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Jeb Bush is done.

At the moment, he’s in fifth in South Carolina, trailing John Kasich, whose campaign put out a statement saying it’s become a “four-person race.” (It’s not.) Bush came in sixth in Iowa. He came in fourth in New Hampshire. He invested a lot in South Carolina, dragging his brother out onto the campaign trail even though it would have come back to haunt him if he made it to the general election. And he’s polling dead last in Nevada. 

There are several reasons why his campaign never caught fire. He was a bad candidate. The base was in no mood for an establishment choice. And Donald Trump simply took over the race. To the credit of the Republican electorate, at least there is no desire to put another Bush in office.

Update: Bush has officially dropped out of the race. What a world.

June 25, 2018

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Trump escalates with an attack on Maxine Waters.

In an event on Saturday, California congresswoman Maxine Waters advocated the harassment of Trump administration officials. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,” she said. “And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” She added: “The people are going to turn on them. They’re going to protest. They’re going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they’re going to tell the President, ‘No, I can’t hang with you.’”

Waters words were ambiguously worded and she should have made clear that she was calling for non-violent protests. For that reason, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized Waters comments in a tweet.

On Monday, President Donald Trump pushed beyond the ambiguity and escalated the controversy with his own twitter response:

Trump’s tweet combined racism (“low IQ person”) with a conflation of verbal harassment with “harm.” He also falsely claims Waters was calling on a campaign against Trump’s supporters, as opposed to Trump administration officials. The final sentence of the tweet seemed to be an implied threat.

Trump supporters are picking up on the implications of the tweet and circulating Waters’ home address:

Whatever criticisms one can make of Waters’ original comments, the president is ratcheting up hostility in a way that could lead to violence.

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Angela Merkel is lucky to have Trump as an enemy.

While the president has criticized regime-change foreign policies carried out by his predecessors, Trump himself isn’t above trying to unseat a hostile government. Last Thursday, The Huffington Post gathered evidence suggesting that Trump and his ideological allies in Washington had a concerted effort to use the current German political crisis to drive German Chancellor Angela Merkel from power.

“President Donald Trump’s attacks on Twitter against German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week provided the clearest evidence yet of a sprawling American campaign to undermine her,” The Huffington Post argued. “Merkel now has to contend with not only local opponents but also a network of influential anti-immigrant Americans and other international activists inspired by Trump and similar illiberal leaders, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.” America’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has been particularly active in this effort to, in his own words, “empower” populist forces.

Working to defeat the government of a democratically elected country is not without precedent, particularly in the Cold War era. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy worked hard to oust the Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, seen as too resistant to America’s hawkish foreign policy. Still, Kennedy worked covertly, while Trump, as his his tendency, is bluntly obvious about his goal.

Trump is so unpopular in Germany that his opposition to Merkel is strengthening her. “Chancellor Merkel still has an approval rating of 64 percent; she is by far Germany’s most respected politician,” novelist Jagoda Marinic notes in The New York Times. “And she’s on an upswing: People here love the idea of her standing up to Mr. Trump — she got a boost after a photo of her towering over him at the G-7 summit went viral.” This parallels the recent rise in popularity of another politician who sparred with Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The problem with Trump’s regime change agenda is that to work he needs the soft power of that comes with popularity. Domestically, he still has some of that power since the Republican Party is still loyal to him. But abroad, the agenda of “America First” is, for obvious reasons, a hard sell.

It’s mostly legal for Walgreens pharmacists to deny people drugs on ethical grounds.

An Arizona pharmacist’s refusal to fill a prescription for an abortion-inducing drug is casting renewed attention on so-called “conscience clauses.” The patient, Nicole Arteaga, had obtained a prescription for misoprostol to terminate a non-viable pregnancy. She wrote in a Facebook post that when she went to her local Walgreens to fill the prescription last Thursday, the pharmacist who waited on her asked her if she was pregnant, then refused to fill the prescription for her after she answered in the affirmative.

The New York Times reports:

“I stood at the mercy of this pharmacist explaining my situation in front of my 7-year-old, and five customers standing behind only to be denied because of his ethical beliefs,” she wrote, adding, “I left Walgreens in tears, ashamed and feeling humiliated by a man who knows nothing of my struggles but feels it is his right to deny medication prescribed to me by my doctor.”

