The Outsider Perspective brought to you by The Beltway Outsiders.
Good Friday Morning! As always, it’s a busy news week with President Trump. This week the President has launched major airstrikes in Syria and Afghanistan. The move marks a significant change in his foreign policy. I break down what I believe is happening on that front. Next up I break down what you should know about the special election in Kansas this past week. And finally, I wrap things up with an essay on nationalism as it appears on the left. Links follow.
Syria and Afghanistan strikes and the learning curve of Donald Trump
The two largest stories this week are undoubtedly the airstrikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan. When I wrote last week, airstrikes at a Syrian airport had just occurred. Yesterday, the military dropped a MOAB in Afghanistan targeting an ISIS compound. Both actions signal a change in direction for the Trump White House, which campaigned on an isolationist platform. Trump has positioned America into a more assertive stance abroad. Countries are reacting to American policies, not vice versa.
I believe Trump’s actions in both Syria and Afghanistan signal that he’s growing into the Presidency. Every President faces a learning curve. Trump has given several interviews recently where he expresses surprise at the complexity of problems he’s encountering as President:
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal released Wednesday night, Trump admitted that he had underestimated the complexities of the relationship between China and North Korea. He learned from Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump explained, that China simply can’t eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power (over) North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.”
Trump was forced to acknowledge a similar oversimplification when it came to his attempts to overhaul the nation’s health care system. “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he told a group of governors at the White House in late February. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
Back in late November 2016, when Trump had barely begun to wrap his arms around the prospect of being president, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recounted that Trump told him, “This is really a bigger job than I thought.”
I’ve read many columns, and hot takes mocking Trump for these quotes. But they miss the point. These excerpts underscore how Trump is growing on the job. Change is not a bad thing. There is a learning curve for every President. George W. Bush had one of the steepest learning curves. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened nine months into his Presidency. One day reshaped his entire Presidency. Barack Obama entered office during the Great Recession. His whole Presidency was measured by that event. Donald Trump entered office with a mess in the Middle East and growing tensions with Russia. Other activities will happen during his Presidency that will shape him and his Presidency. It happens to every President.
The broader point is this: Trump appears to be growing. He came face-to-face with the depravity of Bashar al-Assad and the implication that Russia was complicit in covering up a chemical weapons attack. Trump responded by destroying 20% of Assad’s air force. The MOAB strike aimed at driving ISIS back in Afghanistan. But it was also likely meant to send a message to Vladimir Putin, China, and North Korea. The message was: America is assertive and responsive again. Instead of falling back and retreating, as the US did repeatedly during the Obama years, Trump is using US military strength to assert American interests.
The last point people are missing when it comes to Trump’s statements: he’s not beholden to ideology. Trump is a blank slate. He may favor a given solution, but it appears that he could be convinced to take a well-argued answer in any cause. On foreign policy, it’s helped to have Mattis and McMaster on board to guide Trump. He also needs experienced direction on domestic issues as he has had on foreign policy. As Steve Bannon loses influence in the White House, people like Jared Kushner are gaining power. For conservative activists and reformers, this exchanges one problem advisor with another one.
As it appears now, Trump is cleaning out the Bannon and Russian-connected wings of his administration. Cleansing is good, and we need him to continue. We also need him to avoid falling into the trap of relying only on family. He requires more than his family to govern. He needs a full spectrum of guidance. I’m hoping the administration continues to get cleaned out in order give Trump that direction.
The first inklings of 2018: What to make of the Special House Election KS-04
In January, one of the things I told people to watch this year were the off-year elections. I’d recommend referring to that piece because it has held up remarkably well. The two elections I saw looming this year were the DNC fight, in which the Obama-wing of the party won, and the gubernatorial race in Virginia. The race in Virginia will, in particular, be considered a bellwether on what the political undercurrents are heading into 2018.
We’re beginning to get a taste of those undercurrents now. The 4th District in Kansas (KS-04) held a special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who Donald Trump nominated to head the CIA. Republicans won the race with Ron Estes, formerly the Kansas State Treasurer. The 4th district is a traditionally red district that Republicans win. The problem was that Estes underperformed Trump’s numbers. Estes won by 6.8 points, in a district that Republicans typically win by 20-30 points. Estes underperformed Trump’s Presidential total by 20 points.
