Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bonus jazz for a Tuesday

For you, Donny.  John Scofield's cover of the Ray Charles classic, "What'd I Say."  That was the title cut from an entire album of Ray Charles covers, in Scofield's style!


Trump, Putin and the nature of power

Yesterday was surreal, but precisely what anyone with a clear sense of the last two years would have expected.  Trump was obsequious and submissive, which he... never is, except when dealing with Vladimir Putin.  Whether that is because he hero-worships Putin, or because Putin really does have blackmail material on him, we may never know for certain, as uncomfortable as that may be.  I'll restate here my continued assessment, which has not changed for quite some time.  Putin does have blackmail material of some kind on Trump (which clearly isn't that difficult to acquire, as has been demonstrated by the Stormy Daniels case), but hasn't needed to use it because Trump is so easy to manipulate by exploiting his natural fascination with totalitarian dictators, combined with his need for praise.  Don't pull the trigger on that blackmail until you have to because once you do, you turn the friend into an enemy.

Regardless of how Putin manages to get Trump to behave so submissively, he does, and this brings me to the subject of power.  Nominally, I study this.  I am a professor of political science.  Screw the capitalizations because, whatever.  To the degree that politics can be constrained in intellectual terms, it would be the study of power.  Who has it, how do they get it, how do they exercise it, etc.?  Harold Laswell simply defined politics as:  who gets what, when and how?  That's more concise, and distributional, but fundamentally, politics are about power.

So, what's power?  We now play the definitional game of infinite regress.  The ability to control or influence outcomes, right?  So, how much influence does Vladimir Putin have over American politics, and what does that say about "power?"  We are now into some fuzzy questions about politics that aren't my normal territory, but the fuzziness of the question is directly associated with the ambiguity of the relationship between Trump and Putin.

In normal times, we would say that the President of the United States is clearly the most "powerful" person in the world.  His control over military resources, capacity to make appointments and so forth, give him more direct power to influence outcomes than any other single person on the planet.  Normally.  Throughout history, the relative power of Congress and the Presidency have gone back and forth (see, for example, James Sundquist, although I can't believe I find myself referencing him), although as a single person, the institutional powers of the Presidency give the holder of that office powers, particularly now (go away, Sundquist!), that are going to be difficult to rival.  Who, though, can influence a president?  Advisors, in normal times.  We find ourselves, though, facing at least the possibility of "kompromat," or perhaps just a President whose hero-worship of an autocratic dictator leaves his judgment so blinkered that he cannot make sound decisions (not that he could otherwise anyway).

What, then, could Putin do?  That's the question, isn't it?  I have already stated my assessment that NATO is no longer a truly functioning treaty organization because Trump would never back NATO over Putin.  That gives Putin the capacity to act against NATO, but will he?  That's a separate question, and if he doesn't act against NATO, does that... power (?) mean anything?  What else can Putin do?  We have already seen Trump hand national security secrets over to Russia, getting nothing in return, and I would put a high likelihood on more of that, which is a hell of a lot of power.  In many ways, though, Trump is constrained, by Congress, by the rest of the world...  Putin can't tell Trump to bomb the shit out of Chechnya to make that problem go away for him.  He can't tell Trump to hand over a $100 billion for nothin'.  Russia is not a wealthy country.  It has nukes, but we aren't the only ones with nukes to check their nuclear capacity.  It has a large army, but empire-building in an economically interconnected world has its own risks and problems, which leaves the basic question of what Putin could do, and what he could get from Trump.

This is a difficult question.  Putin has power over Trump.  Even if all you knew was what you saw yesterday, combined with Trump's penchant for playing social dominance games, you would know that Putin has the upper hand on Trump.  What actual power does that give him?  Thinking this through, I'm not sure.  We have already seen Trump hand over national security secrets.  In the open.  What else?  I don't know, but there's that.  Such is the ambiguous nature of power.

Tuesday music: If you only listen to American music, you just suck

I know, I have used this before (recently), but it's just too perfect.  When Trump meets with his KGB handler in a Scandinavian country, I just have to play "Sovjet," by Swedish bassist, Jonas Hellborg, from e.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Donald Trump, foreign policy and Team America: World Police (more NSFW than my typical posts)

OK, so... warning.  I have what I sometimes call a "Carlin-mouth."  My posts are often "not-safe-for-work."  This post will address Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police.  It will involve Carlin-speak.  Perhaps more than my usual posts.  Fair warning.

The plot of Team America: World Police is that a government agency recruits an actor (Gary) to be a secret agent/action hero/whatever to stop Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un's father) from doing evil.  That's really all you need to know.  It was an excuse to have marionette puppets say and do crude things because it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Early in the movie, Gary meets a drunk at a bar, who gives him a speech.  This speech:



The world can be divided into "dicks," "pussies," and "assholes."  The key to the movie is a scene in which Gary takes this speech and uses it to convince the UN to let Team America do its thing.



