Trump’s global lawlessness

Plus: Impeachment psychology, Buddhism and Stoicism, Uncool Buttigieg, etc.

Welcome to NZN! In this issue I: (1) review the damage Trump did abroad while you were distracted by impeachment hearings; (2) assess the apparent failure of those hearings to do much damage to Trump; (3) compare and contrast Buddhism and Stoicism (with help from a friend); (4) steer you to readings on such things as the creepy feelings inspired by creepy men, the (alleged) Puritan roots of American exceptionalism, the term “Judeo-Christian” as a tool of inclusion and exclusion, an app that purportedly helps you assimilate the news calmly, Pete Buttigieg’s problem with young people; etc.  

[Note: No newsletter next week. I’ll be busy giving thanks for having the week off. Hope you, too, have a Happy Thanksgiving.]

The week in Trump-related lawlessness

This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.

This new US position naturally put Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a good mood. Though the Trump administration can’t retroactively veto Security Council resolutions that past administrations chose not to veto, or magically dispel a consensus among legal scholars, international law is in an early stage of evolution, lacking in adjudicatory mechanisms, so the opinion of the world’s most powerful government matters.

Bibi’s ebullience was short lived, though. Three days after Pompeo’s announcement, Netanyahu was deemed to have violated Israeli law—and violating Israeli law, unlike violating international law, could actually land him in prison. Israel’s chief prosecutor indicted him for dispensing official favors in exchange for expensive gifts and politically valuable services.  

There are parallels between the Netanyahu indictment and the imminent impeachment of Trump. Netanyahu allegedly used instruments of government to get media executives to guarantee him publicity that could help him win an election. Trump allegedly used instruments of government to get a foreign leader to guarantee him publicity that could help him win an election.

There are also parallels in the way the two men have reacted to their predicaments. Some of these were noted last month by Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev, after reports of an impending indictment elicited a pre-emptive reaction from Netanyahu. Comparing this reaction and Trump’s “reactions to his Ukraine train wreck,” Shalev wrote:  “Political persecution? Check. Innocent victim? Check. Partisan prosecutors? Check. Witch-hunt? Check. Attempted ‘coup’? Check.”   

He continued: “Their responses are so similar that one is tempted to assume that Trump and Netanyahu are advising each other… Circumstantial evidence shows that Netanyahu, for one, has certainly been inspired by Trump’s no-holds-barred audacity. The prime minister’s willingness to flout norms, ignore traditions and upend Israeli democracy would have been inconceivable had Trump not set a precedent and shown him the way.”

There’s been a lot of talk about Trump’s weakening of American political norms. And his malicious antics during the past week’s impeachment hearings certainly support that concern. But until I read Shalev’s piece, I hadn’t thought much about Trump’s weakening of Democratic norms in other countries. As Israel’s political drama plays out, and the country processes the unprecedented situation of a sitting prime minister under indictment, Netanyahu’s conduct will bear watching. 

Meanwhile, in Iran, Trump’s contribution to disarray in distant lands has taken a different form. This week his year-and-a-half-old sanctions regime—launched when he abandoned the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal even though Iran was complying with it—finally paid off. 

At least, it paid off if you’re a fan of inducing regime change in Iran—something that both Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (who was national security adviser when the sanctions campaign began) have in the past embraced. An essential step in sanctions-induced regime change is popular unrest, and last week, after the government resorted to rationing gasoline and raising its price, protests broke out across the country. More than 100 protestors—maybe more than 200—were then killed in a nationwide crackdown. 

You may think it regrettable when more than 100 innocent people die. If so, you’re not even close to having the stomach for sanctions-induced regime change in an authoritarian country like Iran. 

Trump appointees are made of sterner stuff. After the killing of  protestors had begun, Brian Hook, who runs the State Department’s “Iran Action Group,” cheerfully proclaimed that Trump’s sanctions “have expanded the space for the Iranian people to demand a more accountable representative government.” He emphasized that “we do stand with the Iranian people.” The ones who are still standing, at least.

To fully appreciate this administration’s approach to international affairs, you need to understand that, after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, he didn’t just impose US sanctions on Iran. He used America’s economic power—in particular its unique influence on the global banking system—to coerce other countries into abiding by his sanctions regime even though most of them considered it a bad idea.

So there’s a kind of inverse symmetry between the administration’s treatment of Iran and its new position on Israeli settlements. Its settlements policy says that the US doesn’t have to play by the rules the world sets (even if, as with the Geneva Convention, it helped set them and signed onto them). Its Iran policy says that the world has to play by the rules the US sets—and that the US has the right to coerce any renegades into compliance. 

