Quick hits (part I)

1) Love this on Trump’s GOP “takeover” from Eric Levitz:

Yet McConnell is “staying put.” His caucus’s principled conservatives believe that when the state intervenes in the pharmaceutical market to raise prices and juice profits (by awarding patent monopolies that restrict competition), that is free-market economics — but when “big government” intervenes to aid consumers at the expense of Merck’s shareholders, it’s socialist tyranny. And, at the end of the day, the GOP’s long-standing principles (a.k.a. the GOP donor class’s long-standing demands) ostensibly count for more than one president’s whims.

What, then, do we mean when we say that Trump has “taken over” the GOP? If a president cannot convince his congressional allies to buck their party’s established orthodoxy on his “next major priority” — even when his position is popular, and the orthodoxy is not — in what sense has he attained the “complete fealty” of his party’s lawmakers? The discrepancy of Trump’s supposedly historic power over his party — and his demonstrable inability to rally congressional Republicans behind his legislative goals — reflects a fact that’s too often elided in discussions of Trump’s “hostile takeover of the GOP”: The mogul’s conquest of the American right owed as much to strategic surrenders as it did to tweeted blitzkriegs.

Trump began accommodating the GOP Establishment from the moment he secured the nomination. In the early weeks of his primary campaign, Trump endorsed universal health-caretax hikes on hedge-fund managers, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. After Trump won the Republican primary — and, thus, the hearts and minds of many previously adversarial GOP donors — he either abandoned or de-emphasized such heresies. Once in power, he outsourced his agenda to Paul Ryan. Trump could have devoted his “honeymoon” to his (broadly popular) ambitions for improving U.S. infrastructure. Instead, he let the Randian speaker try and fail to take health-care from poor people, before successfully delivering (deeply unpopular) tax cuts to wealthy ones.

Notably, subordinating his own political interests to the GOP Establishment’s fiscal agenda did not earn Trump any “fealty” on his campaign’s defining issue: When the White House’s official immigration plan (which included full funding for a border wall, and cuts to legal admissions) came before the Senate in February 2018, 14 Republicans voted against it.  (Mitch McConnell held votes on three other immigration bills that same day; all won more support than Donald Trump’s.)

To be sure, the president has occasionally flouted his party’s orthodoxy on trade and foreign policy. But even in those realms, Trump’s heresies are often overstated. Every modern Republican president has dabbled in protectionism at the behest of his favorite industries. And Trump did not ultimately tear up NAFTA, but merely negotiated a nearly-identical replacement. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal affections for Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, his administration has pursued the hawkish anti-Russian foreign policy that Mitt Romney once demanded. The president’s betrayal of Syria’s Kurds may have ruffled some neoconservative feathers. But then, betraying the Kurds has long been a pastime of Republican presidents – and for all of Trump’s vows to withdraw U.S. troops from the region, “large-scale operations” in Syria are ongoing. 

Put simply, it isn’t that hard to complete a “hostile takeover” of a party when your hostility does not extend to anything that that party truly values. The GOP Establishment did not wage holy war on Trump in early 2016 because it found his incivility or xenophobia unconscionable; it did so because it doubted Trump’s ability to defeat Hillary Clinton, and his willingness to implement the conservative agenda. By delivering the White House to Republicans, the regulatory state to the Chamber of Commerce, the tax code to plutocrats, and the judiciary to the Federalist Society, Trump has dispelled those fears.

The mainstream press exaggerates Trump’s power over congressional Republicans because it refuses to recognize the gulf between the GOP’s stated values and its actual ones. The modern Republican Party has never been a stickler for balanced budgetsunfettered trade, or constitutional restraints on executive authority (when the executive is a Republican). It has always been happy to abet presidential lawlessness when doing so advanced the conservative movement’s ideological goals. Thus, the fact that House Republicans are willing to forgive Trump’s illicit efforts to sabotage the Democratic front-runner is much less significant than the Times suggests.

2) Jesse Singal on “toxic wokeness” with an analogy to human sacrifice and I kind of love it:

It sounds like you’re describing life in a toxic online social-justice community. Toxic SJ communities are, of course, no less toxic because they center around fundamentally worthy causes. One thing I’ve noticed about them is no one seems to be happy. When happiness does appear to manifest, it’s a strained, performative type of happiness.

Allow me my first of what are going to be several digressions. Earlier this week I got started on the latest “Fall of Civilizations” podcast, which is about the Aztecs. One of the many things the host, Paul M.M. Cooper, does masterfully is pick the right spots to zoom in a bit, to encourage listeners to really think, if only for a few minutes along what is an hours-long journey inside a particular civilization’s downfall, about some issue or moment.