As an exercise, Nate Silver ran projections across all the House races in 2018 if Republicans underperformed by 20 points. The result: Democrats would gain 122 seats in the House. Republicans only hold a 25 seat majority in the House. A 20 point underperformance is highly unlikely. The lesson isn’t that Republicans are going to underperform by 20 points, but that Democrats are more engaged than Republicans. However, I would not take many lessons away from KS-04. There are two broad problems with extrapolating 2018 results from the KS-04 special election: 1) The presence of the highly unpopular Republican Governor, and 2) “Doomsday wave” elections require more than just an unpopular President.
To the first point, the Governor of Kansas is Sam Brownback. Except for this year, Sam Brownback has polled consistently as the most hated Governor in America. Here’s how unpopular Sam Brownback is among all the Governors in America. The now ex-Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, is currently in jail awaiting trial over misuse of campaign funds, having an affair, and other corruption charges. He resigned from office in disgrace with underwater poll numbers of 44%. Sam Brownback has an approval rating of 27%. The only Governor who beats Brownback is NJ Governor Chris Christie. But even Christie’s lead is new in the polls. Brownback leads the most hated Governor choice in all the most recent polls. Think about that for a second: A Governor resigning in disgrace and facing jail time has better polling numbers than Sam Brownback.
Those bad polls bring us to the Republican taking over Mike Pompeo’s old seat in KS-04: Ron Estes. As State Treasurer he is part of Sam Brownback’s administration. He effectively ran as an extension of Brownback’s administration. The main media narrative in this race has been to connect Donald Trump’s low approval ratings to the contest. But far more important in a local race with no national implications are the local politics. Sam Brownback’s approval ratings were a deadweight on Estes. Voters in Kansas loathe Brownback’s connections to Estes so much that local Republican politicians are already considering a primary challenge to Estes in 2018.
The second point is that large “Doomsday” wave elections where 100+ seats change hands in the House are rare and require far more than an unpopular President. Brandon Finnegan at Decision Desk HQ illustrates this point perfectly:
So will the Democrats gain over a hundred seats next year? Probably not. Triple digit losses in the House of Representatives coincided with depressions and/or party chaos: 1894 in the case of the Democrats, who bled 107 seats, and 1932 in the case of the Republicans, who bled 101 seats. A depression could materialize out of the ether, but doesn’t appear likely. Spilling out of the economic situation and furthering the gargantuan swing of 1894 was the fracturing of the Democratic Party. The out-party can make serious gains when the in-party is divided against itself. While this too could materialize, so far no giant war within the GOP has erupted approaching the scale of the populist Democrats versus Bourbon Democrats of the late 19th century.
Beyond the extraordinary circumstances that yield incredible losses, you can’t really apply a twenty point shift to every single race realistically, as each contest will have it’s own unique forces at play. Some incumbents are more aware of shifting circumstances than others, some are better at fundraising, some even safer than this current margin could get caught off guard, and there are those few that somehow avoid getting swept away in even the worst waves. Despite residing in districts that voted for John McCain, nearly a dozen Democratic incumbents survived the 2010 Republican landslide.
Right now, if you’re prognosticating ahead into 2018, there is no evidence saying Republicans will lose 100+ seats in the House. The only direct evidence we have right now says that Democrats are more energized to vote than Republicans. Higher energy should make sense. Donald Trump’s victory was the 7-year culmination of opposition to President Obama. After Democrats had won wave elections in 2006 and 2008, Republicans responded with larger wave elections in 2010 and 2014. The 2016 election was hard fought, and Republicans are relaxed and less engaged than Democrats.
The next big special election is GA-06, the race to replace Tom Price, now the head of Health and Human Services. That race is likely to be a larger fight with more evidence on whether Democrats are showing better organizational skills. The general point to watch is this: can Democrats build enough momentum this year to create a House wave election in 2018? They don’t need 100 seats to do that, only 25. As Finnegan notes, that requires less effort:
The bigger point of Silver and Freddoso’s doomsday wave is this: you don’t need that much to actually flip the house. While this scenario shows ten dozen seats flipping, Democrats need to net just twenty-five between now and next November to grab the gavel back. The two Congressional races held so far this year (in CA34 and KS04) have seen a double-digit shift in margins, and that merits further exploration. Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic to show up to every race, as they’re already in power, but Democrats have become activated and animated on every contest that rolls down the river. Republicans hoping to retain control of the House will be keen to the energy building, while Democrats focus on harnessing it.
