Saturday, September 17, 2016

Trump's Orwellian history

As many have noted, Trump's nonstop barrage of falsehoods has left those still grounded in some semblance of reality dazed if not numb: the normal tools of "fact checking" and presidential campaign coverage are simply not equipped to deal with such an unprecedented and daily departure from basic truth on the part of a major candidate.

But the last two days have brought something new and far more depraved than anything we've seen so far, and it's important not to let this moment pass as just another case of Trump being Trump.

The Orwellian brazenness with which Trump and his campaign have rewritten reality, in now casting Trump himself as the man who has done Barack Obama a "great service" by establishing that the president really "was born in the United States," is unlike anything seen in American politics in any our lifetimes.

All politicians, like all human beings, shade the truth, use evidence selectively, recast the emphasis of events to cast themselves in a more favorable light.

But what we are seeing here is a campaign that, with not one iota of moral conscience, has reached into the playbooks of Big Brother, Joseph Goebbels, and Soviet Russia and simply fabricated an entire false narrative. This is not a case of spin, or deceptive evasion, or clever rhetorical jujitsu; ut is not a case of the subtle or clever lie intermixed with the truth.

Trump was the man who rode the "birther" movement to public attention. Nonstop, for weeks, he repeated every crackpot conspiracy theory: that Obama's birth certificate was a fake; that an official who knew the truth was murdered; that "a team of investigators" he had supposedly sent to Hawaii "cannot cannot believe what they are finding." As recently as three days ago he said he was not yet ready to say whether he believed Obama was born in the U.S.

What is astonishing and frightening is Trump's calculation that he can substitute any new "reality" he wishes to serve the moment, even one directly contradicted by what he himself was saying at the top of his lungs a day or two earlier, and have it swallowed by the public. Here, for the record, is the statement the Trump campaign issued this week:

Hillary Clinton's campaign first raised this issue to smear then-candidate Barack Obama in her very nasty, failed 2008 campaign for President. This type of vicious and conniving behavior is straight from the Clinton Playbook. As usual, however, Hillary Clinton was too weak to get an answer. Even the MSNBC show Morning Joe admits that it was Clinton's henchmen who first raised this issue, not Donald J. Trump.
In 2011, Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised. Inarguably, Donald J. Trump is a closer. Having successfully obtained President Obama's birth certificate when others could not, Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.

Let alone that every single one of the assertions in that statement is a falsehood, the internal contradictions are just mind-boggling.


1. falsely accuses Clinton of raising the claim that Obama was not born in the U.S.

2. says that she was "vicious and conniving" to do so

3. praises himself for actually raising the exact same claim

4. falsely boasts of having "obtained" and "compelled" Obama to release his birth certificate while deriding Clinton for being "too weak" to do so (remember, if we can for the space of two sentences, that this was for something that was "vicious and conniving" when Clinton supposedly did it, though not when Trump actually did it)

5. and ends it all by praising himself for having supposedly established that the lie he originally promoted for months on end was . . . a lie.

As he said yesterday (after spending a hour promoting his new hotel on live TV), "I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully, getting rid of this issue."

Clinton responded, "There is no erasing history."

Yet that is precisely what Trump, in common with great dictators throughout history, is doing. If history is inconvenient, you invent a new history. It doesn't have to be true at all; it just has to follow a plausible story line that appeals to the prejudices and emotions of one's followers. And Trump's followers, even more alarmingly, seem to positively revel in their great leader's contempt for such elite niceties as being constrained by the truth.

George Kennan, as an American diplomat in Moscow in the 1930s, once sent a cable trying to explain Russian behavior to Washington. "Russians," he noted, "are a nation of stage managers and the deepest of their convictions is that things are not what they are, but only what they seem." Trump's much-noted admiration for Vladimir Putin runs deeper than we might have realized.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Make War Crimes Great Again

No one was more capitalistic than the Boston descendants of the Puritan founders of America. The old families of Beacon Hill were the captains of every money-making venture in the early years of the Republic: finance, trade, railroads, textile mills.

Yet no one felt more keenly a duty to promote the general welfare: when Boston built the very first public libraries, hospitals, schools for the deaf and blind, universities, museums, and concert halls in the nation in the early nineteenth century, the wealthy citizens of the city reliably donated millions. In 1810, Dr. John Warren sent a circular letter seeking donations for the Massachusetts General Hospital: he addressed it to the "treasurers of God's bounty."

Which presidential candidate (hint: he has "large numbers" on his physical exam) does that attitude toward wealth and societal duty not remind us of?

As the Washington Post reported this week, Donald Trump's record as a treasurer of God's bounty has been to take from everyone and keep everything for himself. Despite his boasted billions and voluble public assertions of munificence, his only discoverable charitable contributions of note have been made entirely with other peoples' money.

But this is of a piece with his larger contempt for the things that actually have made America great, the kinds of things that those earnest citizens of mid-nineteenth century Boston valued, and were proud of valuing. Trump's obsession—there is no other word for it—with ratings and riches as the sole measure of value would be simply pathetic were it not accompanied by an equally great ignorance of and contempt for science, the arts, law, history, morality, learning, and charity: in other words, the ideals and values that from the time of the Puritans to today have been the soul of what our nation has strived for in its vision of creating a new society built on justice, decency, and the advance of civilization.

As such, it is not simply pathetic: it is frightening. To contemplate the destruction to America's values that a President Trump could wreak through his casual willingness to toss aside the principles, knowledge, wisdom, and values so painfully acquired, at great cost, over centuries is the most alarming aspect of what we're facing in this election.

For example:

For more than two centuries, America led the world in bringing the civilizing rule of law to the conduct of war. The United States fought both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table to affirm the right under international law of neutral nations to safe passage and free trade during wars (one of the causes America fought for in the War of 1812); to hold soldiers accountable under military law for the mistreatment of enemy civilians or theft of their property (a policy instituted by General Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War, which earned the United States the admiration of the world and was widely recognized as an advance for justice and humane behavior); to require proper treatment of POWs (embodied in the Geneva Conventions); to outlaw the use of chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs that pose an inhumane risk to civilians.

Good, honorable, courageous, and wise American men and women, soldiers and diplomats, devoted their entire lives to advancing the cause of ensuring that war is subject to the restraints of civilized conduct to the extent possible. Winfield Scott's General Orders No. 20 established the principle that even when instituting martial law in an occupied land, a military commander is subject to and accountable to higher legal authority. The subsequent military panel that drafted rules for occupation commanders during the American Civil War legal emphasized that martial law must be “strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity — virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.”

Subsequent generations of American statesmen and military leaders saw that not only honor and justice, but basic practicality, was served by advances in the law of war: that it is American POWs who will suffer too when combatants descend into torture and reprisal; that even a defeated foe will fight to the death rather than surrender is he knows he will be mistreated if captured; that every civilian death and every abuse of enemy property undermines the justness of the cause and the reputation of America in the eyes of the world, and thus makes the soldier's job that much more difficult.

This is what a President Trump would toss aside with two words off the top of his head, and with arrogant ignorance of any larger principle at stake beyond sounding tough or revving up a crowd of followers. With the same disdain for any actual knowledge (after all, he has "a very good brain") that informs his "views" (if they can be called that) on vaccines, global warming, trade restrictions, counter-terrorism strategy, nuclear weapons, the Constitution, and health care policy, he has blithely called for torturing enemy prisoners, plundering Iraq's oilfields, and "freeing" the military from "the Geneva Conventions, all these rules and regulations" that make "the soldiers afraid to fight."

And don't count on the weak comfort that those around him will somehow prevent him from carrying out his instant insights: the utter cravenness of his acolytes was perfectly on display this week when his minion Rudy Giuliani scurried to second Trump's nostalgic assertion that (referring to his insistence that America should have seized Iraq's oilfield for itself) "it used to be to the victor belong the spoils." Giuliani chimed in by affirming that "anything is legal” in war.

