Yesterday was primary day! At least in Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, and my home state, Arkansas. I am relieved to report that the woman who made her gun range into a “Muslim Free Zone” did not win Arkansas’s Republican gubernatorial primary, nor even come close. You can find coverage of the most important and interesting races at Vox and FiveThirtyEight.
Also this morning:
- My favorite result of the night: Stacey Abrams won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Georgia and could become the first Black woman to govern one of the United States. I love her, and I think she has a real shot in November, especially since the Republican primary is going to a runoff, which means that the two top Republican contenders will be fighting with each other instead of Abrams for the next two months. The Nation has complete coverage of the Abrams win from Joan Walsh and Steve Phillips. Here is what Phillips says about Abrams’s strategy:
Especially in light of the resistance to Trump, Democratic voter turnout is up in previously conservative-voting Congressional districts, and those re-energized progressive whites can help pick up crucial seats in Georgia, as well as help capture the governor’s mansion.
Smart investors look at trends, where things are going, not where they were. The plain truth of the matter is that every single day, America—and Georgia—get browner by the hour. Nationally, every single day, 7,000 more people of color are added to the population while the net growth of whites is just 1,000 people (that’s births minus deaths plus legal immigration (which shows why Trump is obsessed with immigration).
It will cost about $10 million to mobilize the 230,000 previously-uninspired voters of color required to close the gap in Georgia. The question and the challenge for the progressive movement is will they put their money where their mouth is?
I don’t think this strategy will work in every single state (I thought it would have been idiotic to try to primary Joe Manchin in West Virginia, for example). But I think Georgia might be a place where it will work, and I’m excited to see how this race goes in November.
- The other big news of the morning (other than the president tweeting nonsense again) is that the death of a major American novelist, Philip Roth. I never could quite warm up to Roth, partly because I couldn’t relate to a sensibility that seemed extremely and specifically male to me (I feel the same way about Saul Bellow, although I did like John Updike for some reason). I also never quite forgave Roth for a passage in his memoir, Patrimony, in which he describes his father having a vulnerable moment and asking Roth not to reveal it to anyone — and then Roth put it in a book. Still, Roth’s work meant a lot of many people and Jeet Heer’s appreciation in the New Republic is well worth reading:
What liberated Roth was popular culture. As a boy he had been an avid radio listener and as an adult he got to see the birth of modern stand-up comedy in Chicago, where Nichols and May, along with Lenny Bruce, were inventing a new form of stage humor based on the interplay of voices (cerebral, sex-obsessed, and often inflected with the language of therapy). It was Roth’s genius to realize that the language of stand-up comedy could reinvigorate literary fiction.
The 1960s were also the great age of pop art, with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein bringing the stylistic tics of advertising and comic books to canvases. Roth did something similar to literature: He wrote pop novels, where voice (often wise-cracking, satirical, and self-critical) was central, Flaubertian coolness be damned.
- Dahlia Lithwick has a long piece in Slate about the moral dilemma some Republicans are finding themselves in: do they give up their positions in government in hopes of retaining personal dignity, or do they stick around in hopes of possibly mitigating the damage the president is doing to the country?
Moral courage in this setting is almost impossible to define. It’s, in one way, completely understandable and actually quite a relief that so many good people have stayed on at the highest levels of the Justice Department, the State Department, and other agencies, despite the fact that the commander in chief has no compunction about insulting them, their mission, and their leadership almost daily. We need good people to stay on to act as a bulwark against cruelty and instability. But we also need good people to leave, and to speak out, to signal that cruelty and immorality are wrong.
The question remains the same. At what point are Trump’s attacks on his own law enforcement and national security apparatus potentially damaging enough to warrant some kind of response from patriots in both parties? And are the momentary tweets and the occasional rousing speeches and the retirements and subsequent book tours truly the kind of moral and effective responses that are warranted in times that feel imperiled as they now do?
Lithwick doesn’t really come to any conclusion about the answers to her questions, other than yeah, some people need to leave but other people need to stay, and every serious Republican should be considering their options. If I were one of these conflicted GOPers, I don’t think this article would clarify anything for me! But it’s interesting and thoughtful nonetheless.
- And in Foreign Policy, Terence McNamee uses a novel lens to look at the North Korea problem (at least it’s not something I’d read about or considered before): maybe it’s really like South Africa:
North Korea’s failed promises to dismantle its arsenal in the past and its recent signaling — willing and pragmatic one day, intransigent the next — are obvious reasons to be wary. Yet we can’t assume Kim thinks North Korea can remain a pariah forever any more than de Klerk believed South Africa could. Nuclear weapons may be the only currency North Korea can leverage to rejoin the family of nations. South Africa’s experience offers a glimpse of what a verifiable drawdown of North Korea’s program might deliver internationally.
