50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency

by Jeffrey Goldberg
Editor in chief of The Atlantic
January, 2019

 

In an October 2016 editorial, The Atlantic wrote of Donald Trump: “He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar.” We argued that Trump “expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.” Trump, we also noted, “is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”

In retrospect, we may be guilty of understatement.

There was a hope, in the bewildering days following the 2016 election, that the office would temper the man—that Trump, in short, would change.

He has not changed.

This week marks the midway point of Trump’s term. Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable. We find it hard to believe, for example, that we are engaged in a serious debate about whether the president of the United States is a Russian-intelligence asset. So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date.

Our 2016 editorial was a repudiation of Donald Trump’s character as much as it was an endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. It was not meant to be partisan. The Atlantic’s founders promised their readers that we would be “of no party or clique.” This remains a core governing principle of the magazine today. What follows is a catalog of incidents, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance. In most any previous presidency, Democratic or Republican, each moment on this list would have been unthinkable.

25. “We’re gonna have the cleanest air”. By Robinson Meyer
24. The president can’t stop talking about carnage. By Rebecca J. Rosen
23. America gets a first daughter. By Caitlin Flanagan
22. The UN General Assembly laughs at the president. By Rachel Donadio
21. Rain stops Trump from honoring the dead. By Eliot A. Cohen. 
20. The president learns about separation of powers. By Russell Berman.
19. The president learns about the Justice Department. By Natasha Bertrand
18. The president lies constantly. By Angie Drobnic Holan
17. Trump threatens to press his “nuclear button”. By Uri Friedman
16. Public humiliation comes for everyone in the White House.By Alex Wagner
15. The CIA dead become a TV prop. By Vernon Loeb
14. You know you’re in a constitutional crisis when… By Quinta Jurecic
13. Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford to a cheering crowd. By McKay Coppins
12. A new term enters the presidential lexicon: “shithole countries”. By Ibram X. Kendi
11. Trump throws paper towels at Puerto Ricans. By Vann R. Newkirk II
10. “I have the absolute right to pardon myself”. By Garrett Epps
9. Covfefe. By Adrienne LaFrance
8. The president calls his porn-star ex-paramour “horseface”. By Sophie Gilbert
7. Trump picks the wrong countries for his travel ban. By Hannah Giorgis
6. Trump declares war on black athletes. By Jemele Hill
5. James Comey is fired. By Benjamin Wittes
4.Putin and Trump talk without chaperones. By Franklin Foer
3.The president still hasn’t released his tax returns. By Annie Lowrey
2.“Very fine people on both sides”. By Adam Serwer
1.Children are taken from their parents and incarcerated. By Ashley Fetters

Mealy-mouthed Republicans

Not the racists and white supremacists like Ted Cruz, Steve King and Tom Tancredo. Not the loud mouthed and fowl language tweeting president himself. Not at all, as our president would have it, the caravans of mostly women and children fleeing the widespread gang violence, joblessness and hunger in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States.

What we have to fear most is not even, as FDR would have it, fear itself. What we have most to fear are the mealy-mouthed Republican members of Congress, and especially the Senate who, while settled in their comfortable Washington DC homes, pretend to do the work of the Congress but so far have refused to be as the Constitution would have them a check on the other two branches of government, in particular on the Executive power of the president.

The result being that we have a president who pretty much does and says what he wants, and while doing so, the Muslim ban, the wall, the taking away of president Obama’s health and environmental protections, thereby revealing in spades his own ignorance of government, of history, and not just the history of this country. For example he doesn’t seem to know, let alone understand the most important single characteristic to be learned about us, that we are first and foremost a country of immigrants, of all colors, beliefs, ethnic origins. And that only the native Americans, those who are still alive anyway having survived the brutal several hundred year passage of the Europeans through their lands and sacred places, can claim a privilege of place, the real nationalists among us if you like.

By not speaking up against the president the Republicans of the Congress are allowing him by his words and actions to weaken if not undo the constitutional safe guards of our democracy. To weaken if not undo Enlightenment values such as individual rights, freedom, equality, tolerance of differences, the rule of law, the place of reason in our lives. In fact the tweets of the president might best be characterized as a triumph of unreason, of untruth.  And the Republicans seem to be swallowing them whole.