Representatives for Walgreens tweeted that the chain allows pharmacists to refuse to fill certain prescriptions as a matter of conscience, though they are required to refer patients to another pharmacist who will fill the prescription instead. According to Arteaga, this didn’t happen; the chain is investigating her claim.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly legal for Walgreens pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, as long as they make a referral. But as Arteaga’s story demonstrates, conscience clauses can place a heavy burden on patients, who experience humiliation and inconvenience when a pharmacist refuses to fill a legal prescription.

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Donald Trump’s tweeting is a major gift to the ACLU.

Forced by public outrage to partially backtrack on his policy of zero-tolerance for border crossers, the president has been trying to figure out other ways to push his nativist agenda. To that end, he’s ramped up his propaganda efforts, on Friday holding a public event to call attention to, in his own words, “the American victims of illegal immigration.” On Sunday the president tweeted:

Aside from the obvious xenophobia and scare-mongering of these tweets, Trump is making an unforced legal error that will be used against him in future court cases. Organizations like the ACLU and legal experts could barely contain themselves from noting that Trump’s call for treating undocumented immigrants as if they had no legal rights is blatantly unconstitutional:

These tweets will almost certainly be used in courts to challenge the Trump administration’s immigration policy, just as earlier Trump tweets on the Muslim ban have been. However effective Trump’s tweets are as propaganda, they also continue to be a self-inflicted legal wound.

June 23, 2018

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Does criticizing Trump make his base like him more?

In an in-depth piece published Saturday, Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters argued that criticisms of President Trump only make Republicans who have doubts about the president like him more. His opening example was Gina Anders, a Virginia resident. “Gina Anders knows the feeling well by now,” Peters began. “President Trump says or does something that triggers a spasm of outrage. She doesn’t necessarily agree with how he handled the situation. She gets why people are upset.” Using Anders as an example only makes sense if she’s a persuadable voter who could, potentially, leave the Republican Party. But as several critics pointed out on Twitter, Anders is in fact a right-wing activist with a history of supporting confederate monuments, the Tea Party and Ron Paul. In other words, it’s hardly surprising that she’s sticking with Donald Trump.

Responding to these critiques, Peters tweeted:

This answer seems less than satisfying given the ample evidence that Ron Paul libertarianism was a gateway to Trumpism.

These sorts of debates regarding descriptions of voters in stories have happened before. Just a week before Peters’ article, S.E. Cupp wrote in the Times describing Wisconsin resident Amy Maurer as the type of woman “the Clinton campaign aimed ads at.” The article had to be revised to include the correction that “Ms. Maurer is a Republican Party official in Kenosha County; that information should have been included with her comments.” Another article in The New York Post has similarly fudged Maurer’s partisan affiliation to make the same point.

At issue here is the risk of misreading the political landscape. The voters who are sticking with Trump are hard-core partisans like Anders and Maurer. But there might be another class of marginal Republicans who are wavering in their commitment or who have abandoned the party altogether. Deep in his article, Peters notes, “There is some evidence that Mr. Trump’s base of support may have shrunk slightly, though. In recent polls from Gallup and Morning Consult, the numbers of people who identified as Republicans were about 2 percentage points smaller than they were in early 2017.” It might be more illuminating to interview those who are leaving the Republican Party to figure out who the real persuadable voters are.

The danger of focusing on hardened militants is that it makes it seem like there are few if any persuadable voters. That was the lesson I myself hastily drew, until I received a useful rebuttal from The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent:

Given the depth of partisan polarization documented in these articles, it’s tempting to fall back on the idea that parties should focus their energy on mobilizing the base. The more intriguing possibility, as Sargent points out, is that while die-hard voters on either side are tough converts, there’s a broad middle band of voters politicians might focus on reaching.

June 22, 2018


Is “family values” conservatism dead?

The harshness of the Trump administration’s policy on separating migrant children from their parents has led some analysts to proclaim the death of family values conservatism. Writing in Slate, Neil J. Young argues that the rhetorical force of family values, already on the wane given conservative culture war defeats on issues like marriage equality, is now irreparably damaged. “And it’s hard to imagine that ‘family values’ talking points can survive much longer while those who long ranted that the federal government was seeking to ‘destroy the family’ sit silently as it literally rips families apart,” Young contends.

Alex Wagner of The Atlantic also sees the family separation crisis as a defining moment. The relative silence of Republicans, she argues is “the measure of how thoroughly Trump has redefined his party—and how far he has inverted its commitment to family values.” What has replaced family values, Wagner adds, “white nationalism, which deems brown-skinned men, women, and children of degraded humanity—and therefore absent any inherent value and unworthy of protection.”