One such moment in this podcast involves the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Cooper treats the subject with sufficient care, given that, as he points out, human sacrifice was one of the rationales the Spaniards used to justify their plunder of the New World (the colonizing Spaniards were, of course, deeply concerned with human rights — real humanists, that lot). But human sacrifice did occur. A priest would stab someone to death with an obsidian dagger at the top of a pyramid and pull out their still-beating heart. Their blood would run down the steps of the pyramid and their body would be tossed down it, its parts fed to animals. Many people would watch; it was a big social and religious ritual.

Cooper invites us to imagine would it would be like to be in the crowd. What did the average member of this (in other ways) incredibly successful, astoundingly impressive civilization think of the practice? In all likelihood, he points out, there was a range of opinions, just as the Europeans of the era likely had a range of opinions on the very public executions that would take place thousands of miles from Tenochtitlan, in starkly different cultural settings.

It’s hard not to imagine some half-hearted cheers. At root, these grisly sacrifices, often perpetrated upon prisoners of war, were demonstrations of state power. This was, at the time, a powerful civilization that believed, as so many powerful civilizations do, that it had the power of the gods themselves on its side, and that it was important to stay in their good graces. So maybe you cheer a bit louder than you feel like cheering, because what are you going to do, not cheer? Deny the self-evident wonder and righteousness of what you’re witnessing? When the consequences of being a hated and defeated outgroup member are presently tumbling down those endless holy stairs, right toward you?

There is this stock response when people do what I’m doing now, when they put dysfunctional online social dynamics in the context of the really bad stuff from our human past — sacrifices or witch burnings or the Red Scare and so on. The response is incredulous outrage: How could you compare one to the other??? Then the indignant person shuts down and refuses to discuss the matter at hand. My theory is that when they chant the mantra You can’t compare them! loud and fast enough, it drowns out their own doubts; it allows them to avoid interrogating their own role in making the world a meaner and crueler place than it needs to be.

So, for the record:

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

The whole point is that there are certain aspects of human nature that pop up again and again and again, in different forms at different times. One of them is in-group insecurity. Are you a member in good standing? Is someone else poised to overtake you in the local hierarchy? What can you do — must you do — to hang on? A huge amount of human social life is oriented toward determining and broadcasting people’s status — whether they’re in or out and just how in or out they are.

Toxic online social-justice communities are miserable places largely because they are fueled by stilted, superficial outrage, and because there is an accurate sense that if you say the wrong thing, all your friends will instantly throw you under the bus. Since so many members of these communities don’t know each other in real life, and in fact have no firm connection to one another other than explicitly stated political values, people naturally develop a rather insecure sense of in-group attachment — one premised almost entirely on avoiding wrongthink and on reciting the right parts of the liturgy at the right times.

3) Really like this Wired list of 24 best movies of the 2010’s as I’ve actually seen most of these and agree with many of the picks.  Since this is Wired, it is a sci-fi heavy list.  I love “Looper” and am very pleased to see “Edge of Tomorrow” get some much-deserved love.  Also a huge fan of Arrival.

4) Shockingly, none of the Trump administration’s justifications for the Solemani killing actually hold up.  Paul Waldman takes them all down.

5) Frank Bruni lets loose on Nikki Haley and false notions of patriotism in his weekly newsletter:

Shame on Nikki Haley.

In the aftermath of the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, she didn’t merely praise President Trump — a show of support that may well reflect her own, like-minded assessment of events and is absolutely her right.

She denigrated Americans who took a different view by disingenuously describing their reaction. “The only ones that are mourning the loss of Suleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates,” she told Sean Hannity during an interview on Fox News. Of course he thrilled to that characterization.

Which is an utterly bogus one. Democrats aren’t mourning the Iranian military commander’s death. They agree that he was a dangerous actor, with blood on his hands. But they are asking why Trump ordered his killing now, whether the administration has a fully fleshed strategy beyond this extraordinary strike and whether Iran will be less or more bellicose as a consequence of it. These are important, necessary questions. Republicans should be asking them, too. The answers could determine whether we wind up at war.

There’s this popular, recurring notion — you’re going to hear more and more of it from Trump’s loyalists in coming days and weeks — that when America is threatened by an adversary, Americans must exhibit unity. Some readers will surely admonish me for failing to do that in my midweek column, about the mismatch of Trump and this moment.

“Partisan politics should stop when it comes to foreign policy,” said Haley, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, telling Hannity that “we need to be completely behind the president” and that “every one of those countries are watching our news media right now.” Forget a free press and skeptical public. She wants a cheering section.

And that’s not patriotic. It’s the opposite. And it’s foolish.