Actually, that doctrine—encapsulated in the medieval Latin maxim Inter arma leges silent (in time of war the law is silent)—began to go by the boards about 600 years ago, when admiralty courts in the 14th century began asserting jurisdiction over the legality of captures of enemy ships at sea. It has been completely cast aside in the last two centuries by Winfield Scott's General Orders No. 20, the Treaty of Paris, the Geneva Conventions, and the U.S. Code of Military Justice. Those were things America at least used to be proud of.

It's no coincidence that Trump knows literally nothing and cares nothing about the worlds beyond fame and fortune, in which he has succeeded by bluster, braggadocio, hype, and shortchanging small tradesmen and investors alike. His sole measure of the worth of what a commentator has to offer is what his ratings are. His sole measure of the greatness of a foreign leader is what his poll numbers are. His sole measure of scientific truth is what assertions on Twitter get a lot of responses. His idea of a "university" is a place to soak people with a get-rich-quick scheme. His idea of charity is taking credit for others' generosity. His idea of culture is a resort decorated like one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. And his idea of the Constitution is something to say he's really, really for, without apparently having read or understood the principles it embodies.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Apologizing for Trump: who says Americans are losing their creativity?

After proposing that "the Second Amendment people" might have a certain solution to protect their God-given rights should Hillary Clinton be elected president, Trump and his increasingly inventive apologists offered a smorgasbord of excuses for a candidate for the president of the United States proposing that his opponent and any Supreme Court judges she appoints be knocked off.

Take your pick! There's one to suit every taste and lifestyle:

1. Deny I was ever in North Carolina. Trump took his usual direct approach, insisting that he had not said what the entire world could see him on video saying. He tweeted the next day, "I said pro-2A citizens must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution!" But — believe it or not — that was not what he said, which unmistakably referred to what might happen if Hillary was elected:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But — but I'll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.

2. It was a joke — OK, a very, very bad joke. Speaker Paul Ryan:

I heard about this Second Amendment quote. It sounds like just a joke gone bad. I hope he clears it up very quickly. You should never joke about something like that.

3. How about this: Blame the media! VP candidate Mike Pence:
It seems like every single day the national press latches on to some other issue about my running mate, just each and every day of the week.

4. Don't worry, he's not evil . . . he's just incomprehensible. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, one of the first GOP officials to endorse Trump:

You're treating Mr. Trump's words like he is the most articulate person who's ever graced our ears with his words, and that is not true. He is not a politician. He is not a person like you who's very articulate, very well spoken. He's a business person who’s running for president. So I don't think the way he said that, and the sequence of his statements, I'm not going to judge him on that, because I don't think that's what he meant. And I think he can be inarticulate at times.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Obama made me do it

By now nothing I suppose can surprise us that comes out of the mouth of Donald Trump, but I still find myself with a capacity to be astounded at the mealy-mouthed excuses, sleazy evasions, and pusillanimous justifications offered by Republican officials for even the most morally repugnant, socially destructive, and anti-American utterances of their Chosen Leader.

One of the more sickening manifestations of this has been the repeated theme from Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders that the only real problem with Trump has been his lack of "discipline" and his "inexperience" in the tactics and mechanics of a political campaign, and that if he can just get more "focused" and "on message" then they will be just hunky-dory with him.

Yesterday Ryan showed what a man of deep principles he is by offering this ringing denunciation of Trump's appalling weeklong attack on the Khans, the Muslim American parents of a US Army captain killed fighting in Iraq (Trump hit an all time low even for him when he said that the real reason Mr. Khan was "bothered" by him was that he, Trump, wants to stop "thousands of radical Islamic terrorists coming in"; his factotum Roger Stone meanwhile claimed that the Khans were actually secret al-Qaeda operatives). Here is what Ryan said:

“I wish [Trump] would be a little more disciplined. What I say to him privately and what I’ve said publicly is Hillary Clinton is the one to focus on, not another Republican, not a private citizen criticizing you.”

Yes, Trump's only mistake — in his crazed, callous, bigoted attacks on a family that had made the ultimate sacrifice as loyal, patriotic Americans — was that he should have been focusing on Hillary Clinton instead. Correct that little lapse in "discipline," and he's our man!

The refusal of GOP officials who do know better to take responsibility for the monster they have created is I suppose human nature, but it reflects a much deeper moral chasm that has encouraged and inflamed the truly vile racism, violent threats, and dehumanizing attacks that have characterized a disturbing part of the Trump phenomenon. Rather than denounce these violations of all norms of a decent society, democratic political values, and American traditions of tolerance and respect for opposing views, Republican leaders have been pumping the line that every new line their party has crossed this year has simply been a completely understandable counterreaction to the "divisive" policies of President Obama.

What exactly it is about Obama that is so "divisive" as to throw their party into the arms of a racist demagogue they can't quite seem to agree on. Bobby Jindal explained that the rise of Trump's no-nothingism was the direct result of Obama's being too "cool" and "weak" and "nuanced" and unreasonably refusing to adopt Republican policies favoring more tax cuts and slashing Medicare and Social Security benefits. ("After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced 'no drama Obama,' voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences," Professor Jindal opined in the Wall Street Journal.)

Jeb Bush claimed the exact opposite: that Obama was too strong, which forced "a few" in the Republican Party to overreact by adopting totally uncharacteristic Republican positions such as denouncing global warming as a hoax, vilifying immigrants, defunding Planned Parenthood, opposing same-sex marriage, and trying to bust unions:

"Eight years of the divisive tactics of President Obama and his allies have undermined Americans’ faith in politics and government to accomplish anything constructive. . . . In turn, a few in the Republican Party responded by trying to out-polarize the president, making us seem anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker and anti-common-sense."

So, the next time you hear Donald Trump's supporters chant at a rally, "build the wall, kill them all," remember that would never, ever have happened were it not for the "divisive tactics" of President Obama that make "a few" in the Republican Party "seem anti-immigrant."

Even before Obama even took office, lest we forget, Republicans were already vowing among themselves to oppose every initiative Obama advanced — to deliberately sabotage, in other words, "Americans’ faith in politics and government to accomplish anything constructive" — for the sole purpose of making his presidency appear to the American public a failure. "If he was for it," former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, describing a meeting of GOP senators in January 2009, "we had to be against it. . . . All [Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell] cared about was making sure Obama could never have a clean victory."

In lockstep, the talking head faction of the right pointed to the Republican obstructionism itself as proof of how "divisive" Obama was, basically saying, "look what he made us do?" 

This is the rationalization of abusive spouses from time immemorial: If I got so mad I hit her, that shows how much she must have provoked me, right?

Perhaps more to the point, it reminds me chillingly of the circular justifications invoked by the white supremacists who destroyed Reconstruction and civil rights in a campaign of calculated terrorist violence against African Americans in the years following the Civil War. In my book The Bloody Shirt, which chronicled this terrible chapter in our nation's history, I quoted a typical specimen of this reasoning from a white citizen who explained that the vilest of their morally abhorrent acts of vigilante violence — whipping, mutilating, and murdering black men who tried to exercise their newly won political rights to vote and hold office — just went to show how sorely "respectable men" must have been pressed.

In the horrifying video clips the New York Times compiled and posted this week of the vilely racist and violent behavior of Trump supporters at his rallies, there is one bit where Trump repeats this well worn Republican talking point about Obama being the most "divisive" president.

A loyal Trumpite in the audience then clearly shouts out, "fuck that n-----!"

Yes, what can be more "divisive" than being black and being president? Why, he's so divisive he even makes us shout out the vilest racial slur in the book when we hear his name mentioned.

