Our republic will never be the same ~ The Washington Post Op/Ed

August 16 at 6:22 PM

From the beginning of the American republic, its founders obsessed about how it all would end. “Democracy never lasts long,” said John Adams. “There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”

George Washington used his farewell address to warn that partisan “factions” could tear the country apart. The Federalists worried that domestic disunity could be exploited by hostile foreign governments. James Madison in particular feared that liberty might be lost by “gradual and silent encroachments of those in power.”

But there is one factor in our politics that the founders could not have predicted: the debilitating infection of celebrity culture.

Were Washington to be resurrected, it would be difficult to explain how history’s most powerful nation, after surviving civil war and global conflict, turned for leadership to a celebrity known for abusing other celebrities on television. It is the single strangest development in American history. And we have only begun to process its consequences.

It is not that American leaders have never been famous. Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the most famous men in the world for organizing victory in World War II. Ronald Reagan was famous for his acting career but also for being governor of California and an articulate conservative.

Fame usually has some rough relationship to accomplishment. Celebrity results from mastering the latest technologies of self-exposure. Ingrid Bergman was famous. Kim Kardashian is a celebrity. Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous. Donald Trump is . . . not in the same category.

Within its proper bounds — confined to stunts on a desert island or in a fake boardroom — the ethos of reality television is relatively harmless. Transposed to the highest level of politics, it is deeply damaging.

This is not only a matter of preferring a certain style of politics (though I think we should do better than the discourse of unhinged tweeting). The problem is a defect of spirit. The founders generally believed that the survival and success of a republic required leaders and citizens with certain virtues: moderation, self-restraint and concern for the common good. They were convinced that respect for a moral order made ordered liberty possible.

The culture of celebrity is the complete negation of this approach to politics. It represents a kind of corrupt, decaying capitalism in which wealth is measured in exposure. It elevates appearance over accomplishment. Because rivalries and feuds are essential to the story line, it encourages theatrical bitterness. Instead of pursuing a policy vision, the first calling of the celebrity is to maintain a brand.

Is the skill set of the celebrity suited to the reality of governing? On the evidence, not really. Our celebrity president, as on North Korea, is prone to take credit for nonexistent accomplishments. As on the border wall and the travel ban, he deals in absurd symbols rather than realistic policies. As on Russia policy, he is easily manipulated by praise. As on the revoking of former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance, he uses the power of his office to pursue personal vendettas. Instead of yelling at the television when people displease him, he now has the power to hurt them in practical ways.

When a real estate developer attacks an enemy in the tabloids, it is a public-relations spectacle. When the president of the United States targets and harms a citizen without due process, it is oppression.

But the broader influence of celebrity culture on politics is to transform citizens into spectators. In his book “How Democracy Ends,” David Runciman warns of a political system in which “the people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold their applause at the appropriate moments.” In this case, democracy becomes “an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention.” Mr. Madison, meet Omarosa.

Trump is sometimes called a populist. But all this is a far cry from the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan, who sought to elevate the influence of common people. Instead, we are seeing a drama with one hero, pitted against an array of villains. And those villains are defined as anyone who opposes or obstructs the president, including the press, the courts and federal law enforcement. Trump’s stump speeches are not a call to arms against want; they are a call to oppose his enemies. This is not the agenda of a movement; it is the agenda of a cult.

Will the republic survive all this? Of course it will. But it won’t be the same.

A FREE PRESS

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In 1787, the year the Constitution was adopted, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to a friend, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

That’s how he felt before he became president, anyway. Twenty years later, after enduring the oversight of the press from inside the White House, he was less sure of its value. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Jefferson’s discomfort was, and remains, understandable. Reporting the news in an open society is an enterprise laced with conflict. His discomfort also illustrates the need for the right he helped enshrine. As the founders believed from their own experience, a well-informed public is best equipped to root out corruption and, over the long haul, promote liberty and justice.

“Public discussion is a political duty,” the Supreme Court said in 1964. That discussion must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” and “may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

In 2018, some of the most damaging attacks are coming from government officials. Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are “fake news” is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the “enemy of the people” is dangerous, period.

These attacks on the press are particularly threatening to journalists in nations with a less secure rule of law and to smaller publications in the United States, already buffeted by the industry’s economic crisis. And yet the journalists at those papers continue to do the hard work of asking questions and telling the stories that you otherwise wouldn’t hear. Consider The San Luis Obispo Tribune, which wrote about the death of a jail inmate who was restrained for 46 hours. The account forced the county to change how it treats mentally ill prisoners.

