gay Muslim from Kenya and Michelle being transgender were just fringe beliefs – right up until she started hearing similar stuff from Trump and other right-wing extremists.

Now she knows she’s right about all of this. You can’t tell her that she’s ignorant and dumb if she can’t figure this out for herself. You can’t tell her she’s delusional. You can sit there with her, and countless others like her, and present facts, figures, charts, studies, and more, all from the most reputable sources there are, and prove that her lord and savior is wrong, and you’ll still get shot down.

There’s more to this than the problem of confirmation bias. Austin gets much of her information from fringe right-wing blogs and conspiracy sites, but that’s not all of it. Many of Trump’s supporters are seriously too dumb to know they’re dumb. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and it’s an unshakeable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.

People like Austin labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, though, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand. Trump himself has exemplified this countless times, such as when he claimed he knows more about ISISthan even our military generals do.

His fans simply take his word for it, and believe that because he knows, they know. They are literally incapable of seeing that they don’t know.

To be sure, the Dunning-Kruger effect is present everyone all across the political spectrum, and indeed, in every walk of life. We all overestimate our abilities and knowledge somewhere. However, the effect is especially pronounced in people with limited intellectual and social skills:

“[P]eople who are unskilled in [intellectual and social domains] suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

So basically, yes, it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

In four separate studies, people who scored in the bottom quarter on tests involving everything from humor to logic, and even to grammar, grossly overestimated where they thought they would score. They averaged scores in the 12th percentile, while their average estimate of their own scores was the 62nd percentile.

The researchers attribute that huge discrepancy to a literal inability to distinguish accuracy from error. Or, to put it another way, those who are the most lacking in skills and knowledge are the least able to see it.

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How Trump’s Chaotic Presidency Threatens the Economy


Photographer: Mark Makela/Getty Images


Sure, you might think: Donald Trump isn’t exactly a competent president. But it’s a long-standing truism of U.S. politics that, at the end of the day, presidents really don’t have immediate and severe effects, for better or worse, on economic performance or jobs. Instead, what really matters are larger-scale forces — say, the growth or stall of productivity, something that politicians have very little effect on in the short term. We can all play games with economic statistics and where presidencies begin and end, but most of the claims involved are partisan fictions. 1

But that truism was never tested by Donald Trump.

Few seem to have adequately priced in the possibility of large, unusual downside risks from having Trump in the White House. I’m not talking about normal policy differences, such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate deal, in which some will argue (just in terms of economic development) that he’s freeing U.S. businesses while others will maintain that focusing on coal mining while the future is in renewables is a poor trade-off. I’m focused here on the possibility that his chaotic presidency could produce devastating results just because normal governing might prove impossible.

Here are the five biggest scenarios I’m aware of, and how the chances of each have changed since Trump won the presidency in November.



Donald Trump Poisons the World – David Brooks ~ NYT


This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

The essay explains why the Trump people are suspicious of any cooperative global arrangement, like NATO and the various trade agreements. It helps explain why Trump pulled out of the Paris global-warming accord. This essay explains why Trump gravitates toward leaders like Vladimir Putin, the Saudi princes and various global strongmen: They share his core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.

It explains why people in the Trump White House are so savage to one another. Far from being a band of brothers, their world is a vicious arena where staffers compete for advantage.


Our Disgraceful Exit From the Paris Accord ~ NYT


Here’s what Mr. Trump’s decision on the climate change pact says to the world: America cares little about science, its allies and competitiveness.


Only future generations will be able to calculate the full consequences of President Trump’s incredibly shortsighted approach to climate change, since it is they who will suffer the rising seas and crippling droughts that scientists say are inevitable unless the world brings fossil fuel emissions to heel.

But this much is clear now: Mr. Trump’s policies — the latest of which was his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change — have dismayed America’s allies, defied the wishes of much of the American business community he pretends to help, threatened America’s competitiveness as well as job growth in crucial industries and squandered what was left of America’s claim to leadership on an issue of global importance.

The only clear winners, and we’ve looked hard to find them, are hard-core climate deniers like Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency and the presidential adviser Stephen Bannon, and various fossil fuel interests that have found in Mr. Trump another president (George W. Bush being the last) credulous enough to swallow the bogus argument that an agreement to fight climate change will destroy or at least inhibit the economy.

