Pope Francis blames family separation on ... populism?

In an interview with Reuters released Wednesday morning, Pope Francis criticized Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant families, blaming it on populism. The Pope supported the criticisms of Trump made by U.S. Catholic bishops who denounced the policy as “immoral.” He also urged nations to work towards the acceptance and integration of immigrants. 

“It’s not easy, but populism is not the solution,” Francis said. He accused populists of “creating psychosis” and said that “populism does not resolve things. What resolves things is acceptance, study, prudence.”

This is not the first time the Pope has targeted populism. In a January interview he decried “populism in the European sense of the word,” which he claimed was embodied by Adolf Hitler who was “elected by his people and then he destroyed his people.”

It is important to keep in mind the Pope’s qualifying  phrase “in the European sense of the word.” In the Western hemisphere, populism has often referred to social movements seeking economic justice such the 19th century Populist Party (whose platform was mainstreamed by William Jennings Bryan), Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition or more recently the Bernie Sanders campaign. This usage is also often found in Argentina, Pope’s native country. 

Francis himself is often described as a populist, given his frequent calls for economic justice and greater lay participation in the church. But the Pope only uses the word populist in a narrow connotation, to refer to right-wing movements that exalt ethnic nationalism while portraying immigrants and elites as hostile alien forces. As Catholic World notes, the Pope is a paradoxically figure, an “anti-populist populist.”

But by adopting the stance of “anti-populist populism” the Pope is ceding an awful lot of ground to reactionary political forces. After all, why should we grant figures like Donald Trump (who received a minority of the vote) their own claim to speak for the people? As I’ve previously argued, Trump and his like-minded xenophobes are more properly seen as the voice of aggrieved privilege, not popular discontent

November 21, 2018

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Trump versus Roberts: a battle over judicial legitimacy.

On Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to challenge Chief Justice John Roberts on the integrity of the courts. Earlier in the day, the Associated Press had released an interview with Roberts where he objected to categorizing judges by their political affiliation. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In response, Trump tweeted:

Now that Trump has decided to answer Roberts directly, the Supreme Court justice faces a difficult choice: Does he escalate the war of words (which would further corrode the court’s role as an independent arbiter) or does he abstain from responding (which leaves Trump unanswered). Neither choice is attractive.

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Chief Justice John Roberts has had enough of Trump’s anti-judge rhetoric.

Up until now, Roberts has stayed silent on President Trump’s repeated attacks on the judiciary—including on Roberts himself, over the ruling in favor of Obamacare in 2012. On Tuesday, however, Trump criticized federal district judge Jon Tigar for blocking his executive order targeting asylum-seekers on the southern border. “This was an Obama judge,” he told reporters before venting other grievances about the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and hinting at some kind of retaliation.

Chief Justice John Roberts explicitly rejected Trump’s description in a statement Wednesday. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” he told the Associated Press. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

While a public rebuke of the president by the chief justice is extremely rare, Trump is also more openly hostile to the federal judiciary than any of his modern predecessors. He argued on the campaign trail that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t be trusted to oversee the Trump University fraud lawsuits in 2016 because he is “a Mexican.” (Curiel is from Indiana.) Trump also attacked multiple “so-called” judges who ruled against the Muslim ban last year, prompting a rare critique from Justice Neil Gorsuch during his Supreme Court confirmation process.

So, why now? Roberts may have decided to intervene after Trump told reporters that the judge’s ruling was “not law” and suggested he would escalate his campaign against the courts. “I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen anymore,” the president said on Tuesday. The chief justice and his colleagues have also spent recent months publicly reaffirming their nonpartisanship after the corrosive battle to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh dealt a serious blow to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy and perceived independence.


United Arab Emirates convicts British graduate student as a spy.

A court in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has found Matthew Hedges, a 31 year old graduate student of Durham University, guilty of spying. Hedges, who denies the charges, faces a life sentence.

Hedges’s family considers the trial a travesty, the BBC reports, maintaining that “during the first six weeks of his detention he was interrogated without a lawyer and consular access was unavailable,” and that “during this time he was made to sign a document in Arabic which transpired to be a confession.”

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “deeply shocked and disappointed” by the court’s decision and promised he’d make telephone calls to UAE officials. He added that the verdict was “not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom, and runs contrary to earlier assurances.” The United Kingdom is allied with the UAE, which is a major purchaser of British arms.

Hedges’s wife, Daniela Tejada, criticized both the governments of both Britain and the UAE.

