interesting times

What Democrats Can Learn From Steve Bannon

Bannon knows that Trump has been a colossal failure on immigration — but also that Democrats can’t call him out on it without getting serious on the issue. Photo: Magnolia Pictures

I’d love to have been in the room as Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz tried to explain to two White House staffers on Tuesday that they’re not so hot on tariffs on Mexican goods. They wanted to speak with the president personally, they poignantly explained, as he remained thousands of miles away, and as the deadline for his first wave of tariffs was, gulp, Monday. If it came to it, they’d even formally vote to disapprove of the move, whose legal basis is the national emergency put in place in February by Trump, the one he declared in order to spend money on the wall, in open defiance of Congress’s intent.

The trouble is: Some of those Republican senators already voted for that emergency, backed Trump’s extra-constitutional move, and if Trump invokes the same emergency shtick again, they’re stuck. Their only option would be to explain why the crisis at the border is no longer as great as it was in February — which, even given their capacity for delusion and duplicity, is close to impossible. The rest could vote against it as they did last time — but they were vetoed then and could not override it, and they would be vetoed again. So they sit there, pathetic, irrelevant bystanders to a policy area — trade — specifically allotted in the Constitution to the Congress, rather than the president. They have become pawns trying to outmaneuver a king.

Meanwhile, in the words of the Washington Post’s border correspondent, Nick Miroff, mass immigration is “snowballing.” May’s influx, we just found out, was up 32 percent over April, 182 percent over May 2018, and a sixfold jump over May 2017. It’s now estimated that more than a million Central American migrants will settle in the U.S. this year alone, simply by crossing the southern border:

“We are in a full-blown emergency, and I cannot say this stronger: the system is broken,” said acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders. Sanders said his agency has detained more than 680,000 border-crossers in the past eight months, noting that the total is “more than the population of Miami.”

Unlike in the past, the large majority of current migrants bring children with them, because they know that guarantees they’ll be admitted to the U.S., given work permits after three months, and a distant court date. Once Trump abandoned his cruel family-separation policy, and the Trump tiger turned out to be made of paper, the numbers surged. There is simply no way that the system can process this many people in any reasonable amount of time. Miroff notes that “according to Homeland Security figures, 98 percent of the families who were taken into custody along the border in 2017 remain present in the United States.”

Yesterday there were some signs the Mexican government, under threat of economic trauma, would pledge to beef up its forces on its southern border — 540 miles of wild jungle — and to make plans to overhaul asylum cases so the majority of migrants are detained in the first foreign country they cross into. That’s according to the leaks — but it sounds promising. If the Mexican government can deliver, it would be a major win for the administration. But Trump wants a complete end to mass immigration, or, at least, a return to the record low numbers after his inauguration, and Mexico and other Central American governments are not omnipotent. The driving forces of gang violence and climate change will remain. It will, in other words, take a small miracle for tariffs not to start on Monday. It’s peak Trump: using tariffs to stop immigration in an “emergency” he help create.

And it’s peak Democrats, who have almost nothing to say. This week, they did actually focus on immigration in the House — passing a bill that would grant citizenship to 2.5 million people caught in legal immigration limbo: the Dreamers and those who were admitted temporarily in the past whom Trump wants to deport. I’d vote for that in an instant — but it’s a nonstarter with the Senate, lacking any border security quid for the quo of mass amnesty. (In a new spending proposal, the Dems have frozen funding for border security, even as the border cops are being completely overwhelmed). It’s notable too that the House Democrats have passed no legislation to deal with the other estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, or the current, building wave, or the loose asylum laws that are attracting so many, or indeed anything to deter the suffering of countless children now being dragged across deserts as legal devices to gain admittance to the U.S. They seem strangely untethered to the current moment. Or they are merely revealing by their silence that open borders, in a sharp break from Obama, is now effectively their policy.