I wish I could say that this arrogance is a radical departure from past foreign policy. But in truth, Blobsters—I mean, upstanding members of America’s distinguished foreign policy community—who complain about Trump’s subversion of the “rules-based international order” are by and large people who have sometimes championed that subversion. (Most of them supported America’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, a clear violation of international law.)

Still, even if Trump didn’t invent American arrogance, he has carried its ironic essence—feeling free to ignore international rules while expecting international compliance with American rules—to a new level of intensity. He came into office pledging a sharp break from America’s traditional foreign policy, but in many ways he has given us a grotesque caricature of it.    

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Trump’s magic anti-impeachment force field

The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden. 

Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point. 

There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.

The two most common explanations for the resilience of Trump’s support are:

1) His supporters are intellectually or morally deficient—too stupid to rationally assess evidence of his transgressions or too enthralled by his bigotry to care about them.

2) His supporters, like his opponents, get their news via customized social media feed and/or their favorite cable news channel, and so receive a selective rendering of reality. So, for example, this week the entertainingly goofy donor/diplomat Gordon Sondland said—depending on which media and social media ecosystem you occupy—either (a) it had long been obvious to him that Trump was conditioning military aid on Ukraine’s vowing to investigate the firm that employed Biden’s son; or (b) he’d never actually heard Trump say aid was conditioned on the investigation, and in fact, when he asked what Trump wanted from Ukraine, Trump said he wanted nothing. 

Of the two explanations for Trump’s enduring Republican popularity—Trump supporters with defective brains and balkanized media landscape—I favor the second. But with this asterisk: Trump supporters do have defective brains in the sense that we all have defective brains. We all have cognitive biases of various kinds that shape our behavior in not necessarily rational ways.  

Consider this: While Trump’s poll numbers were improving, so were Joe Biden’s. In the RCP average, Biden’s lead over his nearest rival for the Democratic presidential nomination has gone from 5 points to 10 points since the hearings started.  

This at first seems odd, since the hearings brought no obviously favorable publicity for Biden. His son did, after all, take an absurdly high-paying job from a sketchy Ukrainian firm that presumably hoped he could use his family connection to influence American policy in its favor—and this awkward fact was only underscored by the hearings. 

Still, the hearings also underscored something else: Biden had been the ultimate target of Trump’s manipulation of the Ukrainian government. And, in polarized times, the perception that you’re under attack from the enemy tribe can do wonders for your status within your own tribe. The same dynamic works for Trump: the hearings highlighted, for Republicans, that he was being attacked by congressional Democrats. 

Win-win!

I’m not kidding. We don’t generally think of bitter contests between opposing camps as non-zero-sum games, but there are various ways a non-zero-sum dynamic can enter them. One is that bitter contestation between tribes can elevate the intratribal status of leading figures on both sides. And this effect is presumably stronger in an age when the two tribes’ media and social media ecosystems can convey the message—with little chance of contradiction—that the other tribe’s attacks on their leaders are unjust. (The witnesses who most thrilled Trump opponents—the ones, like Fiona Hill, who most explicitly criticized Trump’s conduct and policies—may have been the witnesses who most energized Trump supporters, since a seeming dislike of Trump on the part of witnesses from the bureaucracy could be seen as evidence that the proceedings were rigged, and the Deep State was in on the job.)

This is one thing Democratic impeachment skeptics have warned about—that impeachment proceedings would intensify the sense of siege that Trump has cultivated among supporters. And a strengthened siege mentality not only bodes well for Republican turnout in 2020 but, in the meanwhile, may render Trump supporters even less receptive to evidence of Trump’s incompetence and corruption than they were before. (I know what you’re thinking: Is that even possible? Yes. Worse is always possible.)

The game isn’t over. More evidence may come to light, and with a person as fundamentally amoral and corrupt as Trump, there’s always the chance of evidence so damning as to give second thoughts even to true believers. But right now we seem to be a long way from there.

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Buddhism and Stoicism: Compare and Contrast

Interest in Stoicism has grown lately—as has interest in Buddhism, particularly the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Is this just a coincidence, or do these two schools of thought have something in common, something that speaks to a widely felt contemporary need? A while ago, I had a podcast conversation about this with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of the book How to Be a Stoic and a leading figure in the Stoic revival. That conversation has proved popular in video and audio form, so we thought we’d transcribe it and share some of its highlights with newsletter readers. Hope you like the result:

WRIGHT: So I wanted to do a compare and contrast with Stoicism and Buddhism. You write in How to Be a Stoic that you personally find Buddhism “a bit too mystical, its texts opaque and hard to interpret.” At the same time, you acknowledge that there really are some fundamental commonalities, or commonalities of perspective, between Buddhism and Stoicism. So I thought what we would do is a kind of compare and contrast…

We should also pause and say that this book is part of a larger project: you have for some time now been kind of resurrecting Stoicism. Maybe not quite single-handedly, but you’ve certainly been in the forefront, and this book is part of that. I think it makes perfect sense for a relatively secular age when people are looking for philosophies to live by.