Mealy-mouthed? Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mike Pence (the President of the Senate), Chuck Grassley, John Thune, and just about all the other Republican Senators, even those recently elected (maybe the most Trumpist of all),  such as Rick Scott of Florida, even those who do speak out against Trump, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and a few others like them, but who when it comes to a significant vote that could change things for the better, vote with the president, finally even the most recently elected Mitt Romney, the figure whom I first heard described as mealy-mouthed.

These Republicans are timid, passive, submissive, without back-bone, so far kowtowing more or less completely to Donald Trump. Why are they doing this, and how long will it last, that the checks and balances, the three branches of the government as described in the Constitution, are no longer checking and balancing one another? And instead of the three branches we have the one, the executive, bullying the other two. That’s the big question that most depresses me, how long will it last, and what real damage to the country will have been done before it’s over?

 

SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

Jorge Ramos: Trump Is the Wall

It’s not just about a physical barrier. He wants to hang an “unwelcome” sign on a nation built by immigrants.

By Jorge Ramos

Mr. Ramos is an anchor for the Univision network and the author of “Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.”

Workers replaced sections of the border wall, left, with new sections, right, on Tuesday in Tijuana, Mexico.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Donald Trump wants more than a wall.

The president, once again, has created his own reality, manufactured a crisis, invented an invasion, criminalized immigrants, made up facts and, in a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, argued for a new wall at the United States-Mexico border. “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” he asked from the White House.

Mr. Trump is not the first president to ask for money for a wall. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush built fences and walls along the southern border. Barack Obama maintained the resulting system of roughly 700 miles of physical barriers. So why don’t we want Mr. Trump to build his wall? What is different?

The difference is that Mr. Trump’s wall is a symbol of hate and racism, it would be completely useless, and it does not address any national emergency.

The $5.7 billion requested by the Trump administration to build 234 more miles of walls and fences would be an enormous waste of time and money. Beginning with the first, 14-mile stretch of border fencing, built between San Diego and Tijuana in the early 1990s, undocumented immigrants have shown they can adapt very fast and move to areas with no border barriers. Deserts in Arizona and open areas along the Rio Grande in Texas are now a favorite point of entry. The same thing would happen with a new Trump wall.

We also know that almost half of all undocumented immigrants arrive by plane or with a visa. They come legally as tourists or visitors and simply overstay their visas. The tallest fence cannot stop that.

Nor would a new wall prevent the flow of illegal drugs entering the country, as Mr. Trump claimed in his speech. Most drug seizures happen at ports of entry. And as long as we have more than 28 million Americans regularly using illegal drugs, we will have drug dealers in Mexico and the rest of Latin America moving their products to the most profitable market in the world.

The White House claims that 4,000 suspected terrorists were arrested along the southern border last year. That is simply wrong: A vast majority were detained at airports. Just six were actually caught crossing illegally by foot.

I have recently traveled to the border in California and Texas, and I can report that contrary to what the president said in his speech, there is no invasion. The undocumented population has not grown in a decade; in fact it has fallen to 10.7 million. And despite the presence of violent drug cartels on the Mexican side, the American border towns are among the safest in the country.

What is undeniable is the humanitarian crisis in Tijuana. But it is a crisis created in part by Mr. Trump. Record numbers of desperate families, fleeing violence, corruption and extreme poverty, have been arriving in caravans to our southern border. Instead of their asylum requests being promptly processed, as established by international and United States laws, only a few are allowed in every day. This policy of cruelty by design has unjustly affected children and the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere. These refugees certainly do not pose a danger to our national security.

There is no need for a new wall — except, of course, in Mr. Trump’s mind. The closest he got to building his wall was in January 2018, when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then the White House unexpectedly walked away from the deal.

Would the Democrats revisit the offer? Luis Gutierrez, who recently retired from the House of Representatives after 26 years, once explained to me that it was like paying a ransom for a kidnapping. If the White House brings up the deal this time, it will put the Democrats in a moral dilemma: Protect the Dreamers — maybe including siblings and families — and, in the process, open the government. But the wall would be an essential element of any new deal.

It won’t be easy. It is no longer 2018. Things have changed dramatically. Democrats control the House and the wall has become toxic. And then, there is the racist thing.

The wall has become a metaphor to Mr. Trump and his millions of supporters. It represents a divide between “us” and “them,” a physical demarcation for those who refuse to accept that in just a few decades, a majority of the country will be people of color.