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The Republican Hypocrisy Hall of Fame ~ Nicholas Kristof ~ 5/25/17 ~ NYT OpEd


Senator John McCain last week when asked about his comment invoking Watergate in describing the controversy over ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia. Credit Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency


We certainly don’t want leading Republicans to tumble into hypocrisy, so let’s refresh their memories.

Patriots like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have eloquently warned of the importance of ferreting out the truth and holding politicians accountable, including for leaking classified information. Thank God for their insistence on truth-seeking!

As McConnell warned, for example: “The president did not value the sacred oath. He was interested in saving his hide, not truth and justice. I submit to my colleagues that if we have no truth and we have no justice, then we have no nation of laws. No public official, no president, no man or no woman is important enough to sacrifice the founding principles of our legal system.”

Such passion for justice and accountability (expressed in 1999, during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton) inspires us all. And at this historic moment when timid or myopic politicians balk at congressional oversight and resist an independent commission to investigate President Trump and possible collusion with the Kremlin, it behooves us to cherish the wisdom of such honest souls.

They’re busy, but no problem! I’ve helpfully dug out their brilliant insights:

“Extreme carelessness with classified material … is still totally disqualifying.”

— Donald Trump, July 11, 2016

“It’s simple: Individuals who are ‘extremely careless’ w/ classified info should be denied further access to it.”

— House Speaker Paul Ryan, tweet, July 7, 2016

“The security clearance of any officer or employee of the federal government who has exercised extreme carelessness in the handling of classified information shall be revoked.” — Senate Bill 3135, co-sponsored last year (to shame Hillary Clinton) by 16 Republican senators: Cory Gardner, John Cornyn, Shelley Moore Capito, Tim Scott, James Risch, Pat Roberts, Dean Heller, Kelly Ayotte, John Barrasso, David Perdue, Johnny Isakson, Thom Tillis, John Thune, David Vitter, Mike Rounds and James Inhofe

“Those who mishandled classified info have had their sec clearances revoked, lost their jobs, faced fines, & even been sent to prison.”

— Reince Priebus, tweet,July 6, 2016

“What do I say to the tens of thousands of people that live and work in my district who work for the federal government, including more than 47,000 Marines? What do I say [to them] when saying something that isn’t true and handling classified information in an extremely careless way has no criminal ramifications?”

Representative Darrell Issa, July 12, 2016

“In my opinion, quite frankly, it’s treason.”

Representative Michael McCaul, Nov. 3, 2016, on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server

“Presidents are not ordinary citizens. They are extraordinary, in that they are vested with so much more authority and power than the rest of us. We have a right; indeed, we have an obligation, to hold them strictly accountable to the rule of law. … It is self-evident to us all, I hope, that we cannot overlook, dismiss or diminish the obstruction of justice by the very person we charge with taking care that the laws are faithfully executed.”

— Senator John McCain, Feb. 12, 1999, in voting to convict President Clinton in his impeachment trial

“By his words and deeds, he had done great harm to the notions of honesty and integrity that form the underpinnings of this great republic. … If we do not sustain the moral and legal foundation on which our system of government and our prosperity is based, both will surely and steadily diminish.”

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Feb. 12, 1999, as a senator

“The true tragedy in this case is the collapse of the president’s moral authority. … There was no better reason than that for the resignation of this president.”

— Senator Charles Grassley, Feb. 12, 1999

“Our freedom is assured by the rule of law. … Even the most powerful among us must be subject to those laws. Tampering with the truth-seeking functions of the law undermines our justice system and the foundations on which our freedoms lie.”

Senator Mike Crapo, Feb. 12, 1999

Such Ciceros! At a time when so many Americans have a narrow, partisan vision, I am grateful that we are blessed with patriots of such vision.

In all seriousness, let’s adhere to the spirit of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who as a senator during the 1999 Clinton trial declared:

“The chief law officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, crossed the line and failed to defend and protect the law and, in fact, attacked the law. … Under our Constitution, such acts are high crimes, and equal justice requires that he forfeit his office. … It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth.”