PIGLIUCCI: I agree. The reason I got into it initially was a combination, as it often is in these cases, of serendipity and choices. One of the things I was doing is looking for some time for a better, more organic philosophy of life. I grew up Catholic, [but] was done pretty early, when I was a teenager. And then for a number of years I considered myself a secular humanist—to some extent I still do—but the problem is that secular humanism increasingly felt more like a laundry list of things that I liked, really, than an actual organic philosophy. And so I was kind of dissatisfied; this was a number of years ago. And finally, through secular humanism, I rediscovered, if you will, virtue ethics…A lot of secular humanists are into virtue ethics, in particular Epicureanism or…and Aristotelianism. Some of them are into Epicureanism because of the metaphysics of the Epicureans: the idea that the cosmos came out of random chaos of atoms and things like that. And also, even though Epicurus was not an atheist, he certainly was at the very least a deist. He thought that…if there is a god, it's out there, it's not doing anything, and we really shouldn't be afraid of punishment after death and all that sort of stuff. Those are, according to Epicureanism, inventions that are exploited by other people to make us fear things and do things that we don't necessarily want to do.

So I did explore a little bit of Aristotelianism, a little bit of Epicureanism, and I wasn't quite satisfied with either one of them…

You can read the rest of this conversation on the nonzero.org website.

In The Washington Post, Molly Roberts entertainingly offers explanations of why Pete Buttigieg hasn’t caught on among young voters. (I was reminded while reading this of what the great Mike Kinsley wrote about Al Gore in the late 1980s, when Gore was around Buttigieg’s age: He’s “an old person’s idea of a young person.”)     

Countless undergraduates have been taught that America’s exceptionalist zeal—its seeming compulsion to remake other nations in its image, sometimes via war—dates back to the Puritans. The Puritans are said to have injected a sense of divine ordination “into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America,” as historian Daniel T. Rodgers puts it. Rodgers puts it that way in a book that questions this standard story by closely analyzing what is taken as the source text of Puritanical American exceptionalism: a sermon in which John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked this biblical passage: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the Nation, historian Andrew Delbanco reviews Rodgers’s book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.

In Gzero, Gabrielle Debinski pithily summarizes views on foreign policy expressed by Democratic presidential candidates in this week’s debate—which devoted more time to foreign policy than past debates (which is to say: some time). 

In an Aeon piece alluringly titled “What is to be done about the problem of creepy men?” law professor Heidi Matthews actually asks what is to be done with our intuitions about what is and isn’t “creepy,” particularly in the #MeToo era. She recommends not letting those intuitions substitute for careful analysis, since they can be tools of “shunning and social ostracism” and have been used against, for example, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Matthews also notes that the “creepiness” reaction is related to the emotion of disgust—which, as it happens, was the subject of a long 2016 piece in Aeon, by Kathleen McAuliffe, that also offered reasons for caution about letting our feelings serve as moral guides.

In The Federalist, Trump supporter Mollie Hemingway gives her account of “How Republicans won phase one of the impeachment.”

A New York Times Magazine piece by Kevin Roose documents the demise of the free internet and the growth of the paid internet—which offers, for example, a “news therapy” app called Sift that, for $3.33 per month, promises to help you “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Most surprising stat: the average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.

In the New Republic, Udi Greenberg reviews the new book Reimagining Judeo-Christian America, by K. Healan Gaston of Harvard Divinity School. When the term “Judeo-Christian” came into currency in the 1940s, it served as a vehicle of social inclusion, identifying Jews with an American moral and spiritual heritage long thought of as Christian. But the term can be used for exclusion—as when Steven Bannon champions the struggle of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam. Gaston, Greenberg writes, argues that the term has been used that way more often than you might guess—and has sometimes even been used at the expense of Jews, as a way to “legitimize larger claims about Christian supremacy.” 

On bloggingheads.tv—and on The Wright Show audio podcast—I argue with my closest Trump-supporting friend, Mickey Kaus, about impeachment and other things, including Trump’s Iran policy.

OK, that’s it for this week! Thanks for reading. If you’ve found things worth sharing in this newsletter, then by all means share. And if you haven’t, then… give us another chance in two weeks, when we return to your inbox. Happy Thanksgiving!