Answering a call last week from The Boston Globe, The Times is joining hundreds of newspapers, from large metro-area dailies to small local weeklies, to remind readers of the value of America’s free press. These editorials, some of which we’ve excerpted, together affirm a fundamental American institution.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to your local papers. Praise them when you think they’ve done a good job and criticize them when you think they could do better. We’re all in this together.

 

The Day Trump Told Us There Was Attempted Collusion with Russia ~ The New Yorker

August 5, 1974, was the day the Nixon Presidency ended. On that day, Nixon heeded a Supreme Court ruling and released the so-called smoking-gun tape, a recording of a meeting, held two years earlier, with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. Many of Nixon’s most damaging statements came in the form of short, monosyllabic answers and near-grunts—“um huh,” the official transcript reads, at one point—as he responds to Haldeman’s idea of asking the C.I.A. to tell the F.B.I. to “stay the hell out of” the Watergate investigation. The coverup is clearly of Haldeman’s design. Nixon’s words are simple: “All right. Fine.” Then, “Right, fine.”

Haldeman’s idea seemed clever. He believed the F.B.I. was close to concluding that the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel was the work of a C.I.A.-led operation, which had something to do with Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. Nobody would have to actually lie, he seems to suggest—it wasn’t “unusual” for the C.I.A. to warn the F.B.I. to drop an investigation that could harm national security. “And that will fit rather well because the F.B.I. agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is C.I.A.”

Nixon’s strongest statement to Haldeman is, surprisingly, a word of caution. “Don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it,” he says. “Say that we wish, for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period!” When Nixon released the tape, he acknowledged that it would lead to his impeachment. Three days later, he resigned the Presidency.

Listening to the tape today, it’s hard not to imagine an alternate strategy, one that Nixon’s aide, Roger Ailes—hired at Haldeman’s request—would surely have endorsed. Nixon could have released the tape himself and declared it as proof of his innocence, pointing out that he did, in fact, tell Haldeman not to lie. He could have argued that he didn’t mean “yes” when he said “um huh”—that the transcript should have read “unh-unh,” a clear sign that he was against the whole scheme. Instead of embracing impeachment, congressional Republicans could have supported an effort to do just what Haldeman and Nixon had attempted: end the investigation.

On August 5, 2018, precisely forty-four years after the collapse of the Nixon Presidency, another President, Donald Trump, made his own public admission. In one of a series of early-morning tweets, Trump addressed a meeting that his son Donald, Jr., held with a Russian lawyer affiliated with the Russian government. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere,” he wrote. “I did not know about it!”

The tweet contains several crucial pieces of information. First, it is a clear admission that Donald Trump, Jr.,’s original statementabout the case was inaccurate enough to be considered a lie. He had said the meeting was with an unknown person who “might have information helpful to the campaign,” and that this person “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” This false statement was, according to his legal team, dictated by the President himself. There was good reason to mislead the American people about that meeting. Based on reporting—at the time and now—of the President’s admission, it was a conscious effort by the President’s son and two of his closest advisers to work with affiliates of the Russian government to obtain information that might sway the U.S. election in Trump’s favor. In short, it was, at minimum, a case of attempted collusion. The tweet indicates that Trump’s defense will continue to be that this attempt at collusion failed—“it went nowhere”—and that, even if it had succeeded, it would have been “totally legal and done all the time.” It is unclear why, if the meeting was entirely proper, it was important for the President to declare “I did not know about it!” or to tell the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.”

The President’s Sunday-morning tweet should be seen as a turning point. It doesn’t teach us anything new—most students of the case already understand what Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner knew about that Trump Tower meeting. But it ends any possibility of an alternative explanation. We can all move forward understanding that there is a clear fact pattern about which there is no dispute:

• The President’s son and top advisers knowingly met with individuals connected to the Russian government, hoping to obtain dirt on their political opponent.

• Documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee and members of the Clinton campaign were later used in an overt effort to sway the election.

• When the Trump Tower meeting was uncovered, the President instructed his son and staff to lie about the meeting, and told them precisely which lies to use.

• The President is attempting to end the investigation into this meeting and other instances of attempted collusion between his campaign staff and representatives of the Russian government.

It was possible, just days ago, to believe—with an abundance of generosity toward the President and his team—that the meeting was about adoption, went nowhere, and was overblown by the Administration’s enemies. No longer. The open questions are now far more narrow: Was this a case of successful or only attempted collusion? Is attempted collusion a crime? What legal and moral responsibilities did the President and his team have when they realized that the proposed collusion was under way when the D.N.C. e-mails were leaked and published? And, crucially, what did the President know before the election, after it, and when he instructed his son to lie?