This is about more than just a wall. Mr. Trump promised it in 2015, in the same speech in which he announced his candidacy, the same speech in which he called Mexican immigrants rapists, criminals and drug traffickers. His goal was to exploit the anxiety and resentment of voters in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic society. Mr. Trump’s wall is a symbol for those who want to make America white again.

The chant “Build that wall, build that wall” became his hymn — and an insult not just to Latinos but also to all people who do not share his xenophobic ideals. The wall went from a campaign promise to a monument built on bigoted ideas. That is why most Americans cannot say yes to it. Every country has a right to protect its borders. But not to a wall that represents hate, discrimination and fear.

No, Mexico will not pay for the wall. And it seems Congress won’t either. But the concept of America as an unwelcoming country to immigrants and uncomfortable for minorities is already here.

In a way, Mr. Trump already got what he wanted. He is the wall.

Jorge Ramos is an anchor for the Univision network and the author of, most recently, “Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.”

HUIXTLA, Chiapas, Mexico — I’ve seen the ignorant, xenophobic rants on social media about the caravan. They’re terrorists in disguise. They’re criminals. They’re invaders. They’ve been sent to invade and destabilize the United States.

But in the main square of this small town in southern Mexico recently, all I could hear of the caravan were the children’s cries, and their laughter. Their faces — tired, surprised, innocent, anxious — are the best evidence against these claims by racist politicians and their supporters, propagating hatred.

Jorge Ramos

This Needs Context

“This Needs Context” from the NYTimes of January 9, 2019, the morning after the desecration of the Oval Office.

Have you heard this expression lately? Context lacking?  I read it a number of times just this morning while reading the Times (the Post also) accounts of last night’s speakers. What the president said was blatantly out of context, as in his case it almost always is.

For example, here’s the president;

“America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation, but all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages.” and the Times saying:

This needs context.

Some economists argue that immigrants drive down available jobs and wages for Americans only if they are competing for the same jobs as the domestic work force. In many cases, immigrants — legal or illegal — are seeking jobs that American citizens do not want to do. Kevin Hassett, the White House’s top economist, argued before joining the Trump administration that immigration spurs economic growth and that the United States should double its intake of immigrants.

Alan Rappeport

And then the President had this to say:

“Senator Chuck Schumer, who you will be hearing from later tonight, has repeatedly supported a physical barrier in the past, along with other Democrats.” 

This needs context.


Twenty-six Senate Democrats — including Mr. Schumer — voted for a 2006 law that authorized about 700 miles of fencing along the southwest border. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump characterized the 2006 legislation as inadequate, dismissing it as “such a little wall, it was such a nothing wall.”

As part of his campaign, Mr. Trump promised to build a 1,000-mile concrete border wall. He sometimes calls the wall a fence, though he has also rejected suggestions that it is a fence.

— Linda Qiu 

And then just one more example of the president’s words last night : 

“Every week 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across our southern border.”

This needs context.

Most heroin smuggled into the United States does come through the southwest border, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest National Drug Threat Assessment report.

Fentanyl is a narcotic that is used to treat severe pain and is a key contributor the opioid crisis. It is also sometimes mixed with heroin.

But most fentanyl enters the United States from packages mailed directly from China through traditional ports of entry, according to the report, and through Canada from China. A lower-potency, lower-cost grade of fentanyl is also smuggled across the southwest border from Mexico. The fentanyl directly from China is far more lucrative for sellers because of its higher purity. The fentanyl sent through conventional mail packages has proved difficult for law enforcement to detect. Fentanyl coming from Mexico is often hidden in automobile compartments, much like conventional drug smuggling.

The president’s opioids commission reported last November that “we are losing this fight predominately through China.”

— Michael Tackett

Now the three examples above were all taken from a Times article this morning, “the morning after”, and they are telling us with understatement that the president’s words are in need of context. And “context,” meaning in these cases “history,” is what the words of this president, who tells us he doesn’t read, are almost always without. Trump is not really in the hotel and golf course business but in the business of making unsupported statements, that is, statements entirely without context, to persuade his base, the “thinking” of his base also being no less without historical knowledge.

Now those of us who think about these things, not Hélas! his evangelical heavy base who seem to no longer be thinking, have realized for a long time that this president is not qualified to be in the Oval Office. Upon hearing him speaking from that office yesterday evening it should be clear to everyone that he doesn’t belong there, in the Oval Office, let alone the White House. He is clearly an alien among us and ought not to be listened to but turned out, and turned out, impeached well before the 2020 election.