And no one, from Trump to anyone else in attendance, seemed to mind in the least.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"I've had a beautiful, I've had a flawless campaign"

The Washington Post has now posted a full transcript of Trump's interview on ABC this weekend — the one in which he sadistically and cruelly mocked the parents of the Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq and produced perhaps the single most incoherent foreign policy statement in modern memory — but once again it's the things that don't make headlines that are just as mind-boggling in affirming Trump's lock on the Jack D. Ripper look alike contest.

At the very start of the interview, he

• asserted a half dozen times that he has "one of the great temperaments"

•  offered the following syllogism

(major premise) I ran a "beautiful,  flawless campaign"
(minor premise) Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech "criticized my campaign"
(conclusion) therefore "she's a very dishonest person"

Extra credit to all logic students who can spot the flaw in this reasoning.

George Stephanopoulos began the interview by quoting Clinton's charge that "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."

Here is how it went from there:

TRUMP: She's a very dishonest person. I have one of the great temperaments. I have a winning temperament. She has a bad temperament. She's weak. We need a strong temperament. And that's all it is. I have a strong temperament—I know how to win.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Polls do show some concern about this, that— whether you can be trusted with the nuclear codes.
TRUMP: Well, I think that's probably because Hillary, that's all they talk about is temperament. I think I have a great temperament. I beat 16 very talented people in— and I've never done this before. You don't do that with a bad temperament. I'm leading her in the polls, as you probably have noticed. And I think I have a great temperament.
I have a temperament where I know how to win. She doesn't know how to win. Honestly, she lies a lot. And she really— she should tell — the truth. I honestly believe, if she told the truth -- 'cause she made some reference to my campaigning, I've had a beautiful— I've had a flawless campaign. You'll be writing books about this campaign. And yet, she's criticizing my campaign.

• Later, after mocking the mother of the dead soldier for standing next to her husband while he spoke movingly of their sacrifice and love for America and the Constitution, Trump claimed credit for inventing the idea that NATO should fight terrorism—15 years after NATO sent troops to support the United States' fight on terrorism in Afghanistan:

I'm all in favor of NATO. I said, "NATO's obsolete." I was asked a question by one of your competitors. And I said, "NATO's obsolete. Because it's not taking care of terror."
You understand that. And it turned out I was right. A lotta people gave me credit for that. Then three months ago, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, they said, "NATO to develop a terror division." And somebody who's supposed to be very extraordinary is put in charge of it. That was all because of me. So I was right about that.

• And finally, he once again invoked his favorite pet narcissistic notion that even though he's running for President of the United States, and has spent a year publicly issuing a stream of inflammatory, insulting, divisive, hate-filled, unconstitutional, unethical, reckless, dangerous, and incoherent notions, anyone who criticizes him who "he's never met" is being unfair because they "don't know me" — including retired four-star Marine general John Allen who criticized Trump specifically for advocating the war crimes of torturing prisoners and killing the family members of terrorists:

The generals aren't doing so well right now. Now, I have a feeling it may be Obama's fault. But — if you look at ISIS — General McArthur and General Patton, they're spinning in their graves. The generals certainly aren't doing very well right now. And — General Allen, after I saw he was on ranting and raving about me, who he never met— I checked up. Guess what. They weren't so happy with him. He didn't beat ISIS. He didn't beat ISIS. He didn't do even well with ISIS.

Profiles in insanity

I defy anyone to read the following and still maintain that the guy is not completely off his gourd.

Appearing yesterday on ABC's "This Week," Trump insisted to George Stephanopoulos that if he were president, Russia's president Vladimir Putin would not send troops into Ukraine:

He’s not going into Ukraine, O.K., just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Mr. Stephanopoulos pointed out.

O.K., well, he’s there in a certain way. But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He take — takes Crimea.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

From the mouth of a monomaniac

That the man who has attained the greatest achievement in the history of politics in this nation, in his own modest assessment, was able to make those snide and belittling remarks about the Muslim American parents of a soldier who lost his life fighting for his country certainly showed the gaping moral vacuum in what passes for the soul of the Republican candidate.

(Trump said that Khizir Khan, who spoke movingly last week at the Democratic Convention about his son's sacrifice and his family's love for America, seemed "very emotional" and probably had his words written "by Hilary Clinton's scriptwriters"; asked specifically about Mr. Khan's remark that Trump had never made a similar sacrifice, Trump boasted, "I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs. . . . I think my popularity with the vets is through the roof.")

That Trump felt compelled to make those remarks, however, shows the deeper behavioral malady that grips his psyche — namely, his apparently uncontrollable need to justify himself and establish his superiority over any who dare to oppose or criticize him. "Setting the Record Straight" was the title Trump placed atop the statement he released yesterday — in which he allowed for the first time that the Khans deserved sympathy for the loss of their son but in the same sentence woundedly complained that Mr. Khan "has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution."

Today he kept at it, refusing to let go of the idea that it was Donald Trump who was being treated so unfairly in all of this. "I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention," Trump tweeted. "Am I not allowed to respond?"

This is not an idle point. It is a symptom of a profound mental and behavioral disorder that everything for the man is a contest of personal one-upsmanship, that no criticism can be left unanswered, that no fault can ever be acknowledged, that no apology can ever be uttered, that no one else's accomplishments or hardships can ever equal his own, that no one else is so misunderstood, so much the victim of lies and wounding untruths, yet no one else more truly loved, than is Donald J. Trump.

Someone else served in the military, and Donald Trump didn't? Well, "I felt that I was in the military in the true sense," Trump responded, since he had attended a military-themed prep school, for a year.

Someone else lost a son fighting as a soldier serving the United States? Well, having dodged the draft, received a million bucks from his father, and run a sleazy real estate business, Donald Trump must have made just as great a sacrifice to the nation.

Incidents like this speak for themselves. But the normal reporting of political campaigns fails to capture the fact that Trump's words and speech patterns, day in and day out, are just as astonishingly those of a seriously unbalanced man. One of the few media outlets that is doing the hard work of following and reporting in detail the words Trump utters at his rallies is Talking Points Memo, and here is just a sample of some of the bizarre, incoherent, defensive, obsessively repetitive, disassociative, and paranoid ravings that regularly proceed from his mouth. Both examples come from the rally he held in Colorado on Friday.

Regarding Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention:

"I was curious to see whether she'd do a class act and not mention my name. Or mention it with respect, like, say, 'I'd like to congratulate my Republican opponent for having done something that nobody has ever done in the history of politics in this nation.' Every time I mention her, everyone screams 'lock her up, lock her up.' And you know what I do? I've been nice. But after watching that performance last night, such lies, I don't have to be so nice anymore. I'm taking the gloves off, right? Yes? Take the gloves off. Take the gloves off. Right? Taking the gloves off. Just remember this, Trump is going to be no more Mr. Nice guy."
And complaining about the local fire marshal for having enforced the completely ordinary laws that limit in every community, for obvious safety reasons, the number of people who can occupy a public space:

"So I have to tell you this. This is why our country doesn’t work. We have plenty of space here. We have thousands of people outside trying to get in. And we have a fire marshal that said, 'Oh we can’t allow more people.' The reason they won't let them in is because they don't know what the hell they're doing. That's why, okay? Too bad. That's why our country has — hey, maybe they're a Hillary person. Could that be possible? Probably. I don't think there are too many of them. I don't think there are too many of them. This is the kind of thing we have in federal government also, by the way, folks. Then you wonder why we're going to hell. That's why we're going to hell. You know what it is? It's a thought process, right."


Friday, July 29, 2016

"The lunatic fringe that has taken over the Republican Party"

The words in the headline above come from David Brooks, one of the principled conservatives horrified by what is happening to his party — and who is actually willing to utter the fact out loud.

I've been at a loss for months to understand how anyone can fail to see Trump for what he so plainly is. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke for all of us with Bronx blood in our veins (only by inheritance in my case, but it's there), when he said at the Democratic convention this week, "I'm a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one."