If we dare imagine that Kim Jong Un — the third-generation Kim to rule North Korea — is a closet reformer like de Klerk, he might also have an eye on what could be achieved domestically. De Klerk used nuclear rollback as a wedge to steamroll opponents of political reform, particularly in South Africa’s security establishment.
No one outside North Korea really knows whether a fundamental shift in the country’s nuclear posture would go smoothly or not. A congruence of interests across the constituencies affected — including the military, scientists, senior officials, and Kim himself — cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the resistance de Klerk faced from recalcitrant generals could be feeble by comparison. Conversely, Kim could be the most hawkish of the bunch, unable to conceive of any foreign-policy alternative to nuclear brinkmanship.
Unfortunately, McNamee doesn’t offer any ideas about how we get Kim Jong Un to have the same epiphany that de Klerk seemed to have (I mean, sure, I guess he could be a secret human rights devotee who just happens to have tens of thousands of his own people in brutal prison camps), and now that the words “Libya model” have been uttered it’s hard to imagine how it could happen. An intriguing idea nonetheless.
So when I checked the primary results this morning I was amused to discover these dueling takeaways: Politico says that “moderate Democrats took it on the chin,” while Slate proclaimed that “Democratic voters responded by playing it safe, picking a bevy of establishment-friendly candidates.” And both articles talk about some of the same races! I think the disconnect here is that the candidates Politico considers moderate (specifically John Morganelli in Pennsylvania’s 7th district and Rachel Reddick in Pennsylvania’s 1st) seem more conservative to me, almost in the mold of Joe Manchin or Joe Donnelly. Morganelli doesn’t support abortion rights, which puts him solidly outside the Democratic mainstream; and Reddick was a Republican not too long ago. The winners of these primaries (Susan Wild in the 7th district and Scott Wallace in the 1st) are progressive but more “establishment-friendly” than the Bernie Sanders crowd; in fact, Wild beat Sanders’s preferred candidate, Greg Edwards. So (somewhat to my surprise) I think Slate got this one more right than Politico did.
The most interesting result of the night, to my mind, was Paulette Jordan’s victory over A. J. Balukoff in the Idaho governor’s Democratic primary. Now here is a win that really is progressive over establishment: Balukoff had sewn up most of the Idaho Democratic establishment’s endorsements, while Jordan was endorsed by Cher and Khizr Khan. To a degree, the progressive vs. establishment divide is cosmetic: Balukoff and Jordan have strikingly similar policy positions. But she’s younger and female and, if elected, would be the nation’s first Native American governor; it’s hard not to think (or, maybe, hope) that she represents the future of the Democratic party and Balukoff the past.
Having said that, she’s almost certainly going to lose to Brad Little in November.
Other stories I read this morning:
- In the New Republic, Eric Cortellessa argues that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem without extracting any concessions from Israel is only going to make peace negotiations more difficult than they already were:
It is a foreign policy axiom that the U.S. is the only third party that can give both sides the kind of guarantees they need to make the compromises necessary: It’s why in the past, throughout the Oslo Peace Process, Israelis and Palestinians alike wanted American officials in the room for negotiations, not a delegation from the United Nations, not the European Union. Of course, only Israelis and Palestinians can ultimately cross the rubicon of peace, but the Palestinians now rejecting American leadership has far-reaching ramifications, effectively sidelining the only international actor that can facilitate a deal.
This isn’t an original argument, I realize, but Cortellessa does a good job here of summing up the issues with the embassy move.
- Marc Thiessen has a Washington Post op-ed that is both weird and dumb: Trump has had two “major foreign policy achievements” over the past week and Democrats are not giving him enough credit. The achievements? Bringing home three North Korea hostages, and moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
I’m sorry, I found this piece completely infuriating. Granted, I am a Democrat and I recently blamed Trump for the leak in my dishwasher so I am not a disinterested observer. However, moving the embassy isn’t a diplomatic achievement; it’s something that any president could have done since 1995–including George W. Bush, the president for whom Thiessen worked. They all chose not to. Moving the embassy didn’t require any negotiation skills; it just required signing something. The reason the three earlier presidents didn’t do it wasn’t because they couldn’t but because it was a bad idea (see Cortellessa’s article above). “Americans see Trump being criticized for doing exactly what Congress demanded, and his Democratic and Republican predecessors promised, and they rightly see hypocrisy,” Thiessen writes, conveniently ignoring the polls that show that only 36% of Americans actually support the move.
