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“Welcome to Cuba! We like you!”

That seems to be the general response to President Barack Obama’s historic visit, which has been seen as heralding a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. The Obamas spent a rainy Sunday evening strolling around Old Havana, which had been heavily cordoned in preparation for their visit. Today, the president will lay a wreath at a monument to José Martí, a 19th-century independence hero, at the Plaza of the Revolution, before receiving an official welcome from Cuban President Raul Castro at the Revolutionary Palace.

June 25, 2018

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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.


Charles Krauthammer was a crucial New Republic voice for nearly a quarter century. RIP.

When Krauthammer wrote his first article for The New Republic in 1979, he was a Jimmy Carter–supporting liberal. When he wrote his last piece in 2003, he was one of America’s most prominent conservative columnists, the most forceful advocate for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and the larger strategy of democracy promotion in the Middle East. Over that time, Krauthammer went through a dramatic political change—one that was characteristic of his generation, but which also marked an important chapter in the history of this magazine and of American liberalism.

Krauthammer became an editor at TNR in 1981, at the start of a decade where the magazine was often at war with itself. The ’80s weren’t just the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but of the reinvention of liberalism under the pressures of a now-dominant right. TNR, under the alternating tenure of Michael Kinsley and Hendrik Hertzberg, was a forum where competing strands of the liberalism battled for dominance. One faction of the magazine, led by Hertzberg, was robustly social democratic and distrustful of military adventurism. The rival faction, whose most eloquent voice was Krauthammer, was moving away from Cold War liberalism and toward a nascent neoconservatism.

Foreign policy was Krauthammer’s dominant passion, and the struggle against Soviet Communism drew him away from his youthful liberalism. Although he worked as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in 1980, he came to distrust the Democrats as too dovish. After the Cold War, he continued to believe that American global hegemony was crucial for creating a better world. His 1991 essay “The Lonely Superpower” is critical for understanding the worldview of the American foreign policy elite in the years to come. With the clarity and force that graced all his writing, Krauthammer laid out a case for American foreign policy activism during a “unipolar moment”:

I would much have preferred that after the long twilight struggle America enjoy the respite from toil and danger to which it is richly entitled. Alas, there is no end to toil, and it is not just naive but dangerous to pretend otherwise. Even after the defeat of the Soviet threat, we face a highly dangerous new world from which there is no escape. Our best hope for safety in such times, as in difficult times past, is in American strength and will: the strength to recognize the unipolar world and the will to lead it.

Given his belief in America’s responsibility to dominate the globe, it was not surprising that he would be one of the most influential advocates for the post-9/11 attempt to remake the Middle East. He staked his considerable credibility on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.

Since the rise of Donald Trump in 2016, much of the Republican Party has rejected Krauthammer’s brand of neoconservate internationalism. Where he wanted America to take up the burden of global leadership, Trump has argued for unilateral nationalism. This provoked the final political shift in Krauthammer’s life, when he refused to vote for the Republican nominee.*

There’s much in Krauthammer’s work to argue with, but no denying the ample testimonies of his personal kindness nor his bravery in rebuilding his life after a swimming-pool accident left him paralyzed him below the waist when he was 22 years old.

He was equally brave in facing death. Rest in peace, Charles Krauthammer.

*This article originally misstated that Krauthammer voted for Clinton in 2016. He declared he would vote for a write-in candidate.

June 21, 2018

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The perils of using DNA tests to reunite migrant children with their parents.

Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, on Thursday called on the genealogy website 23andMe to provide DNA tests to help identify migrant children separated from their parents by the Trump administration. Although well-intentioned, the proposal raises multiple ethical and legal questions.

The Trump administration has separated more than 2,300 migrant kids from their parents so far. Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that sought to halt the separations, but hasn’t made clear how the government would reunite families it already broke apart. While many separated children are eventually placed in the custody of close family members, others are not. The chaos caused by the separations has raised fears that some children might not be reunited with their parents at all. John Sandweg, a former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News this week that the administration’s policy “could create thousands of immigrant orphans.”

Using DNA tests to help find those children’s parents might not be as straightforward as it sounds. In April, I wrote about the concerns raised by legal experts when police in California used a commercial genealogy database to track down a suspect in the Golden State Killer case. Catching a serial killer is a worthy goal, but law enforcement might not always use the system for noble ends. Testing can also produce false positives: Investigators on that case first questioned an innocent man who was an apparent match to DNA found at a crime scene.

It’s unclear whether HIPAA, the federal medical-privacy law, would even allow the government to obtain DNA samples from migrant children who can’t give informed consent. And even if the government could lawfully collect the sample, there’s the question of whether it should. Can Americans really trust Donald Trump, who rose to power by demonizing undocumented immigrants, to collect a database of those immigrants’ genetic information?

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In Trump’s America, the ACLU takes a new approach to free speech.

According to a memo leaked to the The Wall Street Journal, the ACLU has begun shifting its stalwart stance on the First Amendment, in recognition of the surge of hate speech that has accompanied the president’s rise to power. “Our position in one area can sometimes present a conflict with our work and goals in another area,” the memo says. “Work to protect speech rights may raise tensions with racial justice, reproductive freedom, or a myriad of other rights, where the content of the speech we seek to protect conflicts with our policies on those matters, and/or otherwise is directed at menacing vulnerable groups or individuals.”

The organization has been grappling with its position on free speech over the past year, after its clients, the white supremacist groups at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, started the violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer. At the time, the ACLU decided that it would no longer defend armed hate groups, a position this memo solidifies.

While the U.S. continues to be more tolerant of offensive speech than the rest of the world, with 71 percent of Americans believing they should be allowed to say what they want, there are generational differences. Forty percent of millennials, according to a Pew Research Center poll in 2015, think the government should be allowed to prevent speech that is offensive to minority groups.

As The New Republic’s Sarah Jones wrote last year, Trump’s presidency “supports the notion that no law, even when it is enshrined in the Constitution, can alone justify an absolute position on free speech. That position has to be bolstered by cultural norms, including a consensus that the president must not legitimize and amplify the speech of those who openly bear the swastika and believe that other races are inferior to the white race. Free speech isn’t a pure and abstract good. Like all civil liberties, it is shaped by the context in which it occurs.”