Worse, they seem unable to attack Trump for his colossal failure in his core campaign pledge. The ads write themselves. Obama kept illegal immigration to consistent lows, using existing law. Trump is presiding over the biggest influx since the very beginning of the millennium, and acting like a panicked autocrat. Trump failed to get Congress to fund his wall, despite having two full years of total GOP control of the Congress. There has been no progress in reforming immigration to focus on skills rather than relatives, let alone a broader reduction in legal immigration. He has made things even worse by cutting aid to the very countries that are losing their populations to America. (Miroff notes: “[I]n parts of rural Guatemala and Honduras now, anyone who isn’t leaving or preparing to is getting left behind.”) His record is a miserable festival of incompetence and sadism, a wide open vulnerability. And yet he is only called out on this by … Ann Coulter.

It’s hard to imagine in another circumstance a sitting president whose main policy initiative has collapsed — and who is entirely unchallenged on this failure by the opposition.

This doesn’t mean competing with Trump on xenophobia, cruelty, or bigotry. It means laying out a comprehensive immigration plan that tightens asylum laws so they exclude economic migrants, invests massively in the immigration court system to speed up the process, moves the processing of asylum cases to a foreign country, mandates national e-verify, beefs up the border to wall-like impermeability, and then grants current undocumented immigrants a reprieve. Yes, that’s a big reach — but it has something for everyone, and the problem itself is huge. Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything — but not this! The working classes don’t seem to matter as much when their wages are suppressed for decades by big corporations exploiting cheap immigrant labor.

Now imagine if Warren were to model her campaign on the newly elected social democrats in Denmark:

At 41, Mette Frederiksen is set to be the country’s youngest ever prime minister. The centre-left Social Democrats won 25.9% of the vote and her bloc secured 91 of the 179 seats in parliament. Support for the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP) dived, four years after becoming the second biggest party. Immigration was still a key factor in the election, along with climate change and welfare cuts, and the Social Democrats bolstered their support with a tougher migration policy.

This was the formula: an ambitious green agenda, higher welfare spending, and outflanking the far right on immigration. It’s the formula that Jacinda Ardern succeeded with in New Zealand.

My colleague Eric Levitz notes how potent a Republican adoption of leftist economics could be. I agree. Think of how popular Trump would be now if he had done what Bannon advised: raised taxes on the superrich, lowered them for the middle classes, started the wall, ended mass immigration, and fought a trade war with China. I’m not saying I’d support that (the trade war anyway), but if that were his current record, Trumpism would be a permanent and potent realignment. With a smidgen of grace, Trump could have swept all before him.

But by the very same token, a Democratic adoption of tighter immigration policies and less stridently leftist cultural stances could dominate the fecund but largely unclaimed socially conservative but economically liberal quadrant of American opinion. Keep the populist economics, junk the wokeness. I just don’t think the Democrats can credibly get there without shifting back to the center on immigration.

Maybe America is different: an already diverse country built entirely on immigration. Maybe admitting 98 percent of families who simply cross a border is not something most Americans care about much. Perhaps many support open borders for humanitarian reasons — an honorable position in some ways (but also the effective abolition of the nation state). And maybe Trump’s staggering failure on this matter is something best left unmentioned by the left.

I just doubt this new wave is over. Its success portends and directly incentivizes more and bigger waves. I doubt too that America is unique in the West in not reeling from the politics of this. If it were, Trump would not have won the GOP primaries or general election, would he? In Europe, the surge of the populist right is still happening even as the worst of the influx that began with the Syrian civil war has abated somewhat. In America, the influx is just getting started. How many will be crossing the border in an election year? Another million? Who knows?

Somewhere, I suspect Steve Bannon has the widest shit-eating grin you can imagine. Why, oh why, won’t some Democrat wipe it off his face?

It’s Ugly Out There

The problem with a free society — especially one with a rough-and-tumble debate culture — is that insults, slurs, and personal abuse are always somewhere. In a First Amendment culture with something called the internet, and where there are no plausible gatekeepers, the raucousness and ugliness will only intensify.

In fact, almost all the incentives of web existence go relentlessly in one direction — emotive ad hominem mud-slinging. That’s because “grotesque things,” as Pete Buttigieg puts it, are hard to look away from, and from that human instinct, content creators can make a small fortune. Add a dash of anonymity for extra spice. Put this system in place and wait a few years, and you’re in some kind of dumb, abusive, cacophonous hell. Wait a few more years and a president might emerge from this vortex of vulgarity.