Earlier on Sunday, Trump wrote another tweet, one that repeated a common refrain: journalists are the enemy of the people. “I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People,” it read. In a way, he did provide a great service. He allowed us to move away from a no-longer-relevant debate about whether or not he and his campaign had done anything wrong. Our nation can now focus on another question: What do we do when a President has openly admitted to attempted collusion, lying, and a coverup?

  • Adam Davidson is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

WHAT REPUBLICANS THINK OF A FREE PRESS …

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Forty-three percent of Republicans think President Trump “should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” while only 36 percent disagreed with the statement, according to an Ipsos poll released Tuesday.

A large number of Republicans polled also seem to take issue with the media in general, with 48 percent agreeing that the news media is “the enemy of the American people.” Seventy-nine percent said mainstream media outlets treat Trump “unfairly.”

The Daily Beast first reported the poll results.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

The Orca, Her Dead Calf and Us ~ NYT

The orca named J35, or Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf on the seventh dayCredit Ken Balcomb/Center for Whale Research

Among the many quirks of human nature, one that has always struck me as particularly worthwhile is the tendency to project our own feelings onto other animals. This seems to me like a fast route to empathy, a way to bring us closer to different species. But many scientists disagree. They call this anthropomorphism, and they discourage it. They cringe when a viral video of a piglet apparently twerking to a Rihanna song inspires hundreds of comments praising the animal’s confidence, sense of rhythm and musical taste. What if the piglet is actually displaying aggression, albeit to a catchy beat? Is it dancing, or is the piglet freaked out? And who says Grumpy Cat is really grumpy?

Scientists offer these words of caution with good reason: There are a number of very valid arguments against anthropomorphizing the creatures with whom we share this world, not least of which is that their inner lives deserve to be evaluated on their terms — not ours. At times, interpreting their behavior through a human lens might be misleading, silly or even harmful. But at other times — and they occur more often than science would care to admit — perceiving ourselves in these others is exactly the right response. When an animal’s emotional state is obvious to anyone with eyes and a heart.

Such is the case with Tahlequah, also known as J35, a 20-year-old female orca from the critically endangered southern resident population based near Puget Sound, Wash. On July 24, she gave birth to a female calf, who lived for just 30 minutes. The calf was emaciated, lacking enough blubber to stay afloat. Tahlequah kept the body at the surface, supporting it on her head or holding it in her mouth. Orcas and other cetacean species have been observed carrying their dead, but rarely longer than a day. Tahlequah has been swimming with her daughter’s body through choppy seas for, as of Friday, 10 days and counting, on what social media observers and orca researchers call a “tour of grief.” They’re right.

To learn the orcas’ natural and cultural history is to understand how closely connected a mother and calf are, how tight-knit their bond. Like us, orcas are self-aware, cognitively skilled individuals that communicate using their pod’s signature dialect. Unlike us, their core identity is communal: It encompasses not just themselves, but their family group. The idea that Tahlequah is grieving her dead calf is not some sentimental projection. Science strongly backs it up.

Orcas are among the earth’s most socially sophisticated mammals. They live in matrilineal groups that might include four generations, with the oldest grannies running the show. Matriarchs have been known to pass the century mark; they’re one of just a handful of species, including humans, that goes through menopause. As with all of nature’s successful adaptations, there’s a reason for this: The matriarchs serve as midwives, babysitters, navigators and teachers. Orca mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers pass on so much essential knowledge that calves removed from their influence are as ill-equipped for wild orca life as children raised by wolves would be if dropped into Midtown Manhattan.

While we can never hope to fully grasp another species’ experiences, orca behavior and neuroanatomy point to a complex inner life. Their brains are impressive, bigger and more elaborated in some ways than the brains we consider the gold standard: our own. The orca’s paralimbic lobe is highly developed, as is its insular cortex, both of which relate to social emotions and awareness. Like the human brain, the orca brain contains von Economo neurons: rare, specialized cells that relate to empathy, communication, intuition and social intelligence.

So orcas feel emotions, however exotically, which in turn strikes an emotional chord in us. Yes, they’re smart, but our fascination with orcas and other cetaceans also stems from something more esoteric. On some level, we sense how connected we are. As with anthropomorphism, science balks at the notion that these animals affect us so profoundly because of some innate kinship — but that doesn’t make us feel it any less. When describing the many sublime characteristics of orcas, even the most rational scientists can begin to sound emotional. The marine ecologist Robert Pitman once called orcas “the most amazing animals that currently live on this planet.” Another scientist proclaimed them “the unchallenged sovereigns of the world’s oceans.”