“Matthew is innocent,” she said. “The Foreign Office know this and have made it clear to the UAE authorities that Matthew is not a spy for them. This whole case has been handled appallingly from the very beginning with no-one taking Matthew’s case seriously.”

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John Kelly signs an order allowing American troops to use lethal force at the border.

The Military Times is reporting that Kelly, the White House chief of staff, has signed a memo that authorizing the American military to “perform those military protective activities that the Secretary of Defense determines are reasonably necessary” in the service of defending border agents. The memo, described as a “Cabinet order,” defines these activities to include “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention. and cursory search.”

It’s unclear why this authorization came from the desk of Kelly, rather than the president. Further, as the Military Times notes, the order might run afoul of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which restricts the use of the military for domestic purposes.

As The Military Times notes, the new order is in keeping with the innovative use of the military for border control under the Trump administration. “Military forces always have the inherent right to self defense, but defense of the border agents on U.S. soil is new,” the newspaper points out. “In addition, troops have been given additional authorities in previous years to assist border agents with drug interdictions, but the widespread authorization of use of force for thousands of active-duty troops is unique to this deployment.”

In early November, President Donald Trump seemed to suggest that lethal force would be an appropriate response to migrants who threw rocks at American personnel. “I told them, ‘consider that a rifle,’” Trump told reporters. “When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military and police, I say ‘consider it a rifle.’” The president later backtracked, after the comments were criticized by retired military officers.


Steve Bannon’s plan to remake Europe is being thwarted by the existence of things called laws.

The former CEO of the Trump campaign has launched an ambitious scheme to foster hard-right nativist politics in Europe but, as The Guardian reports, he is being hemmed in by local laws.

“The former chief strategist to Donald Trump has spent months trying to recruit European parties to his Brussels-based group, the Movement, which he promised would operate as kind of a political consultancy for like-minded parties campaigning in the bloc-wide vote in May 2019,” the newspaper observes. “But the Guardian has established that Bannon would be barred or prevented from doing any meaningful work in nine of the 13 countries in which he is seeking to campaign, according to national electoral bodies and relevant ministries. Confronted with the findings, Bannon acknowledged he was taking legal advice on the matter.”

Bannon has promised to spend millions of his own money as well as disperse funds from unnamed sources. He also wants to offer in-kind service in the form of sophisticated data-collection and analytics, to be used for social media campaigns. The plan is to further inflame right-wing nationalism in Europe via a transnational network. As such, Bannon’s project is fundamentally ironic, which makes it all the more appropriate that it is national legal barriers that are proving to be the biggest hurdle.

Bannon’s Movement will almost certainly not get far. Aside from legal difficulties, some of the local groups Bannon wants to support are shunning his offers of assistance.

Indeed, The Guardian suggests that European laws are so stringent and Bannon himself is so controversial, the Movement could end up only helping one figure, a Dutch member of Parliament. When told this, Bannon replied, “It’s a start.”


Trump pushed Justice Department to investigate James Comey and Hillary Clinton.

CNN is reporting that there is further evidence that President Donald Trump wanted to use his presidential powers to punish his political enemies. “President Donald Trump on multiple occasions raised with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker, who was then-chief of staff to Jeff Sessions, whether the Justice Department was progressing in investigating Hillary Clinton, according to a source familiar with the matter,” the cable news network reports. “The President also wanted his previous White House counsel, Don McGahn, to ask the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton on numerous occasions, but McGahn rebuffed doing that, the source said.”

Buttressing the CNN account, a New York Times article added that McGahn and other White House lawyers prepared a memo outlining the problems with the president’s preferred course of action. “For starters, Justice Department lawyers could refuse to follow Mr. Trump’s orders even before an investigation began, setting off another political firestorm,” the Times summarizes. “If charges were brought, judges could dismiss them. And Congress, they added, could investigate the president’s role in a prosecution and begin impeachment proceedings.”

These accounts seem to confirm some critics’ suspicion that Trump is an instinctively authoritarian president who has been saved from his worst instincts by staff resistance. The open question is whether staff shake-ups will now give Trump a White House more amenable to his autocratic tendencies.

November 20, 2018

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All romaine lettuce is unsafe to eat—again. Here’s why.

This past summer, I spoke with food policy expert Darin Detwiler, whose 17-month old son died in a food-borne E. coli outbreak. He told me that the infamous romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak of summer 2018, which killed five people, would not be the last.

He was right.

