Dealing with Trump’s triumphant week
What could be more painful, for the committed Trump opponent, than watching Trump march into last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and hold up a copy of USA Today with the word Acquitted plastered across its front page, above its story about his impeachment?
No, the answer isn’t watching him hold up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline Trump Acquitted (which he also did). The answer is watching him do both of these things in the same week that (1) his Gallup approval rating reached its all-time high; (2) the Iowa caucuses turned into a display of Democratic incompetence that he seized on with malicious glee, while journalists reported that the Iowa fiasco had intensified Democratic infighting; (3) he delivered a State of the Union address that, in addition to setting a new standard for SOTU cheesiness, successfully employed his patented formula for political survival: simultaneously enraging his detractors and energizing his supporters; (4) he previewed, in his opening SOTU segment, a formidable reelection stump speech, flaunting a series of mainly accurate boasts about the health of the economy; (5) various pundits deemed this “the most politically successful week of the Trump presidency” or said that for the first time since Trump’s inauguration, they believed he will probably be reelected.
But cheer up! For two reasons:
1) This too shall pass.
2) The great thing about bad things is that once you figure out why they happened, you can (in principle) make them less likely to happen in the future.
Consider the decision to impeach. Now, I’m not here to declare that decision a mistake in every sense of the term. There is value in recording for posterity the fact that many Americans, and their political representatives, find Trump sufficiently horrible to warrant the ultimate indictment. If, decades from now, archaeologists are sifting through the ruins of American civilization, I’d like them to find evidence that its collapse didn’t catch us totally unawares; we knew an ominous presidency when we saw one.
But if you ask whether impeachment was a mistake in sheerly tactical terms, I think the answer is yes. Between the first day of the House’s public impeachment hearings and the end of this week, Trump’s “underwater rating”—the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings—shrank by four points. This could be a coincidence, but it’s certainly the opposite of the hoped-for effect. The tactical argument for impeachment had been that it would damage Trump politically, even if it didn’t lead to conviction.
A few months ago NZN ran an excerpt from my conversation with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic. Well, one of Stoicism’s rival schools of philosophy in ancient Greece was Epicureanism, and one of Massimo’s colleagues, Catherine Wilson, has written a book called How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well. I interviewed Catherine on The Wright Show a few weeks ago, and below is part of our conversation. I went into her book knowing little about its subject, and I came away from it feeling a real affinity with Epicureanism—not just for its very reasonable approach to living, but also for its very congenial (to me, at least) political vibes.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Why don't we start out by talking about the role of pleasure in Epicureanism. One of the connotations of the term “Epicurean” today is of a kind of hedonism, self-indulgence. And I think, on the one hand, you're going to say that that’s … misleading. On the other hand, pleasure does play a central role in the logic of Epicureanism, as a value that … you can organize your life around. Do you want to talk about that?
CATHERINE WILSON: Yeah. Hedonism is pleasure taken to extremes, and no Epicurean ever recommended that. ... They saw that there are two limitations on that: first, you usually get yourself into trouble if you go too much into the pleasures of food, drink, sex, power domination; [and second,] there are ethical limits. So there's no way to go all out and stay within the limits of Epicureanism.
On the other hand, what they do is give you a permission to enjoy innocent pleasures, and they don't see an opposition between pleasure and virtue, which all the major moral philosophies and religions seem to do. There's a kind of core of asceticism in not only Western, but Eastern thinking, and Epicureans were completely opposed to it. …
Stoics aim to be able to preserve their equanimity and even happiness under even highly adverse conditions ... and that entails an ability to, to some extent, divorce yourself from the guidance of natural emotions, right? Is there a broader distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism in the way we think about our animal nature?
Oh, I think so. … Stoics will tell you that they only want to free you of the painful emotions. [But] really, the rhetoric suggests otherwise. Seneca thinks any little bit of emotion is bad, the emotions are diseases.
Epicureans think of the emotions as like perception, something that we’re outfitted with that is conducive to our survival and functioning.