Since Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram now form something like a national town hall, this is, of course, a metastasizing cancer. Add algorithms to it, and we really are at Stage 4. This is our world for the indefinite future. And what choice do you really think we have? You think these platforms can edit in real time the billions of tweets, posts, and images that now course through our collective, global media system?

This past week, we found a new option. You can now whine and whine about someone being mean and abusive to you, and if you’re a prominent journalist attached to a big media company, you can get your opponent punished. That’s what Vox producer Carlos Maza just did to Steven Crowder, a dime-store YouTube MAGA bro with 4 million followers who persistently had been calling Maza homophobic names. After an initial failure, Maza succeeded in getting Crowder demonetized from YouTube, until, according to YouTube, Crowder addresses “all of the issues with his channel,” including the removal of ads for his T-shirt that reads “Socialism Is For F*gs.” I have a feeling that T-shirt just became extremely popular.

The dustup ignited Twitter for a day this week, and in a simultaneous but unrelated crackdown on far-right content on YouTube, the company snagged many other innocent YouTubers — such as Ford Fischer — merely for reproducing videos of far-right abuses. Within hours, Twitter was full of enraged, allegedly demonetized YouTubers caught up in this purge. Once you start singling out people for punishment, it’s very hard to stop.

How bad was Crowder’s abuse? You can watch Maza’s own compilation of the insults here. You have to put an edited few minutes of slurs in the context of countless hours of online ranting, but it’s nonetheless clear Crowder is a lame controversialist. If you have to pepper your arguments against a gay Latino journalist with slurs like “lisp-y queer” and “anchor baby,” you’re not a hero for conservatism or free speech. You’re an unfunny opportunist previously fired by Fox News. Charles Johnson said it best: “wingnut humor: painfully unfunny racial stereotypes, followed by even more painful whining about being accused of racism by the evil liberal establishment. Rinse. Repeat.”

Nonetheless, Crowder’s shows, however lame, were, in part, about debunking Maza’s shows. This was a real and ongoing debate that Crowder befouled with performative prejudice. That’s weak, but I cannot understand how peppering an argument with insults is now subject to punishment by YouTube, even if it’s only demonetizing a channel. Maza calls this “harassment” and argues it should be punished by removing Crowder from YouTube altogether. But it isn’t harassment. It’s personal insults in the midst of an argument.

Maza also claims that he has been doxxed by Crowder’s fans and, after the airing of some of Crowder’s videos in which he mocks Maza, he “wakes up to a wall of homophobic/racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter.” That’s horrible, but Maza doesn’t even claim Crowder has coordinated or recommended this actual harassment. And the doxxing? Apparently, without Crowder’s knowledge, some fans got hold of Maza’s telephone number and barraged him with texts. That’s appalling. The text’s messages? All of them appear to say only: “Debate Steven Crowder.” I strongly oppose doxxing anyone — but if Crowder had nothing to do with it, and the messages were that banal, Maza has no case.

In fact, after caving to Maza’s complaints, YouTube conceded that Crowder was blameless under their rules: “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action.” Translation: You need to obey the rules, but if you do, we may see fit to punish you anyway. Kevin Williamson is right to notice the bullshit here. It’s the same bullshit he was subjected to by the Atlantic.

It’s not fun to be called names. But as a cab driver once told me, “Butch it up, honey. It’s gonna be a tough decade.” I’ve been openly gay since 1987 and an openly HIV-positive writer and editor for 23 years. The sheer scale and ferocity of the hatred and abuse — from right to left — I have absorbed during that time is hard to describe. There was close to a decade at the Dish when I was emailed almost every day by someone saying I had AIDS dementia. I’ve been called every variety of “faggot” you can imagine, been assaulted in public by a political foe, been picketed, heckled, and am now routinely described as an anti-Semite, a white supremacist, a eugenicist, a misogynist, a transphobe, and just the other week was compared to Ernst Röhm, an actual gay Nazi. None of this is pleasant, and there are times, I confess, when it gets me down, as it is intended to. But the idea that I would go running to the big-tech muckety-mucks and try to get my verbal abusers punished or canceled for it? Not in a million years. I’m a grown man. This is a free country.

