interesting times

Is This the Beginning of Trump’s End?

Spiraling. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of my favorite words is quickening as a noun. The dictionary will tell you it means the period in early pregnancy when an unborn child first starts to move in her mother’s womb, or the act of bringing something to life. And what this last week suggests to me is that there is a quickening in the crisis of the Trump presidency. I’m not sure where it will lead, but something is stirring.

Everything we’re seeing from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, suggests the growing possibility, at the very least, that Trump is implicated in a conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States of America (that’s a better way of describing it than “collusion”). We can intuit this because we now know that the Trump campaign official George Papadopoulos knew by April 2016 that Russia had thousands of allegedly incriminating emails from Hillary Clinton, and planned to release them. It’s extremely hard to believe Papadopoulos didn’t share this information with his confreres on the Trump campaign. Why on earth would he not? (Papadopoulos’s source, the mysterious Professor Joseph Mifsud, disappeared from the face of the earth last October, and has not been seen since. His fiancée told BuzzFeed this week that he feared for his life and boasted of his friendship with Putin’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov: “He said, ‘I have dinner with Lavrov tonight. Lavrov is my friend. Lavrov this, Lavrov that … He even show me picture with Lavrov.”)

Trump then went out of his way repeatedly in the campaign to draw the media’s attention to the hacked emails, kept denying they were definitively the result of Russian interference, then publicly urged Russia, on national television, to release them. That summer, Donald Trump Jr. was thrilled to meet with Kremlin-connected Russians who might provide more information about the hacked emails, hoping that they could be released later in the campaign. He subsequently lied about this in a statement reportedly co-written by the president and Hope Hicks. Then there’s Mueller’s successful bid to get Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s right-hand man, to cooperate with the ongoing case against Trump’s former campaign manager. Gates knows everything about that sleazeball’s money-raking over the years, and his enmeshment with some of the most repellent tyrants on the planet (not including Trump). His testimony could be devastating. All of this lends considerably more credibility to the notion that Trump may have effectively committed treason during his campaign, and that Mueller may hit pay dirt. I have to say I’ve become much less skeptical of this idea as time has passed and the evidence has accumulated. It reached a tipping point for me last week.

Then there’s the New York Times story this week detailing Jared Kushner’s obvious conflict of interest in meeting with subsequent lenders to his company in his White House capacity. It’s one of the more damning exposés of a White House official that I’ve ever read. It reveals the character of the man (he’s just like his dad), and the removal of this gilded, mute grifter’s top security clearance is a sign that some small constraints on the unprecedented corruption in Trump’s orbit are beginning to emerge. Exposing the petty perks of Scott Pruitt and Ben Carson and Steve Mnuchin adds some background color to the general picture of sleaze and self-serving. The swift departure of Hope Hicks after Trump berated her for telling the truth to the House Intelligence Committee — he reportedly asked her how she could “be so stupid” — is another sign of unraveling. (If true, by the way, then Trump’s interference with an individual’s possible future testimony under oath, is also, strictly speaking, a crime.)

At the same time, a remarkable hero is emerging in the fight for the norms of liberal democracy: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. He has steadfastly refused to act as Trump’s personal point man at the Justice Department, recusing himself from the Russia investigation (as was only proper) after it was revealed that he’d had contact with the Russian ambassador, and this week resisting the pressure from the president for the DOJ to investigate itself rather than allowing (as is proper) its inspector general to do the work. Money quote: “As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.” Translation: Fuck off, Mr, President. Having a nice public dinner with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Wednesday night was the cherry on top of this DOJ sundae.

The loss of Trump’s confidante Hicks (after his beloved bodyguard, Keith Schiller) and the sidelining of Kushner coincide with real tension between the First Family and John Kelly, in an ever-evolving clusterfuck of rivalry, back-stabbing, and intrigue. The result is an increasingly isolated, infuriated, and exposed commander-in-chief. Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan wrote this week that “the restraints are almost fully loosened, and what staff sees in private is more public than ever … We have never seen top officials this concerned, defeated.” And God knows they’ve been concerned and defeated many times before.

Trump is flailing on policy matters, too. The reckless tax cut, we now know, has benefited shareholders far, far more than the middle or working class, the mounting debt is putting pressure on interest rates, and a sudden spree of tariffs is a further unknowable disruption. On the opioid crisis, Trump’s focus this week, as he revealed in his drop-by meeting at the White House yesterday, appears to be a Duterte-like assassination squad for drug-dealers. Apart from being an absurd and foul fantasy, Trump clearly knows next to nothing about the subject — because the most energetic drug dealers in this mounting epidemic have been family members distributing legal prescriptions. On immigration — thanks in part to the erratic incoherence of the president, we are at a legislative dead end.

Then there was the staggering open meeting this week with senators on gun-control proposals. Trump revealed that he’s an authoritarian liberal on the issue, rather than a constitutional conservative, which is why Ben Shapiro, among many others on the right, regarded the performance as “a complete and utter disgrace.” (I’ve rarely seen Dianne Feinstein more chipper.) But Trump’s infatuation with gun control makes perfect sense to me, given what we know of him. Have we ever seen him decline “control” of anything? So why not guns? His blithe dismissal of “due process” in backing the government’s right to enter someone’s home and confiscate their weapons is also completely consistent with his contempt for liberal democratic norms in every other area. As is his belief that a president can ban bump stocks by an executive order. “I alone can fix!”