But much more, I have been sick at heart by the moral equivocations of Republican leaders who cannot even offer the excuse of gullibility for their temporizing. By their private comments, GOP leaders like John McCain, Paul Ryan, and many others have made it clear they are fully aware  how unprincipled, unqualified, unstable, and dangerous Trump is; yet they have lacked the ability to summon even one ounce of moral courage to break with him publicly or rescind their endorsements.

Is there anything that will finally force them to say "enough"? Most are clearly betting that Trump will lose, and that they will then be able to emerge, unscathed, from behind the trees where they have been cowering while others fight the battle. And I suspect if they have made it this far, they are simply beyond the reach of shame, much less reason.

Mostly as an exercise in clinging to reason at a time when insanity has become the norm for a frightening segment of the polity, I have been thinking about what to say to Republicans still trying to pretend that Trump is a normal candidate, or a valid representative of a principled conservatism.

1. First and foremost, the man is — literally — mentally unbalanced. And it goes well beyond his textbook symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. His megalomania frequently erupts in a grandiosity of expression that is not normally encountered outside of a mental institution: "I alone can fix" what is wrong with America; "Now it was the summer of Trump, it was the autumn of Trump, it was the Christmas of Trump. It was everything"; "People are saying Donald Trump is a genius."

His embrace of dozens of lunatic-fringe conspiracy theories reflects a frighteningly untethered relationship with reality that in any normal moment would be the instant end of a political career. Trump's barrage of conspiratorial tweets and statements have accused President Obama of secretly siding with ISIS; claimed that government scientists hid the truth about the Ebola virus; insisted that "thousand and thousands" of Muslim Americans in New Jersey "cheered" when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11; declared that doctors "lied" in "fudged up reports" regarding the safety of childhood vaccines; said that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy; that the Clintons may have murdered Vince Foster; that Antonin Scalia's death may not have been natural.

When challenged on some of these more unhinged assertions, Trump has defended them by citing as his sources articles in the National Enquirer or right-wing-conspiracy-theory, white-supremacist, and neo-Nazi websites (including one that claims the 9/11 attacks was "an inside job") — or even, in the case of those "thousands and thousands" of cheering Muslims, by insisting that he himself saw it on TV, even though nothing of the kind ever happened.

Even after being confronted with a video of Donald J. Trump expressing his support for the Iraq War, Trump has continued to insist repeatedly that he always opposed the war.

Last fall, on national television, he bragged of having met Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night.” Last week he said, "I never met Putin. I don’t know who Putin is."

That any responsible political leader of any major political party could think of entrusting the most powerful office in the world to a man who has manifested so little attachment to reality is something we just could not have conceived of before now.

These are not the normal equivocations or shading of truth that we all engage in, politicians perhaps more than others: Trump's ability to lie without batting an eye falls in the realm of psychopathology.

One of the most truly bizarre manifestations of this was an obviously forged letter he produced last December, supposedly from his doctor, attesting to the candidate's "extraordinary" health. Written in  language that no doctor would use, but full of the childish superlatives that Trump always uses, the letter praised Trump's "astonishingly excellent" lab test results and declared that "he will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

This alone ought to be enough to convince anyone that far from being "extraordinarily" healthy, the man is "extraordinarily" sick.

2. His business dealings and personal life demonstrate a moral depravity that disqualifies him from any public trust. Trump has repeatedly broken the promises he made to local officials to secure approval for his building and casino projects, defaulted on loans that he obtained through misrepresentation and exaggeration, defrauded small contractors and suppliers by the dozens, bragged of committing adultery with numerous "seemingly happily married women," took his businesses into bankruptcy four times, scammed thousands of trusting believers of as much as $60,000 apiece with his fraudulent "Trump University," ran a bogus multilevel vitamin marketing scheme that quickly failed as did a series of other self-promoting "businesses" (Trump vodka, steaks, magazine, airline, mortgage company).

He has never shown any remorse for those he hurt, lied to, stole from, or ruined. At no time in his entire life has he placed a principle above self-interest. He has reneged on his (apparently already meager) charitable contributions; he has threatened to use the power of the presidency to punish those who have criticized him in the press; he has gleefully inflamed the worst unreasoning passions of hatred, fear, and prejudice for his own gain; he has glorified violence and domination while deriding the weak and vulnerable including even those suffering from physical disabilities; he has routinely mocked women who fail to meet his adolescent picture of female pulchritude (referring once to "guys who have 400-pound wives at home who are jealous of me").

"He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man," wrote David Brooks this week.

Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian and conservative who served in three Republican administrations, went further, describing his dismay that any of his fellow evangelicals would swallow the moral degeneracy of "a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith . . . integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good."

These personal traits matter, Wehner emphasized, because a man lacking in basic compassion and empathy is fundamentally unfit to hold power over others, especially in a nation built on the democratic values of liberty, respect for the equal worth of all men, and shared participation in the job of governance:

"Trump’s entire approach to politics rests on dehumanization. If you disagree with him or oppose him, you are not merely wrong. You are worthless, stripped of dignity, the object of derision. This attitude is central to who Mr. Trump is and explains why it pervades and guides his campaign. If he is elected president, that might-makes-right perspective would infect his entire administration."

3. Trump's ignorance and reckless positions threaten the security of the nation — and the world. The most astonishing contradiction in Trump's rhetorical attacks has been his simultaneous insistence that America "should stop apologizing" and show "strength" and his almost casual calls for abandoning the very pillars of American foreign policy that have for 70 years upheld America's strength, leadership, and security throughout the world.

He has proposed that the United States not honor its commitment to its allies unless they "pay"; might not bother to defend the Baltic nations if they were attacked by Russia; and should consider recognizing Putin's unilateral annexation of Crimea, carried out by force and in violation of international law.

He said the the U.S. had "no right to lecture" Turkey about the rule of law because we have problems "in our own country."

His suggestion this week that Russia should hack Hilary Clinton's emails and release them was so mind-boggling that members of the Republican foreign policy establishment were literally left speechless. To state the obvious, what would have been the reaction from the Rush Limbaugh crowd had a Democrat uttered such a treasonous suggestion as to invite a hostile foreign power to meddle in an American presidential election?

Trump has repeatedly boasted that he has no need for foreign policy consultants: he consults himself, he explained, because "I have a very good brain." He never reads books; he apparently does not read policy papers; he regularly shows a massive ignorance of Constitutional powers, the most basic facts of America's treaties, and the most cursory lessons of US military and diplomatic history.

Former Republican state department official Eliot Cohen summed up the despair he and his colleagues feel about Trump's reckless willingness to destroy the successful two-generation consensus on foreign policy that "American interests were ineluctably intertwined with American values, and that when possible, each should reinforce the other, as when the promotion of liberty and human rights helped to weaken the Soviet Union."

Trump's "temperament, his proclivity for insult and deceit and his advocacy of unpredictability would make him a presidential disaster — especially in the conduct of foreign policy, where clarity and consistency matter," Cohen wrote.

A final thought: I have told several of my Republican friends that were the shoe on the other foot — were the Democrats ever to nominate for the presidency a person so obviously unfit by character, demagoguery, and mental instability to hold office — I would not hesitate to vote for any non-insane candidate of the opposing party. It would not be a matter of the "lesser of two evils"; it would not be "holding my nose in the voting booth": it would be saving the American dream of democratic government that George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, and FDR, and millions of ordinary Americans lived and died fighting to protect.

One final quote this week from a horrified former Republican presidential campaign manager:

"Hillary has some baggage, but Trump is crazy. And you can’t fix crazy."