But yesterday evening, instead of turning him out our networks gave him a platform from which to speak his lies. One hopes that this august platform will not by itself persuade any of his listeners that he is speaking the truth and not simply making it up as he goes along, lying.

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Immigrants who were detained after crossing the border arrived at a bus station in McAllen, Tex., in June.Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Quotes

Robert Dallek

Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen is well established, as is his contempt for his predecessor and his habit of gleefully ridiculing opponents, regardless of their party affiliation. But rarely has the Trump administration offered such a striking display of embracing autocrats as friends and painting those at home with whom it disagrees as enemies.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 10.51.28 am

“It’s such a break with the tradition that you unify the country against opposition abroad, and you act with a certain decorum in dealing with opponents at home,” said the presidential historian Robert Dallek. “There seems to be none of that in this administration.”

 

Jin Park

“John Rawls concentrated on one crucial question: How can a society establish just institutions when there are seemingly irreconcilable differences among its members? He argues that we must recognize first and foremost all those who stand among us and who therefore must be treated fairly.”

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Jin Park, recent graduate of Harvard and Rhodes Scholar.

 

Donald Trump (at Wagner College in Staten Island in May 2004)

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“I’ll tell you, to me, the second-most important thing after love what you do is never, ever give up,” Trump told the students, motioning his hands and raising his index finger the same way he does at campaign rallies today. “Don’t give up. Don’t allow it to happen. If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it. Go over it. Go around it. But get to the other side of that wall.”

 

Yuval Noah Harari  (Homo Deus. The New Human Agenda)

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For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack. 

Elizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson, 2239 Angell Hall.

People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies.
(Anderson is the chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy and a champion of the view that equality and freedom are mutually dependent, …)

Irving Berlin

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them. This implied that freedom and equality were bound together in some way beyond the basic state of being unenslaved, which was an unorthodox notion. Much social thought is rooted in the idea of a conflict between the two. If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality.

John Gray

“Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.” It exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.

Jim Wright

“The United States Treasury has taken in MANY billions of dollars from the Tariffs we are charging China and other countries that have not treated us fairly. In the meantime we are doing well in various Trade Negotiations currently going on. At some point this had to be done!”
This is an astoundingly ignorant statement. Particularly from a man who is supposed to have a degree in economics from one of the leading business schools in America. First: Many billions. Trump says “MANY billions. “What does that mean? How much is many? Two billion? Ten? A hundred? Surely somebody in the Treasury Department must be able to provide a figure? Somebody at Customs and Border Protection surely must have an exact number, after all, CBP is responsible for collecting those tariffs and remitting them to the Treasury. There must be some paperwork? Receipts? Something. Somebody at the Department of Commerce perhaps? Since this would be a big aspect of their job?
I mean, SOMEBODY has to know.

Christian Winter

As I’ve been informed, Trump supposedly understands international trade better than any previous president of the US. Is this factual?
No. His ideas about international trade are pre-cold war. The world has changed. The new world economy is not about trade wars and tariffs but about free trade and win-win scenarios. He said so himself, his techniques are the same he used 30 years ago*. But since he is incapable and unwilling to learn new things and surrounds himself with lickspittles, he hasn’t learned anything new since then. He also does not believe in win-win scenarios. He believes in a zero sum game. He feels that if he did not manage to screw the other over, he has lost.

Ashurnasirpal II

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An account of the King’s punishments meted out to rebels around 870 BCE  In Ashurnasirpal’s own words:  “I built a tower over against his city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the tower with their skin. Some I walled up within the tower, some I impaled upon the tower on stakes, and others I bound to stakes around the tower…Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pile of the living and another of heads, and I hung their heads from tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned up in the fire. Twenty men I captured alive and I walled them up in his palace…The rest of the warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert.” From Ian Morris, Why the West Rules, for Now.

 

Jack Holmes on Tonight’s Trumpian Propaganda Circus

The Media Is Dangerously Unequipped to Deal with Tonight’s Trumpian Propaganda Circus

The president’s speech on the border “crisis” and The Wall will likely be completely detached from reality. We’re not up to the challenge of covering it live.

BY JACK HOLMES.  JAN 8, 2019

Around 1823, according to legend, a boy named William Webb Ellis was playing soccer at the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, when he decided to just pick up the ball and run with it. Sure, this violated the one most essential rule of soccer—don’t use your hands—but it was way easier, and must have granted him an immediate advantage over his opponents. After all, they were stuck using their feet. That is, until rugby became an entirely new game in itself, one with new rules and a whole new level of hard-nosed brutality.