So, there it is.  Only we can stop Kim Jong Il, despite our recklessness and arrogance.  And... dickishness.

Is Donald Trump a "dick" or an "asshole?"  How does one distinguish?  This is not actually an issue that Team America addresses, but it is important.  Gary's basic tripartite model distinguishes between "dicks" and "assholes" as follows:  "assholes shit all over everything," but "dicks," while arrogant and reckless, "fuck assholes."  So, there will eventually be something good done by the "dick"-- stopping an "asshole."

Donald Trump practically blew up a NATO meeting, and just called the EU our "foes."  In contrast, he cozies up to Putin, and Kim Jong Un, the son of the very "asshole" from Team America itself.  Which "assholes," specifically, does Trump confront?  He launched a few missiles at Assad, but that was it.  He is levying tariffs on allies like Canada, Europe...  This could be classified as "dick" behavior rather than "asshole" behavior, but to get the former classification, he would have to "fuck" an "asshole."  He acts like Putin, and now Kim Jong Un, are his best buddies.

Donald Trump, by the Team America model, is just an "asshole."

I warned you-- NSFW.

Monday morning blues: If you don't love blues, you hate America

Long Tall Deb, "What Kind of Man."  The studio version is on Diamonds on the Desert Floor.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

The latest Mueller indictments and the legal definition of "coordination" (yet another c-word...)

One of the more fascinating details in Mueller's latest round of indictments was that when Trump told the Russians to look for Clinton's deleted emails, within hours, they made a hacking attempt to do just that.  Is that "collusion?"  Well, as everyone but Trump knows, there is no legal definition of "collusion," and the Trump people are simply willfully obtuse on that point.  You know what does have a legal definition in campaign finance terms?  "Coordination."

Here goes...

Coordination is what happens when an ostensibly independent group makes expenditure decisions, or ad content decisions in direct consultation with the candidate that it is trying to help.  That's sort of a lay-person definition.  So, superPACs aren't allowed to coordinate with candidates.  They can run ads that are clearly on a candidate's behalf, but they can't have the head of the superPAC sit down with the candidate, map out where the ads will run, when, how the ads will look, scripts, etc.  That would be coordination.  Legal problems ensue.  Here's the thing, though.  Nobody ever gets caught for coordination in the campaign finance system.  Why not?  It's too easy to accomplish the same goal without actually crossing the legal threshold.  Basically, superPACs and other independent groups all play a game of "I'm not touching you!" with the FEC.

The kind of example I always give when I teach this stuff is the basic signaling process that occurs any time a candidate talks.  Hey everyone!  Pay attention to X about my opponent!  Did you hear about that scandal?!  If a superPAC then runs ads about X, is that coordination?  Not legally.  So, where's the line?

Uh...

Somewhere between that and the working dinner where the candidate and the chair of the superPAC map out the ad campaign in full together.  And that leaves plenty of room for smart people to send signals that are clear enough for the superPAC chairs to understand, but vague enough to avoid any legal problems because the laws are written in such a way that you have to be really stupid to go far enough to get convicted.

Any time I use the word, "stupid," do you free-associate the name, "Trump?"  Good.  Well done.

How stupid is Trump?  That sounds like the set-up for an old comedy routine, until you remember that he can launch nuclear weapons.  HAHA!  ha... uhh...

Trump is very stupid, but he is also full of bluster and bullshit.  Could his entreaty to the Russians be taken as bluster and bullshit, given his propensity for those things?  As Trump?  Yup.  That cannot be ruled out entirely, and between that and the high bar for showing coordination in campaigns, how much should you read into this?  Not much.

Not much, but not nothin'.  Here's the what-if.  What if the Russians had found the deleted emails, and what if they had something other than just details on Chelsea's wedding, and other such irrelevancies?  What if they handed those emails to Trump, or to WikiLeaks, via Trump's good buddy, Roger Stone?  Trump would have been pretty happy about that.  And he's already pretty enamored of Putin.  It would have been one more way for the Russians to give him something.

Anyway, keep this in mind when thinking about the latest indictments.  "Coordination" in campaigns is kind of a joke because the legal threshold for demonstrating it is so high.  Of course, I essentially advocate no limits on donations, with full disclosure of all sources.  If you think there is influence, you know exactly what you are getting.  Trump basically had a Russian flag on him while campaigning for office, so we shouldn't be surprised that one of his first acts as President was handing national security secrets to the Russians just because he could.  No, I don't forget these things, and neither should you.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America

Tim O'Brien, "Crooked Road," from Chameleon.  You can never get enough Tim O'Brien.