Also, Thiessen doesn’t even mention the dozens of Palestinians who were killed in protests during the opening of the embassy. “This is a huge victory for Trump, pay no attention to the dead people behind the curtain” seems to be his thesis.
Meanwhile, as Thiessen himself acknowledges, Democrats aren’t unhappy that the hostages are home; they are unhappy that the president effusively praised Kim Jong Un for returning them. Kissing up to an authoritarian dictator is not a foreign policy achievement and not worthy of praise! (I continue to be shocked by the things that have to be said out loud in 2018.) It is also not particularly effective, as this morning’s news that North Korea will reconsider attending the summit if denuclearization is on the table. So in addition to being weird and dumb, this article has also aged very poorly since it was published at 4:41 yesterday afternoon.
- In Foreign Policy, Dahlia Scheindlin makes the enormously depressing argument that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival depends on continual conflict with the Palestinians:
The result of strongman leadership is that people become much less enthusiastic for the foundations of democracy, favoring splashy personal achievements or controversy instead. And the irony of consolidating power is that it harms democracy but simultaneously generates an environment in which one person gets credit for everything going well, reinforcing support for that same leader.
Such a leader could also be blamed for all bad things. But many Israelis have apparently traded personal economic frustrations for an occasional celebration, be it Israel’s victory in the Eurovision contest or the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Voters have lowered their standards on personal integrity in return for domestic tranquility, punctured only by the occasional war that most believe could not have been prevented. And, so the logic goes, it’s better to have Bibi fighting that war — or killing those protesters in Gaza who dare to seek a way out after 11 years of closure — than a despised left-winger.
Sooner or later, Netanyahu will eventually exit the political stage. But given the way that every crisis reinforces his power, and what his years in power have done to Israel, the pendulum doesn’t look likely to swing in the other direction soon.
- And in Lawfare, Harry Litman has a fascinating post about how one might go about flipping Michael Cohen:
Step one in that transition is the isolation of the lieutenant from the family and the daily social life, which usually consists largely of a lot of hanging out and killing time and not all that much actual criminal activity. That much seems already to have happened, notwithstanding that Cohen has yet to be arrested. The Times reported recently that Cohen has told associates that he feels isolated since the FBI search.
With the spell of daily connection to the family broken, the feds will seek to persuade the made man that the Don doesn’t esteem him—or worse—doesn’t even respect him. Here, again, Trump has provided the FBI and the New York prosecutors quite a lot of material to work with, should they need to. Cohen appears to have endured years of petty slights from his narcissistic boss. One such humiliation recently reported by the Wall Street Journal was Trump’s boorish speech at Cohen’s son’s bar mitzvah, when he arrived late and gave a speech telling guests he had only come because Cohen called him, his secretary and the Trump children begging Trump to attend.
I’ve just started rewatching The Sopranos for the first time in a decade and it feels very timely. Michael Cohen reminds me forcefully of Big Pussy Bonpensiero. But comparing Trump to Tony Soprano feels a bit insulting to the memory of James Gandolfini.
There has been a great deal of saber-rattling about North Korea lately, and the presidential Twitter account certainly seems to be encouraging it. If you’re looking for resources to better understand the current crisis, here are some suggestions:
- Brothers at War, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager, is a readable, comprehensive history of the conflict between North and South Korea, as well as the involvement of the United States.
- Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, describes life in North Korea today. It’s drawn from interviews with defectors, and it is unputdownable. Fascinating and heartbreaking.
- The Orphan-Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, is a fictional look at North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It’s important to keep in mind that this book is fiction; you can’t assume it’s an accurate portrayal of life in North Korea. But it’s one of the best books I know for helping me think about what life in a totalitarian regime really feels like.
- Black Flags, by Joby Warrick, is about the rise of ISIS and may seem like an odd choice for a list of books about the crisis in North Korea. But since the president does seem to be enthusiastically sounding the trumpets of war, I think it’s important to look back at the mistakes that the U. S. government made in the Middle East under Bush and Obama that led to the emergence of ISIS. A second ISIS arising out of the ashes of Korea is something we should want to avoid at all costs.
- Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, is the classic insider’s account of what happened when the Kennedy administration faced a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union in 1962. Of course there is not a one-to-one relationship between the Cuban Missile Crisis and today’s North Korean situation, but I think it’s instructive to look back and consider how and why the Kennedy administration responded as it did.