The myth came to mind Monday after I read a tweet from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who has followed pretty much every word that Donald Trump, American president, has produced over the last two years. He wondered the following about Trump’s upcoming speech about the supposed “crisis” on the southern border.

This is quite simply amazing. Having dutifully fact-checked thousands upon thousands of Donald Trump’s public statements as president of this country—and found more than 7,600 were false, including 15 per day in 2018—Kessler still believes the president is concerned with whether something he says is or isn’t true. This is Charlie Brown with the football—or like chasing William Webb Ellis around the field, whistling and shouting, “Handball!”

Donald Trump is not playing soccer. He probably never has. The president does not believe in the concept of truth—the idea that there are things we can empirically learn about the world through observation and the scientific method, and that these facts come together to form a framework known as objective reality. For Trump, the truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe. What he wants people to believe is whatever is most useful to him right now. When called on this, he fights back hard—never producing evidence—or abandons the claim and pretends it never happened. Never does he admit there is a reality we all inhabit whose contours he can’t mold to his personal benefit.

On The Apprentice, he would occasionally fire the week’s best-performing contestant because he didn’t much know what was going on and didn’t care. The show’s producers would then have to reverse-engineer reality to accommodate this new conclusion. The same happens each day in the White House, as aides scramble to explain some evidence-free nonsense he’s tweeted—a conclusion in search of jerry-rigged justification. For his whole life in privately held business, Trump was above accountability because his minions would simply make his visions real—until, of course, the business went bankrupt. There were no voters or shareholders to answer to. And even in those lowest moments, he would always personally skate by, inventing new worlds for himself to escape into.

Many in The Mainstream Media think of themselves as referees of The Discourse. They throw on the zebra stripes each morning and call fair and foul. They are neutral, disinterested, scrupulously unbiased. This is, in itself, a bit tenuous. It would seem to fly in the face of the fact that media people are human beings who often know the most about current events. The idea they do not have opinions, or that those opinions do not at least subliminally impact their decisions—what issues or public figures to cover, how to frame that coverage, which voices they allow to weigh in—requires more evidence than is often supplied.

The problem now is not so much that candidates are getting boxed out, but that the media is running around the field whistling at people who are not playing their game. Most big-time journalists are used to being able to classify some things as false—and some things as radical or unrealistic—and pulling their subjects back to the game we all agreed to play. Trump and his allies simply do not believe the rules apply to them. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Sunday that many of the 4,000 terrorist suspectsa loose term in the first place—captured trying to enter the United States illegally were found at the southern border. According to Customs and Border Protection, the number is 6.

These people are not interested in what is happening in the world, only what they can get away with saying to benefit themselves politically. All politicians lie, but this is an administration—and a supportive right-wing media ecosystem—entirely untethered from reality. Far too many in the media establishment seem to think they are dealing with a very rude president and his roguish staff—not a man with nakedly authoritarian tendencies who has no regard for the norms and rules of democracy, including the idea we should base our debates and our decisions on facts about the world. They are trying to perform the role of Neutral Arbiter, a tough one in the best of times, and getting run over by a ball-carrier playing a whole new game. Which brings us to the upcoming festivities of this Tuesday night.

President Trump announced via tweet Monday that he would deliver an Oval Office address tonight concerning the “crisis” at our southern border, and the need to Build The Wall. This event is based on an entire architecture of false premises. First and foremost, illegal border crossings are down significantly in recent years. In 2000, 1.6 million people were apprehended trying to cross. In 2001, 1.3 million were. In 2017, 310,000 were. In 2018, it was up slightly to 400,000.

The steep decline is mostly due to the recession, which contracted the economy and job opportunities up here. In 2017, Trump’s immigration crackdown may have discouraged some people. But moreover, the net flow into the U.S. is around zero, or even negative. The “caravans” of relatively small numbers of people from Central America are primarily made up of people seeking an asylum hearing—as is their right under international law—on the basis they are fleeing violence and persecution. In another time, we might call them refugees.

migrant-1546964401A Honduran child and her mother, fleeing poverty and violence in their home country, waits along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the U.S. on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas.