Donald Trump and Republicans need to start stringing together victories before 2018. If they lose momentum and the ability to push through legislation, both will lose power in 2018 and 2020. Govern well now to win races later. That should be the motto of every Republican in Congress. If items like health care reform fail, voters won’t blame Democrats. They’ll blame Trump and the Republicans. We’re a little over 18 months away from the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s first 100 days in office ends on April 29th. The clock is ticking for Republicans to govern effectively.
Nationalism by another name
If you read or watch any amount of political coverage, domestic or international, you have undoubtedly run into debates over nationalism. The particular form of nationalism people fear is right-wing nationalism. The right’s version of nationalism is a straightforward concept: it’s love, pride, and desire to defend one’s home country from the threat of “outsiders.”
When used for good, nationalism can provide a unifying value for a country. Creating a new country and establishing individual rights animated the American Revolution. The Founders brought forward an American nation, not a British or European country. In WWII and the Cold War, America’s sense of nationalism helped unify and protect it against the scourges of Nazism and Soviet Communism. In these instances, nationalism proved to be a sound value to unify countrymen.
When used for evil, nationalism takes on a far darker tone. Nationalism combined with an intense racism brought us Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and far too many genocides in the 20th and 21st Centuries. When nationalism descends into depravity, the “outsider” isn’t just a different person; he is a moral evil requiring eradication. Hatred of the stranger replaces the love of one’s country. Americans judge ISIS based on that group’s actions and message. Depraved nationalism judges on skin color, blood, or sex.
The modern concern around dangerous nationalism has merit. Europe has seen a resurgence of its old nationalist demons. There is growing concern this disease is spreading to the United States. That may be the case, but it isn’t happening in a vacuum. I would posit that right-wing nationalism isn’t the only form of nationalism. In fact, I would argue that right-wing nationalism returning to the forefront is a predictable reactionary push against a leftist form of nationalism that has rapidly expanded. Nationalism, in this case, is the gravity and identity of a nation reasserting itself. The reassertion may be messy, but it is transpiring nonetheless.
Modern liberalism has its version of nationalism, though the more accurate term might be “tribalism” and “globalism.” Instead of an intense fealty to one’s country, modern liberalism breaks into two camps: an intense desire to force everyone into a global community, or a tribalistic force that says people have loyalty only to their political identity groups. You will find liberals with a more typical nationalist sensibility, but they are a minority position.
A while back, I wrote about the modern “Shame Culture.” Instead of using the law as a means to enforce their morality, progressives now use cultural-shame, condemnation, and excommunication from society as a tool to assert their beliefs:
Shame culture follows a strict adherence to rules. Outsiders are forced to acknowledge safe spaces, speech zones, and progressive morality or else face cultural condemnation. There are no absolute concepts of truth or justice in shame culture, only whatever it endorses. The enforcers attempt to position themselves as victims, to prevent any retaliation. From this claimed victimhood status, shame culture passes judgement on society while claiming it is discriminated against. The group pursues strict adherence to the letter of its rules, judging society and anyone who even mildly stands against it. This is why headlines appear where progressive groups ban speakers, even speakers normally considered allies, to maintain strict adherence to group morality.
Shame culture is used to “protect” specific groups of people within society. These communities are tribes of people within a larger nation. Assimilation is frowned upon by the left because the tribe is more important than the country.
You can see this come through the news when tribal unity breaks. Peter Thiel is a billionaire Silicon Valley investor who supported Donald Trump during the campaign. He is also gay. There were consistent attacks against him for “selling out” the “gay community.” Black conservatives experience a similar treatment if they support Republican politicians. If they are Republican politicians, they see even worse treatment (Sen. Tim Scott read some of the attacks against him on the Senate floor). The point is fealty to the tribe or community you’re supposed to support overrides support of your local community, state, and nation. This fealty has the same power as right-wing nationalism.
That’s not the only dynamic at play within modern liberalism. There is an old strain of liberalism that supports the concept of a “global community” in place of a nation. The perfect example of this is the reaction to countries leaving the European Union for their respective countries. The EU attempted to replace sovereign nations and become a kind of United States of Europe. If you look at younger generations of Europeans, they considered themselves more European than British, French, or German. Older generations were abhorred at this loss of national identity and reasserted that nationalism.