But these days we’ve made such a mess of the marine environment that even its sovereigns struggle to survive. There are only 75 southern residents left, and without a major change in circumstance, their prospects are dim. They haven’t had a successful birth in the last three years. These whales contend with a host of stresses — pollution, development and industrial marine noise, to cite a few — but their main problem is malnutrition. The southern residents feed primarily on Chinook salmon; overfishing and habitat destruction have made those fish not just scarce but contaminated with everything from flame retardants and lead to Prozac and cocaine.

Heartbreak for Tahlequah is an appropriate starting point. In a way, it’s the easy part. What’s harder is turning our shared sense of grief for this mother into an impetus to solve the problems plaguing the dwindling southern resident orca population. If we aren’t willing to turn our empathy into action, then one day in the near future we will explain to our children and grandchildren how incredible the orcas were, and how bad we felt about their fate. How their pain resonated with us and caught our attention. How deeply we felt their loss. Just not enough to do what was required to save them.

Susan Casey is the author, most recently, of “Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.”

Trump’s Post-Helsinki Poll Ratings Portend a Nasty and Divisive Election Season ~ The New Yorker

If you thought that Donald Trump’s bowing and scraping to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki would put a big dent in his approval ratings, think again. Two new polls suggest that the President standing next to his Russian counterpart and publicly questioning U.S. intelligence findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election didn’t change anything much. That’s a testament to the unprecedented level of polarization in the American electorate. And it suggests that, as the midterms get closer, Trump will descend further into race-baiting and demagoguery as a way to keep his supporters engaged.

The weekly Gallup poll, which was released on Monday afternoon, estimatedTrump’s approval rating at forty-two per cent, which represents a drop of one percentage point from the previous week. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, which was released over the weekend, put Trump’s rating at forty-five per cent—a one-point gain since last month. Since there are substantial margins of error attached to both polls, the over-all picture that they draw is one of stasis. Most Americans disapprove of the rogue President, but Trump’s base of support remains solid, and it encompasses more than eight in ten self-identified Republicans.

It isn’t that all G.O.P. supporters were blind to what took place in Finland. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published on Sunday, almost a third of Republicans disapproved of Trump publicly expressing doubts about U.S. intelligence findings. By recent standards, that’s a significant defection from the pro-Trump line. But any concerns that Republican supporters had about the Helsinki summit don’t appear to have adversely affected their over-all level of satisfaction with Trump. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, eighty-eight per cent of Republican voters said that they approved of the job he’s doing. For this poll, that was the highest figure of his Presidency so far.

The resilience of Trump’s support among self-identified Republicans helps explain why elected G.O.P. officials are so loath to cross him, and it can be explained in various ways. Some analysts see it as a reaction to the negative media coverage that Trump receives, especially after controversial incidents like his press conference with Putin. “The more Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him,” Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster from Hart Research Associates, one of the firms that carried out the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, said.

Doubtless, this is part of the explanation. There may also be something of a statistical illusion at work. In many polls, the proportion of self-identified Republicans has declined significantly since Trump was elected, suggesting that some anti-Trump G.O.P. supporters may have left the Party, leaving him to garner a bigger share of support among a smaller base. In this case, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver argued on Monday, the headline poll figures may be misleading. But Charles Franklin, the founder of PollsandVotes.com, pointed out that the number of self-identified Democrats has also declined, and he suggested that the over-all impact of these shifts is likely to be pretty small. In a close election, however, they could still prove significant.

Regardless of the underlying reasons for them, the new poll figures will surely only encourage Trump to believe that his incendiary tactics of attacking the media and fanning resentments about immigration, race, and unfair foreign competition are working. As we get closer to Election Day, he seems certain to escalate this strategy.

Perhaps foreshadowing what is to come, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager and political strategist, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last month that the midterms would be a “base-plus” contest. Bannon argued that Trump should seek to “nationalize the election” around his signature theme of immigration. Although the White House subsequently modified its inhumane policy of separating migrant families at the southern border, the President, in his public appearances and on his Twitter feed, continues to emphasize “strong borders,” his proposed wall, and the threat represented by the MS-13 gang.

The scaremongering seems to be working. In a Gallup survey published last week, thirty-five per cent of Republicans named immigration as the top problem facing the country, the highest proportion in more than a decade. “The 35% of Republicans who say immigration is the country’s top problem is over twice as high as the 15% who mention government,” Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, noted.