Then there is Trump’s solution. The Wall will not stop the significant share of undocumented immigrants who arrive at airports and overstay their visas. Planes go over The Wall. No one serious believes it will stop the flow of drugs. It will be a legal and logistical nightmare to build, requiring the government to seize private land—and reservation land from Native Americans—and disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats.

It will be extremely expensive (even the $5.7 billion Trump would get in his dreams is not nearly enough to finish it) and, again, not particularly effective—except as a monument to White America’s resentment of the changing world outside.

The actual crisis of the moment is the government shutdown, which Trump single-handedly caused and for which he once readily accepted the blame in a televised meeting with Democratic leaders. Trump was ready to sign a funding bill Congress had settled on to keep government open that did not have Wall funding, but then he got chewed out by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and the rest of the right-wing punditocracy. It was, after all, his campaign promise, an idea he likely got from talk radio anyway—another conclusion in search of evidence. Who cares if he has to subvert democracy in order to live up to a promise for once?

Because there is nothing worse for Donald Trump than people saying bad things about Donald Trump on the teevee, he went nuclear and refused to sign any bill that didn’t have funding for The Wall—an initiative that has been rejected by the majority of the American public. If you don’t believe the polls, look at the 2018 midterms, in which Trump went full propaganda about The Caravan and the border and The Wall and got absolutely trounced. This is not Washington Swamp-Dwellers subverting the will of the people. He has no mandate to build this thing.

Now, Trump has floated declaring a state of emergency, an action that grants the executive vast powers which he and his lackeys believe include seizing taxpayer money that has not been appropriated by Congress to build a wall. This appears nakedly unconstitutional, and would almost certainly face a court challenge.

But more to the point, declaring a state of emergency to respond to an entirely fabricated crisis is dangerously authoritarian behavior. Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen went to Congress yesterday evening to get Republicans there on board with this treacherous scam. My colleague, Charles P. Pierce, suggested yesterday it might be time to “start fireproofing the Reichstag.” More recently, one thinks of the questions swirling around a failed “coup” against Turkey’s authoritarian President Erdogan, after which he consolidated his power further. Chaos is a ladder, and all that—especially when you create it yourself.

So the current crisis is completely manufactured and potentially dangerous to the republic. But just as when Trump deployed active-duty military on U.S. soil to combat a nonexistent “invasion” at the southern border in the closing stretch of the 2018 midterms, the American establishment media is basically going along with this as normal. No one often mentions that the crisis is not real. Afraid of being accused of bias by the right-wing, which will always accuse them of bias, many of our Neutral Referees are covering the process questions in all this. Will Congressional Republicans go along? (Yes.) We’re all getting dragged around again, just like with The Caravan and The Emails and The Ebola Panic.

But worst of all, all the major networks have announced they will carry this obvious propaganda live in primetime, ensuring the firehose of bullshit sprays as many Americans as possible.

“Hopefully surrounded by fact-checking,” Brian Stelter says. He works for CNN, which was among the first to announce it will carry the speech—and will, almost certainly, host Rick Santorum before and after on its patented Debate Panels. They will likely not, as journalist Soledad O’Brien predicted on Twitter, feature many immigration experts or Hispanic commentators. But they will feature people like Santorum, whom CNN pays to defend the president no matter what he says. Will the networks fact-check the president in real-time, on-screen, during the speech? If not, he’s got a free bullhorn to blast out his racist propaganda. Stelter added later that the big networks will broadcast the Democratic response, but based on the State of the Union every year, how many people are going to watch the response—presumably delivered from a diner in Pennsylvania, or whatever?

It’s here where we might add that President Barack Obama sought to give a live, primetime speech on immigration in 2014—and the networks passed on the basis it would be too partisan. Surely, Trump’s won’t be partisan at all.

All this is eerily reminiscent of the Year of Our Lord 2016, of course. Before that election cycle, MSNBC was in fairly severe financial straits, and the future for CNN wasn’t particularly bright. The advertising model supporting digital and print media was beginning to crumble. And there, out of nothing, came a carnival barker, a true showman, who guaranteed the clicks and the eyeballs. All three cable networks would show an empty podium for long periods before a Trump rally, convening panels to discuss what crap he would soon spew, while other presidential candidates were actually on-stage elsewhere giving speeches.