I agree that we should tamp down pettiness and check reflexive, press-a-button partisanship when the country is imperiled and American lives are on the line. Hell, we should do that all of the time.

And in matters of state we should be especially careful, which is why there was a long if imperfectly followed tradition of presidents not using their trips overseas to continue or start political spats back home.

You know who flouted that? Trump. I can still see the backdrop of white crosses in a Normandy graveyard as he trashed Nancy Pelosi in a television interview. He has repeatedly mocked Joe Biden while abroad — and of course tried to use his presidential sway to get a foreign country to do its own besmirching of Biden.

So please, Ambassador Haley, don’t lecture me on how foreign policy should be a partisan no-fly zone, certainly not on behalf of this president, whose ingrained habit of lying intensifies the imperative of not blindly accepting what our leaders tell us as troops are activated and storm clouds gather.

Too little skepticism toward what turned out to be misinformation mired us in Vietnam and, much later, Afghanistan and also got us into Iraq. Again and again we trust too quickly or too much, and the country pays a terrible price.

Doesn’t patriotism demand that we learn from those mistakes?

6) Thanks to NC State’s new gender guide, I actually learned several new terms.  Sure, I’m familiar with genderqueer and non-binary, but who knew agender was a thing.  Now that’s one hell of a rejection of the gender binary.

Agender – a term used to describe the experience of one being without gender, outside the gender binary, rejecting the social construct of gender
Gender Fluid – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender as moving along the continuum between and among genders
Genderqueer – a term used to describe the experience of being outside the gender binary, which may include having two or more genders (bigender, pangender, etc.), being third-gendered or other-gendered, or being without gender
Man – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being male, masculine
Non-binary – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being outside the binary or otherwise not identifying with binary male or female gender categories
Self-Entered – please enter the term most appropriate to describe your gender
Two-spirit – a culturally-specific term used to describe some individuals in some Native American cultures whose gender orientation includes both a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit
Woman – a term used to describe the experience of one’s gender being female, feminine

7) Can classroom air filters improve student performance?  Looks like it.  Then again, Drum is pretty skeptical.

8) Really enjoyed this NYT Magazine piece on gene drive (first time I read how it came to be– which was really cool) and genetically-modified mosquitos.  I actually found this part about Monsanto, though, particularly interesting:

“With genetically engineered foods, in the earliest years, Monsanto really set the context,” Charo says. “And it was a mess. Their financial interest in the intellectual property and their regulatory interest in making sure these products were able to come to market got conflated with the science, so nobody was willing to trust the kind of research they were doing. The end result was that all G.M.O. research got tainted.”

Todd Kuiken, a researcher at the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, says that “it was basically a lesson in how not to do things.” But, he pointed out, the “Monsanto Mistake” also alerted researchers to the need for a more transparent and collaborative approach. With gene drives, groups like Target Malaria, a nonprofit research consortium administered by Imperial College, London, and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have stressed that the deployment of modified mosquitoes in Africa should be “an African decision.” Local and national governments would work with regulatory organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, which have proposed frameworks for testing and releasing genetically modified mosquitoes. In the United States, recent developments in genetics, including gene drives, have created a boom market for ethicists, as well as for so-called engagement specialists, who have the unenviable problem of figuring out how to get people to be genuinely thoughtful about a confusing and highly technical area of research.

9) I didn’t even know “muscle confusion” workouts are a thing.  During my workouts, my muscles are pretty much never confused.  But that’s okay, because a new study suggests its about your brain, not your muscles:

What these findings suggest is that muscles are not deterred or bored by unvarying routines, says Brad Schoenfeld, an associate professor of exercise science at Lehman College in New York and a co-author of the study. “They adapt to load,” he says, whether that load arrives through the same exercise or a different one each time.

But minds are not muscles and could be influenced by novelty, he says. “The differences in motivation scores at the end were substantial,” he says, suggesting that “from a purely motivational standpoint, variety matters.”

10) Derek Thompson on how this decade will probably be “peak meat.”  That would be great.  As I might have mentioned, I’ve been very impressed with the newest plant-based meats I’ve had.  And I’m super-excited about Impossible Pork.  Anyway, Thompson:

If these trends continue, per-capita meat consumption in the United States is all but certain to peak this decade. “Peak meat” won’t happen because tens of millions of carnivores suddenly got religion on animal rights, but rather because they were motivated by the opposite of a collective sacrifice: the magic of a longer menu.

Factory farming may be the epitome of capitalist excess, an inferno of needless suffering and environmental degradation for the pursuit of profit. But the plant-based revolution, too, is driven by a set of highly capitalist forces: technology, choice, and transnational corporate power. In the past decade, total venture-capital investment in plant-based meat has exceeded $2 billion, led by Impossible Foods, with $700 million in venture funds, and Beyond Meat, which went public in 2019.