This stunning warning from the CDC, issued two days before Thanksgiving, advises Americans against eating any romaine lettuce—no matter where it’s from. “Consumers who have any type of romaine lettuce in their home should not eat it and should throw it away, even if some of it was eaten and no one has gotten sick,” the agency said. No deaths from this outbreak have been reported yet, but 32 people in 11 states have become sick, and 13 people have been hospitalized, the CDC said.

The reason CDC is warning against all romaine lettuce is because it has no idea where, specifically, the deadly bacteria is coming from. This is similar to the summer outbreak. As I wrote in July, “No single grower, harvester, processor, or distributor has been blamed [for that outbreak], and investigators are still unsure whether contamination happened during the growing, washing, chopping, or bagging process. So far, the agencies have only released one finding: That the same E. coli strain found in sickened people across the country was also in Arizona’s canal water, which is used to irrigate crops.”

But we don’t need to now where exactly this E. coli is coming from to know why America is experiencing yet another outbreak of food-borne illness from this deadly pathogen. It’s happening because the government has not acted quickly enough to fix well-known problems with our food-borne illness prevention system.

E. coli comes from poop. That means there was poop on the lettuce. Most likely, the poop was in the water used to grow, wash, chop, or bag the lettuce. America has poor regulation of water used on crops. Only very large farms, rather than all farms, are required to sample and test the water used to grow and clean produce. The E. coli tests they use are also ineffective. “They’re only measuring for E. coli total, not the specific types of E. coli that can make you sick,” one biologist told me.

Small farmers not subject to regulation also don’t have great incentive to go above and beyond to test their crops. “If I’m a farm owner, I ask myself: Do I pay to have a third party lab to test these water samples on a regular basis for me to use this water?” Detwiler told me. “Or do I consider the small likelihood of someone being able to tie the problem back to me, and decide against it?”

The CDC and the FDA will likely spend months trying to figure out the source of this new, Thanksgiving E. coli outbreak. Those resources might be better spent figuring out how to fix known problems in our system before more people die.

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Former Michigan State University president is charged with lying to police about Larry Nassar.

The Lansing State Journal is reporting that Lou Anna Simon, until earlier this year the president of Michigan State University (MSU), was “charged today in Eaton County District Court with two felony counts and two misdemeanor counts. She faces up to four years in prison if convicted.” The arrest is a byproduct of the case of Larry Nassar, who had served as sports physician at MSU from 1998 until 2016. The following year he pled guilty to charges of possessing child pornography and sexual assault in a case where more than 200 women have made allegations against him.

Simon served as president of Michigan State University (MSU) from 2005 until earlier this year. In Senate testimony this year, Simon claimed that nobody at the university was aware of Nassar’s abusive activities before 2016. This claim is contradicted by what she has now admitted to the police. As The Lansing State Journal notes, “Simon told State Police investigators that she was aware that in 2014 a sports medicine doctor was the subject of a Title IX investigation. According to the charging document filed by the AG’s Office, she knew it was Nassar who was the subject of that 2014 investigation.”


Trump hedges epically on whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s death.

On Tuesday, the president of the United States issued a statement, rife with exclamation marks, explaining why he was standing with Saudi Arabia despite the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American permanent resident. In the key passage of the statement, Trump expressed uncertainty on the key question: the culpability of Saudi leaders in the assassination.

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

In fact, the CIA has leaked their conclusion that they are certain with a high degree of confidence that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

Aside from the comment indicating uncertainty, Trump also repeated smears against the late journalist (“Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood”), while appending provisos. (“My decision is in no way based on that—this is an unacceptable and horrible crime.”) Trump also repeated the falsehood that Saudi Arabia has “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States,” creating “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

As former CIA director John Brennan noted, Trump’s remarks mean that any accountability in the Khashoggi case will have to come from Congress.


Walmart and other corporations are pulling support of senator after “public hanging” remark.

Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi is losing the support of major corporations in a backlash to comments she made earlier this month. On November 2, while standing next to a supporter, Hyde-Smith said, “if he invited me to a public hanging I’d be on the front row.” The remarks were widely seen as an allusion to lynching.

Walmart contributed $2,000 to Hyde-Smith’s campaign. After receiving public criticism for the donation, including a tweet from the actress Debra Messing, the retail juggernaut said it was asking for the donation back:

Two other corporations, Union Pacific and Boston Scientific, have also withdrawn their donations to Hyde-Smith.

On Monday, Boston Science tweeted:

Hyde-Smith is widely expected to win the run-off election later this month, but Democrats reportedly believe that her remarks might energize their base and make the election much closer than expected.