Someday, assuming we get that far, all we media people will have to grapple with our role in promoting this vicious buffoon to the grandest stage because it generated cash in the short term. For what it’s worth, network executives are not doing any such reflection yet:

Everyone knows he’s going to lie constantly for the duration of the speech. Everyone knows they are spreading dangerous propaganda. And everyone knows it will get eyeballs. It’s great TV—just like the Dean Scream. So it goes ahead, with the phony excuse that Trump will criticize the networks as biased if they don’t. At this point, if you don’t understand that Trump and the right-wing will never stop criticizing mainstream outlets as insufficiently right-wing, you really need to get a grip. The attacks are not good-faith critiques of network programming. They are a constant, relentless attempt to drag the dialogue farther rightward.

And that brings us back to The Rules of the Game. Whatever game the fact-checkers and the network executives are playing, Trump and his allies ain’t playing it. The president is exploiting the corporate profit motive to glorious effect, knowing full well no TV producer worth his salt—or, more importantly, whose job security depends on ratings—will turn down a chance to air this nonsense extravaganza. They’ll go wall-to-wall, with a pregame panel and a postgame panel and analysis and commentary and questions like, How Will Democrats Respond? Does Nancy Pelosi Have to Come to the Table? Meanwhile, the fact that this entire thing is built on a foundation of complete and utter bullshit will rarely go mentioned.

It’s a new game now. You can pick up the ball! What, isn’t that handball? Let’s just run with it.

Hannah Arendt, Remembering W. H. Auden

January 20, 1975: “There was nothing more admirable in Auden than his complete sanity and his firm belief in sanity; in his eyes all kinds of madness were lack of discipline.”

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable. The moment poems of this kind are wrenched from their original abode, they disappear in a cloud of banality. Here all depends on the “fluent gestures” in “elevating facts from the prosaic to the poetic”—a point that the critic Clive James stressed in his essay on Auden in Commentary in December, 1973. Where such fluency is achieved, we are magically convinced that everyday speech is latently poetic, and, taught by the poets, our ears open up to the true mysteries of language. The very untranslatability of one of Auden’s poems is what, many years ago, convinced me of his greatness. Three German translators had tried their luck and killed mercilessly one of my favorite poems, “If I Could Tell You” (“Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957”), which arises naturally from two colloquial idioms—“Time will tell” and “I told you so”:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Much Ado About a Wall

Would that we could build a wall between Trump and the rest of us.

Trump would still make much of his wall. He had promised his people, that when elected he would build the wall (and that Mexico would pay for it). Now his people, Trump’s people, were then and now in their majority white evangelicals who did not want to lose their white skinned dominant presence in the country.

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Americans from central America, while also Americans, were dark skinned. Trump has held onto his white skinned base by promising to exclude the dark skins, the coloreds from the country, first the Moslems by executive order, and now the Central Americans by building the wall.

Our president does seem to think that walls are good things. He even went so far yesterday as to declare that walls are no less essential to our lives than are wheels. Is that true?

One might suggest to the president of this land (to the man who never stops reminding himself, “I’m president, and you’re not,”) that while wheels may take us places where we want to go,  walls are often the major obstacles along our way. I for one would hate to have to go through walls to get where I want to go. That was my experience in West Berlin in the summer of 1989.

Aren’t there enough separations between the people of this world? Do we really need or want more of them? Don’t we really need more bridges to others, those not at all like ourselves? And in fact the Americans by a large majority don’t want a Trump wall on our southern border. And furthermore it would take much more than a wall to stop peoples from coming here.

America is still the land of the free (and will be after Trump is gone) and the people have always come here to be free. Why would anyone want to change that now?

The migrants are no threat. They want only, as the millions of migrants who have preceded them, to be a contributing part of what we have here. And they have always contributed. And more often than not we have welcomed them.

And don’t we in fact live in an age of wall busters? Wasn’t it president Reagan, also a Republican but without the character defects of our 45th.president, who while visiting West Berlin said, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And, what seemed a miracle at the time, Gorby allowed the people of Berlin to tear it down themselves. And they did and everyone was happy, indeed joyful.

There will be no joy at all if Trump’s wall ever goes up. Pieces of the Berlin wall now decorate coffee tables in Berlin and elsewhere. We might best do that with pieces of Trump’s wall before it ever goes up.

Trump calls his wall necessary to protect our border, often using instead of wall the phrase “border security.” As if this country’s security ever came from its walls (other than in our gated communities of which no one is proud).