These companies have partnered with some of the largest fast-food chains in the world to serve plant-based alternatives for each of the three most popular meats in the West—chicken, beef, and pork. This week, KFC announced that it would test a new vegan chicken sandwich at nearly 1,000 locations, starting in the U.K. In the past year, plant-based options have grown more than 250 percent at all burger-serving restaurants in the U.S., according to the food-research company Datassential. Burger King’s meatless “Impossible Whopper” powered the company to its strongest sales growth in four years. McDonald’s has responded by partnering with Beyond Meat to test its own version of plant-based burgers in the U.S. Beyond Meat also provides plant-based sausages for breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s, while Burger King is testing imitation ground pork on its breakfast menu with something called the “Impossible Croissan’wich.”

What’s immediately obvious from this long list of meatish items is that investors, corporate executives, and consumers—including, crucially, those who say they would never become vegetarian—are excited about meat produced from plants. But these developments have a more radical implication: Plants are becoming the fourth meat.

That sentence will register as absurd to many people—and for carnivorous gourmands, it will smack of outright heresy. But it’s not an extravagant prediction, once you shake off the obvious paradox. Within the next decade or two, if the typical American eats 10 pounds of plant-based meat each year (essentially, the weight of one Impossible Whopper every week) plant-based meat will replace seafood as the fourth-most-popular “meat.”

11) Good stuff from John Sides, “Incumbent presidents usually get more popular when they run for reelection. Will Trump?”

The third pattern is the one Trump needs: increasing approval numbers throughout the election year. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are the clearest examples. Nixon’s average monthly approval increased from 49 percent to 61 percent between January and October 1972. Clinton’s increased from 47 percent to 56 percent over the same period in 1996.

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama experienced more modest increases, but increases nonetheless. Reagan’s approval had already increased significantly in 1983 as the country recovered from the punishing 1982 recession. But it increased about three more points in 1984 before he was easily reelected…

As the graph shows, Trump’s approval rating is lower than any incumbent president’s at this point in their first term. And even though Trump won in 2016 despite being viewed unfavorably, it’s a different proposition when you’re the incumbent president. The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it nicely:

It’s one thing to vote for someone you dislike, it’s another to vote for someone you think is a bad president. In other words, asking people whether they approve or disapprove of how the president is handling his job is going to be a better predictor of their vote than asking them whether they have a favorable opinion of a candidate.

Of course, Trump’s reelection can’t be ruled out — hence the even odds he has in the betting markets. Nevertheless, his position is unusually weak for an incumbent presiding over a good economy. The simplest strategy for improving his chances is reaching that thin slice of persuadable voters with a message about the good economy.

The question is whether Trump has fully committed to this message.

12) I loved this mini stories episode of 99% Invisible.  But I had a truly wonderful moment listening to this segment on the history of Los Alamos when they started interviewing the Los Alamos historian, Alan Carr, who was a graduate student/friend of mine at Texas Tech way back when.

13) I was a little disappointed with the de-aging in the Irishman.  Looked too much like an older person with bad plastic surgery.  But, this is kind of amazing… somebody with video skills made a way better version (seriously, do watch this) with free software in seven days:

It’s impossible to argue with the star-power of a mob movie that contains the following names: Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci. On paper, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. The problem is, though, that Robert De Niro is a 76-year-old man, Al Pacino is a 79-year-old man, and Joe Pesci is a 76-year-old-man. And in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, these three mid-to-late-’70s actors are playing real-life mobsters throughout the span of half a century. That means, at times, we’re seeing De Niro’s Frank Sheeran as a twenty-and-thirtysomething-year-old man.

To pull this off, Martin Scorsese spent millions of Netflix’s money to digitally de-age De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci so they could portray these men throughout different parts of their lives. It’s safe to say it doesn’t entirely work. The result is some hellish uncanny valley, where their faces on screen perpetually look like they could be anywhere from 40 to 60 years old. We see De Niro’s Sheeran, supposedly in his 30s, beating the shit out of mobsters, moving like a 70-year-old man with the face of a 50-year-old man. It’s confusing, and often distracting. But many critics and awards show voters were able to look past the clunky CGI to enjoy yet another Scorsese mob movie featuring his old pals.

I was not one of them. And neither was this deepfake YouTuber who says he used free software to make The Irishman de-aging look better. And, according to the YouTuber, it only took him seven days.

14) I just upgraded my old router with the Wirecutter’s “budget” recommendation and damn was that about the best $50 I’ve spent.

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