Both Young and Wagner are describing a genuine shift, but their conclusions are premature. After all, there is no sign that modern conservatism is giving up the fight against abortion or LGBT rights.

It’s true that there has been a move away from the language of “family values” which first gained traction as a reaction to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Feeling under increasing siege, conservative Christians have shifted their discourse away from family values to the more defensive posture of protecting “religious freedom.” The same bunker mentality has also led the religious right to make some strange alliances, including supporting a Playboy President and even a pimp running for the Nevada state Senate seat.

In their defensive state, the religious right and conservatives in general have also become more candid about describing the world in us-versus-them terms. To be sure, some element of racial animus was always a part of the “family values” brew. As Young notes:

In truth, “family values” has always had this racialized edge. As religious conservatives accused the federal government of attacking the family through public education, the Equal Rights Amendment, and gay rights, they were also actively backing federal programs, from harsher sentencing for drug crimes to “workfare” legislation, that fell heavily on black and brown families. In this way, what is taking place at the southern border falls not only in the long American history of separating nonwhite families but also sits squarely in the tradition of how “family values” conservatives have used the federal government to punish families who didn’t look like their own.

Following the rule of the Trump era, what was once subtext has now become text. The “family” of family values was always implicitly assumed to be white, suburban American families. Those are the families that were being defended, with other types of families being secondary.

“Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” Fox News host said on Friday morning. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country.” Kilmeade here lays out the underlying logic of the contemporary right: family values, yes, but remember that some families are more important than others.

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Evangelicals boldly back ex-pimp for state senator in Nevada.

Dennis Hof, owner of a strip club and five brothels as well as author of the book The Art of the Pimp, is on track to becoming a state senator in Nevada, thanks in part to support from evangelicals. Hof won the Republican party’s nomination in a seat that is safely GOP.

Victor Fuentes, an evangelical pastor, is among the holy rollers who are backing the flesh-peddling politician. “People want to know how an evangelical can support a self-proclaimed pimp,” Fuentes told Reuters. “We have politicians, they might speak good words, not sleep with prostitutes, be a good neighbor. But by their decisions, they have evil in their heart. Dennis Hof is not like that.”

Hof himself credits president Donald Trump for opening politics to pimps. “Trump is the trailblazer,” Hof enthuses. “He is the Christopher Columbus of honest politics.” The procurer added that “I’m kind of rich, I’m kind of famous, and I’m surrounded by hot chicks. I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me.” Hof has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault—one claiming he “raped and battered [her] daily.” Hof denies those accusations.

Pimps and preachers might seem to be natural enemies. But as a historical matter they have frequently been united a common patriarchy. Hof’s brothels exist to serve male pleasure, just as many evangelical churches teach that the household must be run at the pleasure of the man. Trump himself has shown that having a Playboy lifestyle is compatible with being the hero to countless white evangelical Christians. Trumpism appeals to those who want to shore up besieged patriarchy, a stance that brings sexual machos and a certain segment of the pious under the same roof.

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President Trump sees immigration as a defense issue.

The Washington Post is reporting that the White House wants to move funds allocated to the Coast Guard to immigration control. This comes on the heel of Pentagon leaks revealing that the administration also plans on using military bases to house as many as 20,000 migrant children. (Something Obama did on a smaller scale—7,000—in 2014.) According to a report in The New York Times, “The 20,000 beds at bases in Texas and Arkansas would house ‘unaccompanied alien children,’ said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael Andrews, although other federal agencies provided conflicting explanations about how the shelters would be used and who would be housed there.”

Both policy moves, however chaotic and inchoate they might still be, are outgrowths of a larger fact about the Trump administration’s foreign policy: the president sees immigration as one of America’s major foreign policy challenges, one that falls under the purview of the military. Unlike Obama’s use of military bases, this policy fits solidly within the trend line of Trump’s broader vision, including using a military budget for a border wall or using the military until such a wall could be built. Viewing migrants as a threat is part and parcel of Trump’s larger unilateralist vision, with its drawing back from traditional alliances and push for trade war.

Trump wants to create a fortress America. To do so, the United States has to shift resources from protecting allies. Hence Trump’s eagerness to make a deal with North Korea that would include ending military exercises. Also tied to this global withdrawal is his weakening of the Atlantic alliance, evidenced by his constant passive-aggressive denigration of NATO and accusations that traditional allies are exploiting the United States.

While Trump has no grand strategy, he does have consistent instincts. Those instincts include the gut belief that America’s security depends on focusing on the alleged problem of immigration and scaling back global commitments. These are two prongs of the same underlying agenda.

