Bloom Briefing 28: Trump in Trouble; On 'Neoliberalism'; Orwell and Baseball

Welcome to the twenty-eighth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. Apologies for the delay – travel disruptions prevented me from sending on the usual Sunday-night timeline.

There is more Trump-Russia scandal to be discussed, but I also direct your attention to a practical etymology of the term ‘neoliberal’ by Jonathan Chait, and there are four additional articles worth your time below.

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Trump’s in Trouble and He Knows It

I think we may look back on this past week as a tipping point in the eventual downfall of Donald Trump. This is the week that Trump attacked Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice to lead an investigation into possible collaboration or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

On Wednesday, Trump said that he wouldn’t have appointed Sessions if he knew Sessions would recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. Then, perhaps uncoincidentally, it emerged on Friday that reports from the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, back to Moscow recounted a discussion with Sessions that was focused on what a Trump presidency would mean for US-Russia relations.

The person for whom this revelation is the biggest problem is Sessions himself. He has said repeatedly that he only met with Kislyak in his capacity as US senator. He said this under oath in his confirmation hearing. This could, then, lead to charges of perjury, though that was discussed already given that he volunteered, unquestioned, that he had never met with any Russians during the campaign.

Simultaneously this week, reports were emerging about Paul Manafort’s financial ties to Russia. Manafort, evidently, was $16 million in debt to Russian companies when he accepted the position of Trump campaign manager. I encourage you to read that New York Times article because it offers, “a detailed view into the murky financial world inhabited by Mr. Manafort in the years before he joined the Trump campaign.”

The fact that Mueller and his team are targeting Trump’s and his associates’ financial ties to Russia has prompted Trump to directly target Mueller and his staff. They are said to be compiling information in a potential effort to portray Mueller and his team as partisan. And Trump has asked about rules for pardoning his friends, family, and even himself.

This passage from the linked Washington Post article seems particularly compelling:

“Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.”

What is in those tax returns?

I have been thinking more and more in recent weeks that the best frame for understanding Trump is that his great business idea was that he didn’t have to play by the rules. He did whatever he wanted, committed fraud, engaged in housing discrimination, scammed contractors he hired, etc. because he could, and he knew that the consequences of doing so would not be more severe than the penalty he would face if he were caught -- and he would not always be caught.

He’s tried to approach political life in the same way. Campaign missteps were just one more news cycle to get through. He could say whatever he wanted and it didn’t matter because nobody would hold him accountable. A bizarre confluence of events led to his victory, but since assuming elected office, he has discovered that the political world has real consequences.

Had he lost the election, there probably would not be a special counselor looking into his relationship with Russia. It would have been unseemly for a Clinton DOJ to lead such an inquiry. We have a norm of not using the legal apparatus one controls with victory to attack one’s political opponents.

If it turns out that there is really something nefarious in the tax returns, the accident of Trump’s victory will have led to his potential complete ruination. His entire business empire could come crashing down, when it wasn’t even remotely under threat until he entered elected office.

The danger is that there is only one man – Robert Mueller – standing in the way of Trump getting away with the complete debasement of our democracy. He has debased it severely already – but perhaps not irrevocably. That is why the fact that Trump is preparing an attack on Mueller is so alarming. If Mueller is fired or Trump undermines the investigation, the country will be reliant on congressional Republicans to take up the mantle of holding Trump to account, and there has been virtually no evidence to date that they are willing to do so.

These are dangerous times, and they ought make us seriously consider whether or not we have sufficient institutional infrastructure to handle the rapaciousness of a leader like Trump. The post-Trump era will be a watershed moment in the history of our nation. I see two potential paths forward.

We pass new anti-corruption measures, requiring financial disclosures and limiting the ability of elected officials to profit while in office. We demand total transparency and honesty from our politicians. We insist that all politicians must demonstrate through their lives a consistent commitment to the American people. And we reinforce the democratic norms that have made the United States such a strong democratic nation.

The alternative is that we view Trump as an aberration rather than a portent and so deem our institutions sufficiently strong to handle such a figure. If we fail to take Trump’s rise as a wake-up call, we risk descending permanently into a corrupt nation where politicians can be bought and sold, aided by foreign countries, and totally beholden to non-democratic interests – corporate or otherwise.

What is ‘Neoliberalism’?

Jonathan Chait has written an excellent piece on the use of the word ‘neoliberal’, how it is used, and what people mean when they use it.

“Neoliberalism is held to be the source of all the ills suffered by the Democratic Party and progressive politics over four decades, up to and (especially) including the rise of Donald Trump. The “neoliberal” accusation is a synecdoche for the American left’s renewed offensive against the center-left and a touchstone in the struggle to define progressivism after Barack Obama.”

Chait goes on to identify how this critique is not new. For much of the Democratic Party’s modern history the left wing has attacked the center-left as being not simply a barrier to success, but the root of the country’s problems.

Chait chides users of the term neoliberal as using a term devoid of meaning, and to a large extent, he’s right. What benefit is derived from applying “a single term to opposing combatants in America’s increasingly bitter partisan struggle?”

But clarity of language and meaning was never the goal. The entire premise of the term is to muddle the differences between center left and right. “They’re all capitalist cronies,” the thinking goes. “Socialism, anarchism, communism, syndicalism, etc. are the only viable solutions.” This is why the Sanders messaging around revolution appealed so well to a group of people who believe that center-left Democrats are the root of the problem.

This isn’t to say that center-left Democrats are blameless. They certainly have their problems when it comes to corporate fundraising (i.e., legalized corruption), racial politics, entitlement reform, and the like. But as I have written about before, the center-left—far-left fight isn’t worth legislating on ideological grounds at the moment. There are valuable tactical discussions about how best to achieve our shared aims, but there is little benefit to some of the in-fighting currently taking place.

Regardless, I find Chait’s piece to be a persuasive argument for more or less dropping the term ‘neoliberal’ from our vocabularies. Its use betrays a political agenda that is presently unhelpful.

Additional Reading:

If you read one thing this week, make it “The Political Nature of Baseball Jargon” by Mary Craig at The Hardball Times. The combination of politics, language, and baseball -- written marvelously -- really is a most unusual treat. This is mostly not about baseball, even though it’s about baseball, so if you're not a baseball fan, I think it's still worth your time. It’s really about the subconscious nature of our use of political language.

At Politico, John Savage has written about the renaissance of the John Birch Society, a hateful group of far-right nut-jobs who believe that the globalist liberal elitist communists are coming to take your guns, your God, and your freedom.

At The Atlantic, James Hamblin writes about the misguided rhetoric being used to talk about Senator McCain’s fight with cancer. “To believe that if McCain does live another decade it will be because of his character or his history of mental toughness is to believe that those who died before him died for lack of effort or fortitude.”

Massimo Calabresi authored the cover-story at Time last week was about the effort to prevent Russian hacking of the US election. “What unfolded from early spring 2016 through the close of polls on Nov. 8 in states and counties across America was an aggressive attack on the credibility of our elections and a largely unseen and futile attempt by the federal government to counter it.” As I have written before, protecting faith in American democracy – and in our elections as a primary component of that democracy – must be a central tenet of our way out of the present mess.