In addition to whipping up fears about nonwhite immigrants, Trump appears eager to rekindle his dispute with black football players. Last Friday, after the N.F.L. and the players’ union announced that they were taking a time out from resolving the dispute about some players kneeling in protest during the national anthem, Trump tweeted, “The NFL National Anthem Debate is alive and well again – can’t believe it! Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”

Of course, none of this means that Trump’s divisive tactics will necessarily succeed in helping his party in November. For all his support among self-identified Republicans, he is still one of the most unpopular Presidents in history—if not the most unpopular. And his party isn’t doing much better. Recent polls show the Democrats retaining a seven- or eight-point lead in the generic congressional vote, which many experts believe is roughly the margin of victory that the Party needs to take control of the House of Representatives.

Trump’s apparent determination to insert himself into the race and stir things up will only provide more fuel to the Democratic “resistance,” whose entire strategy is based on turning the election into a referendum on his Presidency. In Republican-majority states, a Trump on the rampage may help some Republican candidates. But in left-leaning states, such as California and New Jersey, G.O.P. incumbents will be trying to localize their races and de-emphasize Trump. But that may well prove an impossibility: although Trump’s name won’t be on the ballots, he is set to be an all-consuming presence.

~~  Our present situation ~~

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Let Robert Mueller Do His Job ~ NYT

Faith in the justice system and in our intelligence agencies cannot be collateral damage in a partisan grudge match.

Robert Mueller in 2004, when he was the F.B.I. director, a position that the author, William Webster, once held.Credit Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In 1978, I was asked to head the F.B.I. at a perilous time. The bureau was mired in controversy, stung by criticism over Watergate and warrantless wiretaps, beleaguered by congressional investigations. I took on the job because, as I said back then, “this institution was too important to lose.”

We worked hard to restore trust. Ronald Reagan later appointed me to do the same at the C.I.A. after the Iran-contra scandal. Having served my country through these challenging chapters in American history, I am saddened by what I see happening today to the investigation led by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. From President Trump’s tweets to broadsides from his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, denouncing the investigation, to calls from congressional Republicans for the ouster of Mr. Mueller’s boss, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, it’s destructive.

I was disappointed to see Mr. Trump this week appear to express greater confidence in the word of President Vladimir Putin of Russia than in the unanimous judgment of the men and women of America’s intelligence community, whom I once led. Faith in the justice system and in our intelligence agencies cannot be collateral damage in a partisan grudge match. No matter which party wins, America loses; trust in the rule of law is always too important to lose. Sixty years ago, I was just one of many young Americans who enlisted and put on a uniform to defend America’s values in the world; today, we must defend those values here at home.

I’m a lifelong Republican. Mr. Giuliani was a fine federal prosecutor during the years I led the F.B.I. It is because he knows better that I expect him to do better than to demand that the Justice Department shut down an investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. That investigation has already led to 35 indictments — including those last week of 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign — as well as five guilty pleas and one prison sentence. To accuse Mr. Mueller of trying “to frame” Mr. Trump is wrong.

 

Mr. Mueller, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, was unanimously confirmed twice by the Senate to run the F.B.I. He’s a no-nonsense prosecutor with unquestioned integrity who calls balls and strikes devoid of ideology. Lest anyone wonder, he is of the same political party as the president and the majority in Congress. These are facts, and as John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Most important, I worry where today’s rhetoric takes America. I’ve been very proud to serve as a United States attorney and as a federal judge. I saw firsthand how important it is that average Americans trust that justice is delivered with fairness and impartiality. America works when we can all put our faith in a common set of facts and know that committed public servants are determined to find them.

Americans need to know that we are all still united in the pursuit of justice. We should not run down our own institutions, trivialize the impartial actions of our own grand juries, degrade our own justice system, or bully a free press for doing its job. We do so at our peril. The president should want this investigation to follow the facts where they lead and bring America the answers we all deserve.

I’ve humbly served my country all of my adult life. The proudest title I’ve ever held is one Americans share: citizen. In times like these, citizens have a duty — to serve, and to speak up. Robert Mueller is doing his duty. We need to do ours. When I was sworn in as director of the F.B.I., I said we would “do the work the American people expect of us in the way the Constitution demands of us.” That means defending values like truth, justice and civility, because the idea of an America united by the rule of law is too important to lose.

 

William Webster, a former federal judge, was director of the F.B.I. from 1978 to 1987, and director of the C.I.A. from 1987 to 1991.