Monday, July 11, 2016

"Code Warriors" in the news

A review and interview on Christos Military and Intelligence site (a leading Web resource on the history of cryptology)

A timeline of NSA's highs and lows in the Cold War drawn from my book, in Random House's newsletter Signature (your author is not responsible for the headline)

A review in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Friday, July 8, 2016

Decency in the face of violence

In a year that has brought to American society some of the vilest, calculated appeals to the worst instincts of mankind, I suppose it's too much to ask for moral clarity and decency in times of crisis.

Should it even necessary to point out all decent Americans are grieving and horrified by the assassination-like killings of five Dallas police officers last night?

That President Obama expressed his immediate horror at "a vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement" and condemned the "twisted motives" of those responsible, reiterating that there can be "no possible justification" for violence against police?

And that not one—not one—leader of the Black Lives Matter movement has ever called for violent action in the course of their campaign against the excessive use of lethal force by police against unarmed African American citizens?

No of course not. 

But in the very ugly state of moral depravity that passes for politics in our country these days, it took the usual right-wing bloviators no time at all to make hay while the blood flowed. The winner was Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, who sent out a message to his fans in the midst of the horrific news stating, "10 Cops shot. You did this Obama. You did this liberals. You did this BLM."

No, they did not. They asked that police enforce the laws fairly and with respect for human life, in accordance with our most cherished and noble American values. Not once did they suggest that the solution to excessive force by police was violence by citizens.

Not once did they put out "wanted" posters with pictures of police on them—as has the anti-abortion movement regularly done in its campaign of fomenting wilful violence against doctors who provide abortion services.

Not once did they justify violence in retaliation for the shootings by police of unarmed African Americans—in notable contrast to the unspeakable statement of Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa a few years back after a fine upstanding citizen, galvanized by years of inflammatory anti-government rhetoric from King and his comrades, flew a light plane into an IRS building in Texas, killing a dedicated federal employee and military veteran: King declared he felt "empathy" for the kamikaze taxpayer, saying he too was "frustrated" by the IRS, and opining that if only we replaced the income tax with a national sales tax, these things wouldn't happen.

Not once have they invoked the kind of crude, violent imagery that has become the stock in trade of the "angry" right for years now, legitimized so spectacularly by the rise of the brutal, hate-ridden speech of the Republican Party's nominee-apparent—I've lost count of the number of references from right-wing commentators and politicians I've noted over the last decade advocating "second amendment solutions" if Republicans fail to prevail at the polls, telling supporters they should be "armed and dangerous" to "oppose tyranny" (defined as, among other things, health care, a carbon tax, and other liberal policies), or routinely depicting their opponents in the cross-hairs of a sniper rifle.

Not once have they gloried in the death of a police officer, or made a disgusting joke about the loss of an officer's life—as conservative media star Ann Coulter did over the assassination of an abortion doctor, when she wittily remarked, "I don't really like to think of it as murder. It was terminating [the doctor] in the 203rd trimester."

The same crowd of conservatives ready to wink at or even condone the idea of violence when directed against suitable targets of course howled in fury if there was ever a suggestion made anywhere at any time that they bore even a hint of moral culpability for the actual killings that ensued—of a respected federal judge killed by the gunman who shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, for example, or a policeman slain at a Colorado abortion clinic, or other instances when those they had branded "enemies," or "traitors," or "criminals" were killed by their own twisted followers: no, those were merely "tragedies"; there was apparently no need even to condemn them.

As I noted at the time of the Giffords shooting, political leaders in a democracy have a special moral obligation to speak out against and resist extremism in their own camps: no democracy can survive when violence or incitement is left unchecked on any side. But it's not surprising that those who have shown no shame in inciting extremism and violent talk are always the first to try to reap its benefits.

Violence is a monster that feeds on itself, eventually consuming societies where it has got a foothold.

People with a scrap of moral decency know that at times like these, those who place love of country above hunger for power need to step back quickly.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

"If anything, I have big investments over in Europe"

Once again demonstrating difficulty with the question of where Donald Trump ends and the rest of the universe begins, the Presumptive GOP Nominee reacted yesterday to the Brexit vote and the immediate plunge of the British pound by declaring that he stood to make money on it.

The setting was a more-than-bizarre news conference at his golf resort in Turnberry on the west coast of Scotland. Apparently unaware than Scotland had overwhelmingly voted against leaving the European Union, Trump extolled the "great news" of the victory of the "leave" side in the UK-wide referendum:

Look, if the pound goes down, they're going to do more business. You know, when the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly.

None of the traveling press pool (who had paid $10,000 a head for the ride to Scotland to see Trump promote his "phenomenal" golf properties, which include "greatest course ever built new") apparently thought to ask how a falling pound and Euro were going to be good for American companies and American workers that depend on selling their products to the rest of the world.

But what's good for Donald J. Trump is good for the USA!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Geoffrey Stone on Snowden

NSA headquarters
Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor and well-known champion of civil liberties, was a member of a White House review panel appointed in the wake of the Snowden revelations to examine NSA's communications surveillance programs and offer recommendations on improving oversight.

In a recent published interview, he offered some sharp criticisms of Snowden and described his own surprise in discovering, in the course of the panel's work, that his initial assumption that NSA had "run amok" was "completely wrong":
The more I worked with the NSA, the more respect I had for them as far as staying within the bounds of what they were authorized to do. And they were careful and had a high degree of integrity. My superficial assumption of the NSA being a bad guy was completely wrong.
I think his criticisms of Snowden are well founded and worth reading in full, especially where he scores Snowden for his arrogance in assuming he could singlehandedly confer on himself the right to decide what information should and should not be classified, and for his contention that his actions ought to be above the law since they were in a good cause.  (In Stone's words, "I don't doubt that Snowden was courageous and did what he did for what he thought were good reasons. But I think he was unduly arrogant, didn't understand the limitations of his own knowledge and basically decided to usurp the authority of a democracy.")

And I also agree with Stone that most NSA employees I have met are honest, decent people, acting with integrity, and that NSA did in fact develop and implement comprehensive procedures to try to insure that the masses of data vacuumed up in its bulk collection programs were used only to locate and identify legitimate foreign terrorist targets.

Nonetheless, I think Stone is a bit too easy on the agency in two key respects.

First is that NSA almost certainly violated the law, and probably the Constitution, when it first began collecting masses of telephone and internet data without a warrant, acting on a "presidential authorization" in 2001 that flatly contradicted statutory law.

The President's Surveillance Program directed NSA to intercept without court approval communications when one party was believed to be a member of al-Qaeda, even if the other party was a US citizen or resident.

But that is a situation that the law specifically says requires a warrant: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandals (which revealed that NSA, among other things, had targeted for surveillance US citizens on Nixon's "enemies list," including newspaper columnists, political opponents, and domestic antiwar activists), in fact makes it an explicit criminal offense for any government official acting under color of law to conduct surveillance on a US person without a warrant from a special court created by the same law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). 

Likewise, even after NSA's bulk telephone calling data ("metadata") collection program was (possibly) legalized under section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act, the FISC (as we now know) repeatedly chastised the agency for "substantial misrepresentations" to the Court of the extent of its data bulk collection programs and for overstepping court-mandated rules to "minimize" the "incidental" collection of US citizens' data.

These are not trivial points or technical hairsplitting. One of the most fundamental protections in the Constitution is the right of privacy embodied in the Fourth Amendment and its rejection of dragnet-like sweeps by government officials. This was a legacy of English common law and the famous John Wilkes case, long celebrated by champions of liberty at the time of America's founding, in which the Lord Chief Justice held that "a general warrant is no warrant": that a search warrant could not authorize officials to go through every house in an area searching for subversive publications, but had to specify the exact place to be searched and the items being sought, and provide at least some grounds for believing that these items were present there. NSA's bulk collection programs stood directly on its head this fundamental protection of the right to privacy.