Of course, this free-associating on guns may well lead to what Trump’s previous public support for comprehensive immigration reform led to: a slow walk-back, reversal and inaction. Sure enough, Trump soon tweeted the following in the early hours of Thursday: “Many ideas, some good & some not so good, emerged from our bipartisan meeting on school safety yesterday at the White House … Respect 2nd Amendment!” But his openness to the left on immigration and his enthusiasm for the unconstitutional seizure of people’s guns must surely rattle the base a little. He’s violated some core GOP beliefs on guns and immigration. It’s telling, it seems to me, that Drudge buried this news and Sean Hannity managed to cover the session without ever mentioning Trump’s extraordinary gaffe. Drudge and Hannity are, for me, the best indicators of when Trump is in trouble. The more they bury news, the more important and dangerous it is for the Trump agenda. And there’s a lot to bury right now: metastasizing scandal, an administration at war with itself, a chief of staff looking wobbly, egregious corruption, and open rhetorical betrayal of the base. It’s not that we haven’t seen all of this before — but it’s the combination of all these in a sudden and accumulating pile that seems more ominous than usual.

Trump’s best bet is that he can gin up another culture-war distraction and that the cult behind him — and the cult’s fear and loathing of the other tribe — will render him immune to the usual political crosswinds. All the evidence reveals that, so far, he would be right. His 85 percent approval rating from Republicans remains and probably will never decline — regardless of anything he does or might do. I suspect that even if there were a tape of him conspiring with Putin himself to tip the 2016 election, Fox would call it fake news, Trump would say it’s not his voice, and the GOP base would side instinctively with their newly beloved Kremlin over the Democrats. But I’ve begun to wonder if there’s a chance that the cultish following may falter as the reality of Trump’s ideological fickleness, managerial incompetence, and boundless corruption begins to seep through. At some point, surely even his supporters will have to say that this is finally enough.

Cut It Out

Why are most infant boys in America circumcised? Damned if I know. In most cases, it serves no medical purpose whatever; like all surgical procedures, it involves risk; it’s traumatizing and terrifying for the infant himself (just watch a few videos of this barbaric procedure performed on tiny babies, strapped spread-eagle to an operating table); and it is the permanent alteration of an individual’s body without his consent. If the desert tribal customs of Jews and Muslims had never existed, no one in their right mind would ever contemplate doing this to a newborn. And if a new religion were to emerge that required permanent genital cutting of infants, we’d rightly draw a line.

Female genital mutilation is much, much worse, of course, because it involves the removal of all sexual pleasure from a woman, while male genital mutilation leaves most pleasure intact. But the scar tissue below the glans of the penis can potentially dull sexual sensitivity — and why do anything that might affect someone’s future pleasure at all? Some men may be glad to be able to control their orgasms better with a potentially less sensitive penis, I suppose — and many men, myself included, are fine with our mutilated, unnatural dicks. But it seems to me we should have had a choice in the matter, should we not? Why does the concept of “our bodies, ourselves” apply only to one gender, rather than both?

Iceland is now contemplating banning the surgery altogether, as the New York Times reports. This follows up on a slew of Scandinavian countries that have begun to outlaw what some Europeans rightly describe as the “violation of a child’s physical integrity.” The supporters of the legislation make an underappreciated point: Infant circumcision clearly violates the Hippocratic oath — first, do no harm. If there is no medical reason for operating on a tiny, very delicate penis, wrapped tightly in foreskin, and if the operation can lead to irreparable physical and psychological damage if botched, it is medically unethical. Yes, the botching is rare — but it sure happens. Infant boys have bled to death after a clumsy operation, have had their entire penises chopped off by mistake, have seen their dicks disappear into the surrounding flesh, or have had their genitals burned to a crisp by a cauterizing needle or a laser. All surgery contains risks — which is why it should be done rarely absent a medical need, and why informed consent is required by those who choose to undergo it. But to impose such risks on an infant who by definition cannot consent? Nuh-huh. Ask yourself: Would it be okay to remove or scar an infant’s nipple, or cut a small chunk out of her earlobe, or tattoo his butt? Seriously, we’d wonder whether the parents were crazy.

There’s an argument that circumcised penises are less susceptible to STIs in adults — but this is an obvious post-hoc rationalization. Would we insist on removing an infant’s appendix or tonsils to avoid potential future medical complications? Of course not.

There remains the important question of religious freedom, which is why this is such a vexing issue. Even though the procedure is barbaric on its face, and a new religion claiming it was essential would be laughed out of court, Judaism and Islam should surely be grandfathered in. But only Judaism and Islam. The obvious compromise for a humane and civilized country is to forbid routine male genital mutilation of any infant boy for nonreligious or nonmedical reasons. Mercifully, as civilization advances, fewer parents are inflicting this risky trauma on their newborns, as the nature of the surgery becomes more widely understood. But it’s still a scandal, it seems to me, that 58 percent of infant boys in America are subjected to this physical violation, when only around 4 or 5 percent are Muslim or Jewish. If the medical profession won’t stop this of its own volition, legislation is a last resort.