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Is Melania Trump having a Britney Spears moment?

There have been so many baffling moments in this presidency that it would seem fruitless to single out one moment as more baffling than the rest; it is as if the country is in a constant fugue state, losing its grasp on what it is. But there was something about the latest controversy surrounding Melania Trump—in which she wore an army fatigue coat emblazoned with the inscription “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” to visit detained immigrant children in Texas—that was so mystifying that it scaled new heights of strange. If we accept the premise that she wore the coat on purpose (and in this hyper-image-conscious age, how could it be otherwise?), then why did she do it? Does she, simply, not care about children separated from their families? Quite possibly. Was it a message to the “fake news media,” as her husband claimed? Probably not. Was it a coded cry for help, the latest in a shadow campaign to “free Melania”? Well, she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Part of the mystery springs from Melania herself, who is even more unknowable than the average celebrity, not only sheathed in her high cheekbones and glistening skin and oversized sunglasses, but also obscured by the bloodless way she goes about the usual duties of the first lady. What does Melania Trump care about? What are her desires? Who is she, really? No one outside her inner circle can say with any certainty, which leads to wildly different interpretations of her actions. She hates her husband; no, she’s his willing accomplice. She is a simple, decent woman caught up in a life she never wanted; no, she’s a greedy vixen who thinks only of preserving her own wealth and status. She had a procedure to treat her kidney; no, she had plastic surgery. She is so inscrutable, so much like a wax model, that a leading conspiracy suggested that Melania had a body double stand in for her at an event in October.

She is, in other words, a blank canvas, and what we make of Melania says as much about ourselves as it does her. And perhaps, to throw yet another theory out there, that is what the coat was a response to. At a certain point the celebrity loses control of her identity—she becomes the outlandish amalgamation of what the media and the public have pieced together. In extreme cases, such as when Britney Spears shaved her hair or when Shia LaBeouf wore a bag over his head that read “I am not famous anymore,” the celebrity strikes at her own image, which is no longer hers. It is a way of saying: I am still here.

What’s intriguing is that the image Melania has shattered is that of the first lady she is supposed to be: regal, dignified, compassionate, motherly. It was a $39 coat from Zara, faux-spray-painted, consumer trash. The first part of the message was heartless, the second part—“DO U?”—pure cynicism. She seems to be saying, with the force of a scream, I am not a first lady. But then, in this surreal presidency, we already had that sense.

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Donald Trump deserves the title of Editorial Consultant at National Enquirer.

It’s long been known that the president loves to cultivate the tabloid press and has a relationship with David Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc. (AMI), which owns National Enquirer and many other supermarket periodicals. But a new article in The Washington Post adds many more details to our knowledge of this relationship. “During the presidential campaign, National Enquirer executives sent digital copies of the tabloid’s articles and cover images related to Donald Trump and his political opponents to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen in advance of publication,” the Post reports. “Although the company strongly denies ever sharing such material before publication, these three individuals say the sharing of material continued after Trump took office.”

Trump and his cronies would, it appears, often tweak the Enquirer’s coverage, in ways small (suggesting alternative photos) and big (advocating story ideas). In particular, Trump encouraged the tabloid in 2016 to cover the health of his opponent Hillary Clinton. In September 2015, the Enquirer ran a story saying Hillary Clinton had six months to live. (Nearly three years later, Clinton still walks the earth).

Of course, since National Enquirer is a purveyor of “fake news” (to use one of Trump’s favorite phrases) it could be argued that the impact of these stories was minimal. But the Enquirer connection is important because it’s a prime example of one of the hallmarks of Trumpism, the tendency to blur the lines between truth and fiction to create an enveloping unreality that hampers criticism of the president.

The Enquirer link is also vital to ongoing investigations into the role Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney, played in covering up stories. As the Post reports, the FBI is trying to unravel the threads connecting Cohen with AMI, Pecker, and Dylan Howard, the chief content officer of the Enquirer:

An FBI raid executed April 8 on Cohen’s office and residences sought all of the lawyer’s records of communications with AMI, Pecker and Howard regarding two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump while he was married, according to three people familiar with the investigation. The search warrant served on Cohen also sought all communications he had with Trump or the Trump campaign about any “negative publicity” that might arise during the presidential race, according to a person familiar with investigators’ work. The warrant sought all his communication about an embarrassing “Access Hollywood” tape that surfaced in October 2016, weeks before the election.