Wilkes and Liberty, celebrated on a punchbowl from Colonial Williamsburg
The second real problem with NSA's actions in operating the bulk collection programs is one that comes right out of the agency's Cold War history (the subject of my just-published book Code Warriors). Throughout its existence, NSA has always been intensely driven in its mission by its own technological capabilities: if it can do it, it did do it, and it always was trying to increase what it could do. Some of this is human nature; some of it is unique to the bureaucratic forces acting on military and intelligence agencies, which always have an incentive to maximize technical capabilities regardless of mission needs—just as in the Air Force and Navy the imperative to buy newer, bigger, faster, more expensive planes and ships always came first, while the military justifications for them were often almost an afterthought.

But the point is that the capability was there to carry out unprecedented monitoring, tracking, and spying on American citizens by a government agency, a capability that all known bureaucratic forces were working to expand ever further. And NSA's history offered small comfort to the idea that none of this should worry us because the agency's own internal rules and procedures prevented this capability from being abused. The whole reason for the FISA court's establishment was to provide an outside check and legal oversight of NSA by an independent body.

Recent congressional action to end the NSA bulk telephone data program was a small but important step in addressing both these dangers: of too much reliance on internal self-restraint, and too much technological capability in the hands of government. It's a rare case where the lessons of history I think have been heeded.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"I've run out of adjectives"

Actually this is the third or fourth time in recent months that Republican senator Lindsey Graham has used that line regarding his reaction to the things that one Donald J. Trump has to say.

But it underscores the problem that journalists, too, are having in capturing the utter vileness and recklessness of Trump's most recent statements regarding the Orlando massacre, in which he explicitly accused all Muslims in America — and even the president of the United States — of willful complicity in the attack.

Even the New York Times seemed to be at a loss for the words and means to lay out exactly what Trump actually said, taking refuge in standard journalistic shorthand designed for describing the normal evasions of normal politicians: "implied" "suggested" and the like and ran a story with the very nice journalism school headline "Trump and Clinton Differ on Terror Approach."

It's worth assembling a timeline of Trump's astonishing statements of the last 72 hours to grasp the enormity of what he has brought the country to:

• June 13 early morning, on "Fox and Friends":
We're led by a man who is very -- look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can't believe it.... People cannot believe, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and he can't even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There's something going on. It's inconceivable. There's something going on.... He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands. It's one or the other

• Later that morning, on the "Today" show:
Well there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn't want to get it 

• Later that day, Trump pulls the Washington Post's press credentials for covering his campaign, accusing the newspaper of being "dishonest" and "phony" and "incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting," specifically for a story reporting that Trump had connected Obama to the Orlando attack.

• June 13, afternoon, in a "major foreign policy address":

Now, the Muslim communities so importantly, they have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. And they know it. And they have to do it and they have to do it forthwith. … They know what is going on. They know that [the Orlando shooter] was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what, they didn't turn them in, and we had death and destruction. … When people know what is going on and they don't tell us and we have an attack and people die, these people have to have consequences. Big consequences.

• June 14, having dismissed as dishonest and phony the Post's report that he had accused Obama of deliberately siding with terrorists, Trump sent the AP a statement accusing Obama of deliberately siding with terrorists:
[Obama] claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people
• June 15, 6:38 am, Trump sends out a tweet with a link to a right-wing conspiratorial hoax — which has been circulating for years on the Internet — claiming that a "memo" proves that Obama is siding with ISIS. Completing the circle of illogical denials, Trump simultaneously accuses the media of being inaccurate for claiming that he had "insinuated" the things he did (actually, he didn't insinuate: he asserted), while also claiming  that this "evidence" shows he was "right" all along in claiming the things he is claiming he didn't claim:

Asked how they can continue to support a man who cites conspiracy theories to accuse the president of treachery, who claims that the entire American Muslim community is complicit in terrorism and will face "big consequences," the leaders of the Republican Party have come up with new and even more creative ways of avoiding the subject altogether. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a particularly bold moral stance, telling a reporter, "I'm not going to be commenting on the presidential candidates today."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

 The latest review of my new book, "Code Warriors," from today's Wall Street Journal:


Cracking the Cold War

The NSA knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his wife’s problems, his opinions about U.S. leaders and whether his negotiating positions were ploys.

Well, how would you do it? We all know the theories about intelligence gathering: identify targets clearly, do not be guided by paranoia, ensure that information is analyzed and contextualized so that it can be understood properly, and observe constitutional and legal guidelines, notably in spying on one’s own citizens. It is not, of course, so easy in practice and certainly not in the wake of surprise attacks like those of 1941 and 2001, or when working carefully within legal and political restrictions and conventions that, to put it mildly, do not appear fit for the purpose, given the enormity of the threat.

In “Code Warriors,” Stephen Budiansky, who has already written ably on World War II codebreaking, offers an exciting but also challenging account of the National Security Agency’s efforts to discover the Soviet Union’s secrets—challenging because he does not shun the necessary details in explaining code, codebreaking and how systems in the East and West changed during the years.

In doing so, he provides an intelligence history of the United States during the Cold War, one that ranges from U.S. “ferret flights” in the 1950s, often off the Baltic coast of the Soviet Union—designed to provide information on air defenses—to some of its more serious failures. These included the Cuban Missile Crisis (the NSA failed to warn the Kennedy administration about the arrival of Soviet SS-4 missiles); intelligence analysis prior to the surprisingly vast Tet offensive against South Vietnam in 1968; and the treatment of the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. It was believed that North Vietnam twice attacked a U.S. ship, and this led Congress to grant the president enhanced war powers. In fact, bad intelligence made Navy officers think they were under attack a second time. “NSA’s inexperience in intelligence analysis and frantic efforts to supply the White House with information” led to inaccurate conclusions and “guesswork,” Mr. Budiansky concludes.

Much of the tale is unedifying, with many of the leading figures in the intelligence community paying more attention to bureaucratic turf wars than to fighting the Cold War. If the CIA is held up for particular obloquy, it joins the Army, Navy and Air Force, especially the last two. There is praise for the NSA but also much criticism: “a system ripe for intellectual corruption . . . self-justifying assurance . . . reflexive defensiveness . . . hoarding information . . . vast multilayered bureaucracy . . . blunders, scandals and bureaucratic miscalculations.” The NSA is criticized for an extremely cozy relationship with Nixon’s White House, one driven by its attempt to promote its standing in the corridors of Washington power. And so on.

Less emphasis is placed on the NSA’s successes, but they are discussed. The role of the NSA’s global signals-intelligence network in providing reassurance about the contrast between bold Soviet threats and more modest actions is seen as helping limit the danger of nuclear war and thus allowing the strategy of containment to work. Helped by agents in place as well as technology, the NSA repeatedly intercepted Soviet communications, ensuring that, as one NSA director later noted, “in the mid-1970s, NSA had access to just about everything the Russian leadership said to themselves and about one another. . . . We knew Brezhnev’s waist size, his headaches, his wife’s problems, his kids’ problems, his intentions on the Politburo with regard to positions, his opinion on American leadership, his attitude on negotiating positions.” The last, Mr. Budiansky argues, helped Henry Kissinger outmaneuver Soviet negotiations in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mr. Budiansky makes no bones about the crimes of communist regimes or, indeed, about the damage done by American press reports on secret operations. But he also claims that “the cryptologic struggle that took place in the shadows behind the shadows was as morally ambiguous as everything about the Cold War.” In fact, the NSA performed admirably pursuing confrontation short of conflict and limited war strategies in the face of the prospect of thermonuclear cataclysm. Much of the American public was unable to accept the serious dangers posed by communist expansionism, and the KGB and the Soviet military had far more influence on Soviet policy-making than the intelligence community did in the U.S.

The faults noted by Mr. Budiansky existed but, alongside the bureaucratic rigidity and mistakes he discusses, there was also a greater willingness to accept internal disagreements than in the Soviet system. In particular, the Soviets proved better at descriptive intelligence gathering than at its analytic intelligence counterpart: They found it difficult to put together the empirical pieces. Although the individual KGB directorates could perform well, they could not integrate the information provided by different sources as well as their American and British counterparts.