If all else fails — and it almost certainly will! — it’s vital to get the message out that this trauma should never be routine, and that automatic circumcision should belong in the past. It’s one of the first decisions parents have to confront in this country. In my view, they should do what nature urges and most humans have instinctively done: Don’t inflict pain and trauma on an infant, and leave his tiny genitals alone.

All the Opinion That’s Fit to Print

What do you want from an op-ed section at the New York Times? In a sardonic tweet recently, Matt Yglesias put his finger on it: “I want to read an op-ed page where skilled prose stylists backed by diligent research assistants provide cogent, well-reasoned, evidence-based arguments in favor of ideas I already agree with.” And that’s what the Times readers (and most of its staff, it appears) want as well. The internal uproar over James Bennet’s modest attempts to add some actual diversity of thought to his page is a terrible sign of where our culture is. (Full disclosure: Bennet is a longtime friend and former boss.)

Bennet’s most recent hire, for example, is Michelle Goldberg, whose reflexive leftism was perfectly at home at The Nation and Slate. He’s hired contributing writers as super-woke as Lindy West and Jennifer Finney Boylan. But one hire of a young neocon like Bari Weiss — who edits more than writes — and the place erupts. She makes a dumb mistake in a tweet and digs in rather than fessing up — and you’d think she’d committed a hate crime. (One Times staffer, in a leaked Slack comment, thought her mistaken idea that an Olympic skater was an immigrant rather than the daughter of immigrants triggered visions of internment camps!)

Another hire, Bret Stephens, is not someone I’d have chosen in a million years, but he did win a Pulitzer (oh, okay, that’s pretty meaningless at this point), writes well, and is an intelligent right-of-center conservative. (Even though he, like Weiss, is a Zionist fanatic of near-unhinged proportions.) But hey, I like a good neocon provocation from time to time, and such provocation in good faith is emphatically not the same as trolling. If it’s backed up by fact, and is designed to challenge readers, it’s essential. I actually like to get pissed off by columnists. I like it when they have strange obsessions. I love a good rant as much as anyone. The idea that hiring Stephens is some kind of sacrilege is, to my mind, deranged.

That’s not to say that there aren’t huge blind spots. In 2018, it seems to me you need to have someone who can represent the Bernie left. It’s the ascendant wing of the Democratic Party, after all, and after decades of neoliberalism, its time is surely coming again. The way in which no one on that page saw Trump coming, and had no grip on the populism gaining in strength everywhere was a pretty giant indictment of the insularity of left-liberal groupthink. Let’s hear from someone who is in favor of drastic redistribution and opposed to the hideous identity politics that now saturates the left and alienates everyone else.

And you also need someone who is pro-Trumpism. It’s absurd that not a single writer on the op-ed page comes from this kind of background — realist and anti-intervention in foreign policy, anti–mass immigration, anti–free trade, and populist at home. Let’s see such a person tackle Stephens’s unreconstructed neoconservatism — from the right. Let’s actually hire someone who opposed the Iraq War from the get-go. Ross Douthat is a brilliant social conservative — in my view the real star of the section — but the NYT needs someone with the perspective you find in, say, The American Conservative or the Claremont Review of Books. And someone not quite as relentlessly careful and smooth.

The premise behind these suggestions, of course, is nonetheless a belief in free speech, and the battle of ideas, which is sometimes messy and never perfect. The prissy policing of words and thoughts by social justice liberals — the kind you see reflected in the leaks and quotes emerging from some NYT staffers — is anathema to opinion writing. What the world needs right now is precisely what Bennet is attempting: an embrace of the liberal project, a resistance to the easy, lazy bromides or tribalism and the tedious, poisonous neo-Marxism that now passes for thought.

But tribalism and the “social justice” movement mean the Times will be fighting a long uphill battle. Because it’s not only some PC journalists at the Times who want to shut down debate that makes them uncomfortable or “harms” people, it’s the readers. More and more, they want a Times that is not an institution devoted to dangerously free debate, but one that is enlisted in the eternal struggle against “patriarchy” and “white supremacy,” an opinion section that belongs to one tribe and one tribe alone, a paper that gives no quarter to Republicans, reflexively defends any Democrat, and preens with contempt for neoliberals. And the shift in revenue sources from advertising to subscriptions gives these reader sentiments real power and makes editing in a non-tribal way a constant struggle. The economic and political incentives are increasingly lined up against diversity of thought in journalism. And in some ways, advertisers are easier to resist than a mob of impassioned readers, especially those whipped up into a frenzy on social media.

We need some space for liberal democratic values in our culture. It’s being trampled in the academy and eviscerated on social media and desperately needs an institution like the Times to be its bulwark and refuge. In this climate, I’m afraid, the odds are against it — but that makes the imperative ever more vital. Hang in, James. Make a clearing in the woods. History will remember who did what in these illiberal times. And you have an institution and some essential principles to save.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Is This the Beginning of Trump’s End?