So in the first place, they think you can't just suppress your emotions by thinking in certain ways—and secondly, why would you want to? If you could just take a pill that would make you completely numb against grief, against all forms of irritation, as well as against wanting things, liking things [and] being motivated to pursue things, life would seem incredibly numb and boring.
You alluded to the limits that we, according to Epicureans, should impose on ourselves as we pursue pleasure. … In addition to yourself at that moment as something you legitimately think about—[that is,] it’s fair for me to want to be happy and enjoy pleasure at the moment—there are two kinds of constraints on that.
One is trade-offs between my happiness and the happiness of my future self, … and [the other] is [trade-offs] between my own happiness and the happiness of other people—[which is] where we enter the realm of ethics and morality, right?
In a Vox interview, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political guru, launches an entertaining broadside against the Democratic Party, the not-so-obscure subtext of which is that Bernie Sanders would be a disastrous nominee. Also in Vox, Matt Yglesias argues that Bernie’s performance in Friday’s New Hampshire debate shows him to be a more skillful tactician, and better at appealing to moderates, than is appreciated by some people who think he’d be a disastrous nominee. At Informed Comment, Juan Cole weighs in on Bernie’s political viability.
Turns out Michael Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. So far as Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby can tell, this is a first in American presidential campaigns.
In Aeon, scholars Alberto Acerbi and Charlotte Brand report that over the past half century “English-language popular songs have become more negative.” Positive-emotion words have dropped in frequency, negative-emotion words have risen. The good news: the word “love” has grown in frequency over the past 15 years. More bad news: so has the word “hate.”
In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins takes a very deep dive into “the billion dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president.”
The New York Times performs a public service by asking all Democratic presidential candidates the same set of foreign policy questions and then arranging the answers so you can peruse them either by candidate or by topic. The candidate who declined to answer the most questions: Pete Buttigieg (19 out of 35!). The only candidate who called for US compliance with international law: Elizabeth Warren.
In Tricycle, Matthew Gindin explores the intertwined roots of Buddhism and Hatha yoga.
In Arc Digital, Alex Muresianu makes the case for a return to “smoke filled rooms.” This argument is a hardy perennial; every four years someone waxes nostalgic about the days, before the ascendancy of presidential primaries, when party elites chose presidential candidates. But coming now—four years after Republican elites were unable to keep Trump from winning the nomination, and as the Democratic race features no leading candidates who look like what you’d order up from central casting to beat Trump—the argument will presumably be getting more traction than usual. (Though four years ago a Democratic candidate who was favored by party elites did get the nomination and lost to a Republican candidate who wasn’t.)
In the Washington Examiner, Damir Marusic reviews historian John Connelly’s book From Peoples Into Nations, about the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century and its earlier roots. The book argues, among other things, that nationalist movements have tended to grow out of “a perceived threat to a group’s existence.”
If you want to know just how deeply anti-Palestinian Jared Kushner’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan” is, I recommend this American Prospect piece by Israeli Daniel Levy, who played a role in past Israel-Palestine negotiations.
Remember the killing of an American contractor in Iraq that triggered a spiral of escalation that led to America’s assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani? Alissa Rubin of The New York Times reports that US intelligence may well have been wrong to attribute the contractor’s death to an Iranian-backed militia. In fact, Sunni jihadists who are enemies of Iran may have done the killing. So, as for those several dozen Iranians and Iraqis we killed during the spiral of escalation: never mind.
Since the previous issue of NZN came out, I’ve posted an episode of The Wright Show featuring Daniel McCarthy, a Trump supporter who, as the former editor of the American Conservative, can claim to have been ahead of the curve on the whole Trump thing. I learned some new things from my conversation with Daniel, such as: there’s a real fear among some Trumpists, apparently, that if America is swamped by immigrants who weren’t brought up to revere the Bill of Rights, various liberties—notably the Second Amendment right to bear arms—could be imperiled.
The humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, is concisely assessed by the International Crisis Group, which is a reliably acute analyst of conflicts and crises around the world.
A survey by the American Enterprise Institute explores the connection between politics and dating on an issue-by-issue basis. For example: having different views on abortion is a dealbraker for more people than is disagreeing over immigration.