Mr. Budiansky notes the tendency of analysis to buttress a priori assumptions, but this was more pronounced in the Soviet system, notably in the case of Yuri Andropov, the KGB head who became Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984. He believed in the inherent mendacity of Western imperialist leaders and society and their willingness to wage war against the Soviet Union. This was, for instance, the reason he misperceived the 1983 NATO military exercise called Able Archer as a cover for a possible attack.

Particularly good on the first half of the Cold War, but weaker and far briefer on the 1970s and, even more, the 1980s, Mr. Budiansky’s engaging study offers contemporary policy markers much to contemplate. The simultaneous hostility of both China and Russia today ensures that the strategic situation is more challenging now than after the successful exploitation by President Nixon of the Sino-Soviet split. European neutralism and weakness does not help. In these circumstances, it is urgent to consider how best to use intelligence operations to defend national interests. It would of course be helpful if the latter were better understood.

Mr. Black’s books include “The Cold War: A Military History” and “Air Power: A Global History.”

"In my world, when people don't treat you fairly . . ."

You take revenge on them, of course! The only trouble with that bit of wisdom offered today by one Donald J. Trump is that if you are a public servant in a democracy, it's your job to be fair to everyone and to enforce the law impartially even when you feel wronged, hurt, misunderstood, or even "misconstrued." That's called placing principle and duty above petty personal vengeance.

There were two points about Trump's appalling statements the other week about the supposed "bias" of the "Mexican" U.S. Federal judge hearing the fraud lawsuit against his fraudulent Trump University that I worry have gotten lost amidst the focus on whether Trump is a "racist" or not.

As Michael Gerson noted last week, who the hell cares if Trump is a racist in his heart, or whatever passes for one in his case: what matters is that he is saying things that legitimize, enable, and foment morally abhorrent views — and actions — that every president in modern times has strived to counter in our pluralistic and democratic society. ("Is Trump himself a racist? Who the bloody hell cares? There is no difference in public influence between a politician who is a racist and one who appeals to racist sentiments with racist arguments. The harm to the country — measured in division and fear — is the same, whatever the inner workings of Trump’s heart.")

As bad as Trump's allegation that Judge Gonzalo Curiel has an "absolute conflict of interest" in hearing a private civil action against Trump — for no other reason than (a) Curiel is "Mexican" (which Trump later revised to define, in the case of the Indiana-born Curiel, as "very pro-Mexican") and (b) Trump has said things that I suppose could be defined as very "anti-Mexican" — what is arguably even worse was his not very veiled threat to use the power of the presidency to punish Curiel if he becomes president. Here's exactly what Trump said:

They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace. Ok? But we will come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I am president and come back and do a civil case? Where everybody likes it.
Ok. This is called life, folks. . . .

The other point that should not be lost is what this kind of thinking reveals about Trump's sense of morality and humanity.

Trump automatically believes that it is impossible for a Federal judge, or anyone else, to put aside what he assumes to be their personal feelings. The syllogism he literally presented when challenged about his statements was

A "I'm building a wall"
B The judge is "Mexican"
C The judge has "an inherent conflict of interest"

Only a man utterly devoid of a sense of principle and duty himself — one whose only standard of reference is "winning" and "losing," personal gain, and self-interest — could fail to understand that for decent and civilized people, principles such as truth, duty, an oath of office, the rule of law, and (genuine) patriotism always assume a higher calling on one's conscience than petty vengeance, "what's in it for me," or score-settling.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The worse angels of our nature

As Abraham Lincoln prepared to take charge of a deeply divided nation in March 1861, he asked several of his closest associates, including his secretary of state to be William Seward, to read his planned inaugural address, and give him their thoughts.

Seward sent Lincoln a new ending that considerably softened Lincoln's original conclusion ("Shall it be peace or sword?"), and which instead poetically invoked "the mystic chords" that bind all Americans together in shared destiny:
The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
 Lincoln accepted Seward's new closing paragraph, but made a small, yet extraordinarily significant, change in his words. Crossing out Seward's phrase “the guardian angel of the nation,” Lincoln wrote in the words we now all remember: “the better angels of our nature.”

It was to Lincoln a crucial reminder that America's greatness rested not in predestined divine favor or  any innate virtue, but rather in the constant struggle of us all to rise above our own all-too-human failings. Lincoln never for a moment forgot the frailty of human nature—nor how much the survival of a democracy depended on whether the mass of men, and their chosen leaders, could overcome their worst, yet all too natural, instincts toward hatred, division, selfishness, and exploitation of others.

Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
There is an eerie echo between the narcissistic personal triumphalism of the man chosen to lead the Party of Lincoln this year and his jingoistic nationalistic triumphalism that his supporters so willingly and thoughtlessly embrace. As Lincoln so memorably reminded us, it was a test for every generation of Americans whether they, like the founders, could summon their better angels and keep alive the ideals that our nation—and indeed Lincoln's own Republican party—was founded upon: equality among men, respect for the law, liberty for all.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Here's one

On Sunday I wondered what it would take for any Republican official to put their country ahead of their party and draw a moral line after their candidate asserted that it was "an inherent conflict of interest" for an American citizen to serve as a Federal judge while being Hispanic or Muslim at the same time.

At that point, the major reaction from the GOP establishment, to what struck me as the most despicable thing I had heard in my lifetime from an American politician, had been such ringing words of moral principle and American values as Paul Ryan's "I can't relate to that" when asked about Trump's statements. (Conservative columnist George Will made impressive mincemeat of Ryan's "abject capitulation" to Trump in a fierce article yesterday.)

Yesterday Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina showed that there is at least one Republican leader who has not completely lost his moral compass in this time of moral crisis. Graham, who just a few weeks ago said he had had a "cordial" phone call with Trump and reportedly told a private Republican fundraiser that it was time to get behind the party's nominee, told the New York Times that he had had it:

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina . . . urged Republicans who have backed Mr. Trump to rescind their endorsements, citing the remarks about Judge Curiel and Mr. Trump’s expression of doubt on Sunday that a Muslim judge could remain neutral in the same lawsuit, given Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim noncitizens entering the country.
“This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy,” Mr. Graham said. “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” he added. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

Sunday, June 5, 2016

And now a word about places in Hell, from the expert

"The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

That line from Dante's "Inferno" was sent to me the other day by my friend Richard Gordon, and it speaks a truth about what is so terribly chilling about the almost unanimous failure of Republican officialdom to take any kind of principled stand on Donald Trump's morally repugnant campaign of reckless conspiracy theory, personal insult, race baiting, and threats to use the power of the presidency to exact personal revenge.

Paul Ryan, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, and almost every other prominent GOP official have been acting as if they can pretend nothing out of the ordinary is happening to their party, express their formulaic Support for the Party's Nominee—and otherwise just lay very low and hope somehow they'll get through it all.

The degree of laying low is truly extraordinary, as Jim Fallows points out at The Atlantic, where he has been blogging on the Trump campaign: not a single GOP official for example uttered a word in reply to Hilary Clinton's full-bore attack on Trump the other day, a silence that is just mind-boggling by any normal political standards.

McCain has been the most extraordinary. Approaching his 80th birthday, facing a tight reelection contest in his heavily Hispanic state of Arizona, McCain, who once gloried in describing himself a "Maverick," has meekly toed the line of endorsing Trump, refusing to challenge any of the candidate's most toxic observations, blandly suggesting that we need not worry Trump will abuse the powers of the presidency since "we're not Romania," yet at the same time vainly hoping to give a wink-wink indication that his endorsement really doesn't mean anything by making little wan wisecracks every now and then, such as starting a speech to a Hispanic business group in Arizona the other day with a little Trumpesque parody ("We're going to make America great again and it's going to be yuge, OK?").