You need to learn how to ignore abuse in the public square; you need to live with the fact that people will lie about you; you have to set boundaries and stick to them. I don’t care about what people say about me as long as it isn’t true — and if it is true, and I’ve fucked up in some way, I’ve learned to be grateful for it, even if that takes a while. Maza is young, so maybe this desire to shut down other voices or run crying to the authorities because mere words hurt his feelings will wane. I sure hope so.

But then you see he previously worked at Media Matters for America — a leftist activist organization focused on trying to cancel conservative media products with advertiser boycotts — and that he describes himself on his Twitter bio as a “Marxist pig.” A man who is outraged by ad hominem slurs has “Tucker Carlson is a white supremacist” in the same bio. And then you notice how he joked he has a crush on corporate censorship, as opposed to free speech, when referring to YouTube two years ago, and recently celebrated the “milk-shaking” of Nigel Farage: “Milkshake them all. Humiliate them at every turn. Make them dread public organizing.” In this recent tweet, he is endorsing the threat of assault to intimidate his political opponents. And yet he is the victim?

There’s a wonderful word to describe Maza. He’s a cry-bully: weaponizing his alleged victimhood to shut down other people’s careers.

In Praise of Sleep

Occasionally, I’m asked if I have any hobbies. Sleep is usually my answer. I’ve always loved it and it takes up lots and lots of time. I aim for nine hours a night, and have been known to sleep for over 14 in occasional mega-crashes. I love it in part because I have a phobia of insomnia — which took hold of me in my childhood and never really let go for years and years. I tried everything: acupuncture, every pill I could swallow, food restrictions, no booze, a strict regimen for going to bed, and still couldn’t stop the relentless twists and turns of my nocturnal brain.

My breakthrough came unexpectedly with my first experience with cannabis, when I was in my mid-30s, under the influence of a super-hot date. I’ve smoked or vaped it before bedtime almost every day since. It was the only thing that could rest my mind enough that I stopped spinning into paranoia, losing perspective, seized by anxiety that I wouldn’t be functioning the next day. Cannabis cured me. All hail cannabis!

But I always felt a little guilty about sleeping so much. It seems a little, well, decadent. And so I got a strange sense of satisfaction from an article this week in the New York Times, which largely debunked the idea that sane, healthy people can get by on four or five hours a night — or even seven. (Trump had already detonated that myth of course.) The science is in: “In a 2003 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School found that reaction times and performance on cognitive tasks plummet for those getting four hours of sleep and those getting six hours of sleep.” This doesn’t speak well of D.C., I might add, where there is close to a power cult of early rising. These strange people actually work out at the gym before they go to the office, and still get to work early. It’s one of those things I’m supposed to admire or be intimidated by. I guess I’m both, but also bewildered.

The Times piece only goes awry when it argues that the good thing about more sleep is that it actually improves efficiency for a productive human. “‘We look at sleep as an obstacle to our productivity and performance rather than as a means,” said Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and sleep specialist who is the co-author of a book on the topic. ‘The message should be about getting sufficient sleep. Many of us see it as lack of work ethic and willpower. Why do we attribute that to sleep when we don’t do it to other biologic needs, like thirst?’” Why indeed?

But why should the one great antidote to constant conscious striving be seen as an enabler of it? Can’t we just accept sleep for what it is — not a means for more productivity, but an integral, simple, enriching part of a natural human life? A means for the body and brain to rest and integrate and heal, as it is for so many creatures on a planet that orbits a sun. Why does it have to be for anything else?

My current regimen is an Ambien, half a joint, “sleep music” on Pandora, and a stupid but charming game, Angry Birds, which I play for a while to keep my mind focused on something that won’t set my imagination off, until the chemical elephant dart I’ve lodged in my brain begins to work, and my Angry Birds skills rapidly decline. Then a ritual of putting on my super-sexy CPAP mask, which inflates my asthmatic lungs and blocked sinuses with a constant stream of filtered air, until a welcome oblivion arrives.

Since quitting the blog, I almost never set an alarm, and wake up when I wake up. This is an extraordinary luxury, I fully understand. But life is short. And this luxury costs nothing.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: What Democrats Can Learn From Steve Bannon