The irony of modern liberalism is that there is a distinct nationalistic divide between those who want a global order and those who seek an atomized society where tribes matter more than nations. You won’t find a similar dynamic on the right. Each political subset on the right unifies behind a US-centered mindset. There are no divided loyalties. Which is why when nationalism on the right begins descending into darkness, it’s more noticeable (and also why paleo-conservatives and their fawning over Vladimir Putin stand out like a sore thumb). Liberalism fractures into three groups: tribalists, nationalists (the few that remain), and globalists. Liberals with a traditional nationalist viewpoint have joined Republicans in recent years (see the movement of blue dog Democrats into the Republican Party).
If you see these divided loyalties, the reactions of liberals to the election of Donald Trump should make more sense. Violent demonstrations, shouting down speakers, open talk of coups and overthrowing the government makes sense when you see their viewpoint in a nationalism light. They see Trump and Republicans as outsiders attempting to destroy their global community or political tribes. Their reactions and demonstrations are no different than the perverse forms of right-wing nationalism.
History bears this point out as well. The Soviet Union was not primarily bound together by race or national identity. The Soviets united everyone through communism and a war against the capitalist West. Those who joined the communist ideals were brothers in the fight, those who did not were the enemy. Soviet Communism was a perverse form of the liberal global ideals.
Nationalism does not restrict itself to one side of the political aisle. The past decade was one big push by the left towards a unified liberal world order. When President Obama and others argued that there was a progressive arc to history, this is what they meant: history bent towards a liberal global order ruling benevolently over smaller political identity tribes. Right-wing nationalism rejects that order. It is a reassertion of national identity over any tribe or global system.
History teaches us that there have been multiple attempts at global orders. They have always failed in the end. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, various European Empires, and the Soviet Union all failed in the end. National identities always bled through forced order. Americans fought a bloody Civil War over the ideas of slavery and a shared identity. The result of the Civil War was the creation of a national identity enforced by blood. We were born through the Revolution. But the Civil War cemented our national identity. Out of the many came one. Tribes and globalism cannot wipe that away.
National identity connects stronger than a global or tribal connection. Global nationalism cannot contain, control, or overcome a national or tribal identity. National identities always break through in the end. In the United States, tribal forms of nationalism have not broken through. Our national identity is stronger than any global or tribal identity; which is why no one should take Trumpism or nationalism as a trend. There is no progressive arc of history trending towards a progressive future of global identity. Nationalism has a natural gravity that pulls nations back to it. Progressivism is an attempt to propel away from national identity. History proves otherwise. When Americans embrace nationalism correctly, this has led us towards American exceptionalism. Achieving that exceptionalism should be our goal. It’s a fine line, but we are capable of walking it.
Links for your radar
From 1945 until the practice was ended in 1963 with the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the US conducted 210 above-ground nuclear weapons tests. The majority of those took place at the Nevada National Security Site, then on remote Pacific atolls. Obviously, since the purpose of the tests was to understand this powerful new class of weapon, all of the tests were captured with multiple high-speed cameras (running at roughly 2,400 frames per second). And until now, many of those films have languished in classified vaults. But Greg Spriggs and his colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL) are rescuing and declassifying many of them, posting them on YouTube in the process.
The first 64 declassified films were uploaded this week, with footage from Operations Upshot-Knothole, Castle, Teapot, Plumbbob, Hardtack I, Hardtack II, and Dominic. And they’re utterly mesmerizing. In fact, they’re truly awesome, in the literal sense of the word.
In 1962, the baseball veteran Casey Stengel took on the job of manager of the newly minted New York Mets, who were so bad in their first year that he famously asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Fifty-five years later, Americans can be forgiven for wondering the same this week — except we aren’t talking about a ragtag expansion team made up of players discarded from other ball clubs but about important American institutions ranging from the world’s third-largest airline to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
And this ain’t no game.
The decline of public faith in our institutions — from the media to Congress to banks to the presidency to businesses to places of worship — is among the most serious crises of our time. It breeds cynicism, lack of trust and a general feeling of social and cultural unsteadiness, as though the pillars supporting our way of life are hollow and crumbling.
Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, slammed WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange in a full-throated public denunciation Thursday before an audience for foreign policy specialists in Washington, D.C.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” he said in prepared remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Assange is a narcissist who has created nothing of value,” said Pompeo. “He relies on the dirty work of other to make himself famous. He is a fraud—a coward hiding behind a screen.
It’s easy for all sides to read too much into the news that the FBI reportedly obtained a warrant to surveil former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Those convinced of Trump’s Russia ties may see validation and proof of a grander conspiracy. Others may see this lending credence to Trump’s allegations that the Obama administration ordered illegal, politically motivated surveillance in the heat of last year’s presidential campaign. In truth, it does neither. At least, not yet.
In truth, the most important takeaway from this week’s Washington Post report has little to do with Trump directly at all. The focus should instead be on one key implication: That Russia didn’t just interfere in the US election; they may have had help from the inside.
It’s a tantalizing report, one that’s tempting to read too much into from a few different directions.
Kim Jong Un’s rockets are getting an important boost — from China – The Washington Post
When North Korea launched its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into space in February last year, officials heralded the event as a birthday gift for dead leader Kim Jong Il. But the day also brought an unexpected prize for the country’s adversaries: priceless intelligence in the form of rocket parts that fell into the Yellow Sea.
Entire sections of booster rocket were snagged by South Korea’s navy and then scrutinized by international weapons experts for clues about the state of North Korea’s missile program. Along with motor parts and wiring, investigators discerned a pattern. Many key components were foreign-made, acquired from businesses based in China.
Iran Is Still Using Pseudo-Civilian Airlines to Resupply Assad – The Washington Institute
While some international sanctions against Iranian civil aviation have been lifted, Tehran’s insistence on using Mahan Air and other companies to send personnel and weapons to Syria may jeopardize the industry’s future.
As the aviation community and international media fixate on recent Boeing and Airbus orders by Iranian airlines, Tehran continues to quietly purchase secondhand aircraft and parts through smaller companies, actively circumventing terrorism-related sanctions against certain airlines and individuals. By combining military and civil aviation components, Iran seeks to bolster its regional airlift capability, but any companies associated with such activity — even indirectly — are putting themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions policy.
Iran and Russia have stepped up challenges to U.S. power in Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials say, seizing on the uncertainty of future U.S. policy to expand ties with the Taliban and weaken the country’s Western-backed government.
The moves come as tensions have flared between the United States, Iran and Russia over the conflict in Syria, and officials worry that the fallout could hurt Afghanistan’s chances for peace. For years, Iran and Russia have pushed for a U.S. withdrawal.
Now, as the Taliban gains ground and the White House appears to lack a clear Afghan policy, Iran and Russia have boosted support for insurgents and sidelined the United States from regional diplomacy on the war.
Since the failure of the GOP health care bill in the House nearly three weeks ago, President Donald Trump has suggested letting Obamacare explode to bring Democrats to the negotiating table.
Now, he’s threatening to push the detonator.In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Trump suggested the federal government would hold back key subsidy payments made to health insurers offering insurance to low-income Americans.
“Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” Trump said. “I haven’t made my viewpoint clear yet. I don’t want people to get hurt.”
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Tuesday it had awarded a sole-source contract to United Airlines for work related to the forcible removal of President Bashar al-Assad from Syria.
The contract, worth $2.1 billion, tasks the airline company with locating Assad, grabbing him from his seat in the presidential palace, and “dragging him out of Damascus by his arms.” The contract also notes that Assad should be “asked several times, politely” to give up his seat of power, though if he refuses, United workers should bloody his nose up a bit, according to the posting at FedBizOpps.
The award comes just days after President Donald Trump authorized the launch of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base, in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Two Navy ships launched 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria, which destroyed roughly 20% of its operational aircraft and a Green Beans Coffee shop being used by the Russian army.
Soon after the strikes, some in the Trump White House began calling for regime change in Syria. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that peace in Syria “could not be achieved” with Assad remaining in power.
Though US military officials have struggled in recent months with a plan for removing Assad, United Airlines cleared its final hurdle for the military’s request for proposal on Monday, when it ordered police officers to forcibly remove a passenger from a flight that was overbooked.
Thanks for reading!