But as Dante observed, moral hedging and timorous acquiescence in the face of evil is even more opprobrious than open support: it palliates the evil, makes it seem ordinary and acceptable to the mass of men always reluctant to rock the boat; it is precisely why good people remain silent until it is too late to do anything.

Perhaps most of the GOP establishment hedgers are banking on Trump's losing the general election, and thus sparing them the difficulty of having to take any real moral stand or commit themselves in public in any way that might hurt their standing in The Party down the road. They clearly are uncomfortable with the open racism of Trump's recent attacks on Judge Curiel, and yet even on an issue that should leave no room for the least moral ambiguity, what we have heard are little more than "I don't condone the comments" (that from Republican Sen. Bob Corker) kinds of tut-tutting.

Interestingly, it was Newt Gingrich, an enthusiastic Trumpista, who was the most firm, calling "inexcusable" Trump's accusation that Curiel has "an inherent conflict of interest" because he's "a Mexican." But then Gingrich immediately undid any moral force behind that indictment by treating Trump's "inexcusable" statement as merely but a little tactical misstep, which he can correct by becoming more polished as he moves into the general election: "He's got to move his game up." (Corker for his part explained that he was not advising Trump to change his views, but merely expressing the hope that the candidate is "talking to the right people" so his campaign can "evolve.")

What will it take for any of the Republican establishment to draw an actual moral line, and say that their nominee is so at odds with the values of the country that they will put their country first, their party second?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Trump vs. Orwell? No contest

Hoping that no one would notice, House Speaker Paul Ryan chose the Janesville (Wisc.) GazetteXtra — a newspaper whose lead story the same day was SHELTER HOLDS FREE CAT ADOPTION DRIVE — to announce his endorsement of Donald J. Trump for president this week.

He thus joins John McCain ("it would be foolish to ignore" the "will of the people"), Mitch McConnell (we shouldn't worry that a President Trump will abuse the power of the presidency and the law because “he’ll have a White House counsel [to] point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do”), and the several courageous Republican senators running for re-election in Democratic-leaning states who have boldly declared that they "support, but do not endorse" the party's nominee.

I had actually been holding out a glimmer of hope that a few Republican officials would place principle, patriotism, decency, honor, (true) conservative values, and concern for the survival of the republic ahead of craven political expediency. But then that would have required a microgram of leadership and courage.

In a way even more amusing (if that's the right word) than the excuses given by members of the GOP leadership for their sudden reversal in favor of Trump (the "madman who must be stopped," in the not so former words of recently converted Trump supporter Bobby Jindal), have been the excuses given by members of the GOP leadership for why they just won't be able to be there when Trump receives the nod at the Republican convention in Cleveland next month ("I can watch it on TV," said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina).

It really should not have been that hard to enunciate a few words to explain why they cannot support, for the most important office in the world, a man utterly devoid of moral principle, knowledge, honesty, decency, or respect for democratic values or public service.

Just in case we've forgotten a few of the things the nominee-to-be has done that ought to place him beyond the pale of support by any decent American political leader, he has:

   threatened to use the power of the presidency to punish his critics in the press;

   attacked a federal judge hearing a civil lawsuit brought against him for defrauding students at his now-defunct "Trump University" (Judge Gonzalo Curiel is "a total disgrace," Trump said, adding today that because Curiel is of "Mexican heritage" it is an "absolute conflict of interest" for him to hear the case);

   endorsed and spread fringe, fear-mongering conspiracy theories about government coverups of disease outbreaks and the 9/11 terrorist attacks ("You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center" when he is president);

   fomented ethnic, religious, and racial hatred, and refused even to disavow a barrage of truly vile anti-Semitic attacks by his supporters against Jewish journalists ("I don’t have a message to the fans");

    mocked and belittled political opponents and critics for their physical disabilities and personal appearance;

    declared his impatience and contempt for the law and America's treaty obligations;

    expressed admiration for dictators and brutal authoritarianism (on Kim Jong-un: "He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one." And North Korea returned the compliment yesterday, calling Trump "a wise politician" and the right choice for president);

    refused to release his income tax returns and offered a patently false reason for doing so;

    been dishonest and unscrupulous in his business dealings;

    made grotesquely boastful claims about his (nonexistent) military expertise ("I know more about ISIS than the generals do") and (unapparent) Christian faith ("I am a great Christian—and I am. I am.")

Trump's total lack of personal principles is probably part and parcel of a true personality disorder. But the consequences are chilling for a democracy when combined with the power of the presidency. Principle and the rule of law are the only things that stand in the way of authoritarianism in government, and brutality in society. To uphold a principle means that at least once in a while one is required to admit that the right thing to do differs from what is in one's own immediate self-interest. Trump has never done so in his entire lifetime.

He has taken it even one Orwellian step further, though, by invoking the language of principles and values just when he is being his most coarse and crudely self-serving: anyone who criticizes him—such as the journalists the other day who asked him why it took him five months to cough up his promised $6 million donation to veterans' groups, and in fact only made good on his personal $1 million pledge after a Washington Post investigation last month discovered he had not yet done so—is "dishonest" or "disgraceful."

Especially when they are pointing out Trump's own dishonest or disgraceful conduct, of course.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs

In researching my book about NSA ("Code Warriors," coming to a fine bookstore near you on June 14), I was struck by how many of the Soviet spies in America during and just after World War II convinced themselves they were answering a higher duty in passing along to the Russians secrets of America's atomic bomb and codebreaking programs.

Klaus Fuchs, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had worked on the British and American atomic programs, was furiously insulted when his contact Harry Gold tried to pass on an envelope stuffed with $1,500 in cash: Fuchs insisted he was motivated by the idealistic aim of insuring world peace and aiding a heroic ally of Britain and America in the fight against Hitler.

There was an aspect of Fuchs's psychological makeup that strikes a very familiar chord in considering the case of Edward Snowden: their political naivete (of trusting the Russians, if nothing else), combined with a remarkable moral arrogance in believing that they could place themselves above the law in pursuit of a supposed higher purpose—and yet escape any moral responsibility for their acts at the same time.

Here is what I write in Code Warriors about a pivotal incident in Fuchs's self-justifications:

    Later a Los Alamos physicist colleague and close friend, Rudolf Peierls, with whom Fuchs had lodged while working in England, asked him how, as a scientist, he could have swallowed the doctrinaire orthodoxies of Marxism. Peierls was stunned by the arrogance and naivete of Fuchs’s answer. You must remember what I went through under Nazis, Fuchs replied. Besides, it was my intention, when I had helped the Russians to take over everything, to get up and tell them what is wrong with their system.
   Peierlss wife Genia, who had been something of a mother figure to their young lodger, wrote him a more personal rebuke. Hadnt he at least thought about the betrayal of his friends he had committed, and the harm he had done them? she asked.
   I didnt, and thats the greatest horror I had to face when I looked at myself, Fuchs wrote back from prison. I thought I knew what I was doing, and there was this simple thing, obvious to the simplest decent creature, and I didnt think of it. He told another friend: Some people grow up at fifteen, some at thirty-eight. It is more painful at thirty-eight.

Snowden, however, has yet to show any similar signs of growing up, specifically with regard to his betrayal of some 20 or more co-workers whom he duped into turning over their computer passwords (which he claimed he needed for his duties as a systems administrator), most of whom lost their jobs as a result; nor to the fact that under the Section 798 of the Espionage Act he could have gone to the congressional intelligence committees with his information with absolute immunity from any legal repercussions to himself. Instead, he reacted yesterday on Twitter with his usual immature flipness even to former Attorney General Eric Holder's acknowledgement that some of Snowden's disclosures had indeed performed a public service, even as he had nonetheless clearly violated the law (and his own personal oath to uphold it).