It hasn’t and it doesn’t, that is, our security. Trump may believe that all his talk of border security is valid, real, but even his base of followers probably doesn’t believe that. What they most likely believe is that Trump is protecting their white skins from the brown and black skins who would come here, as all migrants of past times, to find a life, and to be free and yes to change the country in accordance with who they are. It’s not about who we are.

Better than wheels Trump might have picked another  illustration, to back up his position, the Great Wall of China for example. For this wall like Trump’s wall was meant to stop “invaders” from the north. In our case, the invaders from the south being migrants from Honduras and Nicaragua and the lands and countries on our southern border.

Did China’s Great Wall succeed? I don’t know, but given the history of China it certainly didn’t keep China’s peoples “secure.” Perhaps only its emperors were kept secure, as Trump”s wall would secure Trump’s own place. For Trump’s wall is not really about border security but about Trump’s own security in the White House, now and in two years time, when he will be trying for a second term in the White House.

But Trump didn’t choose the Great Wall of China as an illustration of the legitimacy of his own southern wall. Instead, he chose as his illustration the walls of the Vatican, his choice being among other things, a response to the words of his critics, in particular Nancy Pelosi just elected as Speaker of House, who has rightly called any wall between us and the thousands of asylum seekers from Central America (and elsewhere) immoral, her comment providing Trump another one of his silly tweets, “What would you say, Nancy, that the Vatican with all its walls is immoral”?

Timothy Egan in today’s Times while speaking of Nancy Pelosi, says that she had the best line on the subject of the wall.
Nancy: “Trump’s now down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something.”  And Timothy: “Not bad, Nancy. Keep it up.”

Trump has most of all managed to get where he is today by adopting as true, the cliché versions of hundreds of seeming and probably popular truths, most of which would go on to become his what are really “cliché’  truths, such as “Make America Great Again, Put America First, Build the Wall, Lock Her Up…. ” These being the words spoken and making up the substance of Trump’s endless campaign rallies.

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By constant repetition, and by monopolizing these “cliché truths” as if they were of his own invention (they’re not, in use at least since the popularizers of Ancient Greece and Rome) Trump has successfully  turned his base followers into an army of fanatical supporters, those who made him president in 2016 and those who will probably do so once again in 2020 if the Democrats do nothing to stop him.

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Homo Erectus, one million years before Adam and Eve


Kurt Bengtson
, studied Archaeology at Stockholm University (1988)

A million years ago the dominant hominid species were Homo Erectus (Homo Ergaster in Africa). It is probably the hominid species with the longest lifespan. From its first appearance 1,8 mya until about 140.000 years ago when a small population still existed in and around Java. It was the first human to wander outside the African continent. It was the first human to learn how to control fire. They were also the first true human hunters. Their predecessor, Homo Habilis, used tools but did not really hunt; it scavenged recently dead prey with sharp tools and took meat and hides. But they never used spears while Homo Erectus did.

So, one milion years ago, Homo Erectus was a typical hunter-gatherer. He was still not as tall as later relatives would be, between 1,45 and 1,85 m. A typical male perhaps 1, 60–1,70 m in general and a female 1,50–1,60 m. His weight between 40 kg and 75. They had developed fire and used it for many purposes. Cooking fires are seen in the archaeological finds from approximately 1,4 mya. Fire was also a protection from bigger predators and could be used as a help in hunting (if they actually used fire for hunting purposes is very difficult to prove but there certainly is a possibility). Their bigger bodies (than Habilis) needed more food to sustain them and give them energy. Given their stature they were probably effective runners with a good stamina. They could not run as fast as their prey but they could run for a longer time than their prey. This kind of hunting demands social communication to be really effective. Some reconstruction of their skulls suggest that the area where social communication is lodged in the brain were developed and they probably used both signs and speech to communicate.

There is also proof that they took care of each other. Elderly individuals have been found, one whose teeth had fallen out long before he died. He had to have help to survive and the community he lived in gave it to him. Though they took care of their tribe members there is no evidence of burials. That is not to say that they did not do it, only that we can’t prove that they did.

Erectus’ spreading pattern around the globe suggest that he was not adjusted for a colder climate. Proof of clothing is absent and he keeps himself to Africa, southern Asia and possibly southern Spain. The first proof of clothing we have come from his relative Homo Heidelbergensis (about 0,7 mya) which did move further north (Germany).

Below is a possible reconstruction of a campsite. They used caves or overhangs but could do without too. Fire was a powerful protector.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité