Rescuing the Trump Papers

The New Yorker

A big question nobody’s asking is: What was he going to do with all that stuff in the 15 (now 12) boxes? Another: are some of these classified documents still damp from the toilet? So many questions and so few answers yet. How quickly and thoroughly the DOJ has presumed Trump’s criminal behavior is a dead giveaway (getting the search warrant), all the more so given the rapid and rabid responses of the GOP.

Witnesses have told how he tore up, burned, shredded, flushed and pocketed many documents. It will be a treat to hear their testimony before the Jan. 6 Committee. Maybe there aren’t that many papers left. If only one box of papers is now considered classified, what will that do to the DOJ’s investigation? Who squealed to the FBI that the boxes were still there? More questions, of course.

What we do know is that the Houdini of Presidential Crime will now likely end up charged, if not convicted. He’ll shortly announce his 2024 presidential run, another way to blunt the inquiry and tear the country apart. Just like he shreds documents.

Will he escape from justice one more time? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

For Joe Biden, the sad sack who is turning into a liability for the Democrats, polls show that 64% of Democrats want him to step aside in 2024. With young voters, the figure is 93%. Top concerns are his age and job performance. If it’s Trump versus Biden again in 2024, I predict hordes of people will be moving to Mexico.

A recent NYTimes poll found that 10% would vote for neither one. I don’t think Trump could win if the Repubs are foolish enough to nominate him. (They have even asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to speak at the CPAC conference in August.) DeSantis in many ways will be worse.

Recent Supreme Court decisions on Roe and guns have riled up a lot of people. But the Dems show few signs of real outrage or responding to these issues in a way that relates to voters’ real agendas. As many have said many times, they don’t know how to fight. The White House issues its predictable talking points and shows, once again, that it doesn’t know how to engage persuasively with voters of different stripes. There’s no urgency or fire. And there’s no third-party candidate worth talking about.

The Democrats are like those in-laws that Carolyn Hax wrote about today in the Washington Post: they keep on bringing meat meals, one after the other, to a new mom who happens to be vegetarian. Fundamentally, that is harassment. For the White House, it’s plain pigheadedness and political ineptitude.

After the Highland Park shooting, Biden made a tepid, ill-timed patriotic speech with barely a mention of the disaster that had just unfolded. For me, that was almost unforgiveable.

For you, my readers, there’s no need to repeat the litany of worse-and-worse Republican treachery and folly. What we need now is people who know how to fight a most critical political battle.

Teaching in a Troubled Time

Our present turmoils have brought me to remember how violent the Vietnam years were, how frequent and widespread the disruptions were, and how we protested and coped. We will likely be in for a lot more of the same now. Have we learned anything from those disruptive Vietnam times? I gave up teaching years ago but my students taught me some lessons.

I was teaching literature at City College in New York in the early ‘70s when the Vietnam disaster was at its height. I had been protesting against the war for years, but now many schools were shutting down, and I remember feeling disdain for the kids who would take over Columbia but without any kind of program. They had to have an agenda if they wanted to accomplish anything, or so I thought. It took a while for me to learn that protests don’t work that way.

It was a very heady and disconcerting time. Columbia was in the throes of protests and takeovers, and they spread to City College. When most of our classes were cancelled, my students still asked to meet in my apartment and other places. They wanted to discuss and learn about literature. So we carried on, for maybe four or five sessions, and finally classes resumed.

Discussing 19th century French poetry while the war was raging and anger in the streets was rising just seemed futile and absurd. Yet there was a sense that doing this provided us a modicum of sanity and substance. I was still trying to be the voice of rationality: when my students began denouncing Nixon, I said (rather smugly), “The nation gets the president it deserves.” Than we all took a break to listen to jazz.

The Vietnam war gave liberals a focus for action. It’s clear that the protests (and the losses) finally did have their effect, changing the political will of those in power. The situation today is much more complex and grievously more dire. There are literally too many fires to put out:

All these calamities (and which did I forget?) are on the cusp of plaguing us for years to come. There are no clear-cut, nicely defined ways to deal with any of them. The plague of Vietnam, we thought then, could be addressed with focused political action. That effort drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Now we have daunting polarization, shifting targets and much-reduced political firepower.

Somehow, I take from my teaching years a faith in the generations to come and their eagerness to learn about literature in the face of a world that they thought was collapsing. I was about ten years older than most of my students—not too old to learn from them. Among other things, they taught me that political order is never fixed, that protests finally can work, and that we ignore the humanities at our peril.

Send in the Clowns

The circus was actually under a tent when I was a kid. It featured wild animals jumping through fiery hoops, high-wire acrobats a hundred feet or more in the air, and of course the clown car. I loved watching a dozen or so people emerge from a small red coupe, and the crowd roared in delight.

You know where this is going, right? In the Select Committee hearings the Trump lackeys are bailing out, repudiating for the world the Big Lie they all formerly endorsed, emerging en masse from Trump’s red coupe. How they all could manage to fit in that car, with such doubts about their boss’s sanity, is the mystery. Yet finally it is no mystery that they are trying to save their skins.

Like so much of what passes for politics now, I find this full of comic overtones—like something Kafka could have written. Our late-night comedians have big problems getting laughs from Trumpian politics. So many clowns have jumped out of the car that the gag just isn’t funny anymore. “But there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could. Even the professionals seem disillusioned.”

Satire works best as a dark form of irony that makes its object look ridiculous. The audience must be in on the joke, or the attempt falls flat. One can cite Jonathan Swift, as I did regarding guns, and most people either don’t know who Swift was or they find the comparison bogus. Such are the perils of irony. If you mock Trump with humor you’re up against some sixty percent of Republicans who continue to believe the Big Lie.

But I still like the metaphor of the circus. For those who pay any attention to it, politics has become entertainment for the masses. The media could not survive without it. The poet Juvenal said this in Roman times: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Are the Select Committee hearings merely a distraction or a diversion for most people? They aren’t “blood sport” for most people, as in ancient Rome, though they might lead to that.

Folks like Rudy Giuliani can also be expected to provide comic relief, as when the old drunk urged Trump to contest the results on election night. Or the wonderful press conference he hosted at the Four Seasons Landscaping Service. John Eastman, chief clown to the president, kept pushing for a plan to kick the election back to the states, even while he acknowledged its illegality.

For many, the very gravity of the hearings indicates that real dangers are lurking. So do the words of the witnesses. Yet a strong sense of artificiality often pervades. We hope the acrobats don’t slip and fall, even as we expect that they might. That tension is part of the circus appeal. Here we hope the clowns will go to jail though we know they may not.

How to Beat the Inflation

“Buy less” is the most obvious answer. Yet often this isn’t possible. In Mexico, one quart of Haagen-Dazs vanilla at my supermarket now costs $15.00 US, almost what it costs in the USA. That outrageous price certainly won’t keep me from buying it. Only if the price goes to $20 would I perhaps reconsider.

I’ll bet most of you are like this with items you lust after. You cut back on things like socks and underwear, making do with holey old stuff. Beer, for some, is another non-negotiable. What do people do in rural red states, forced to buy gas to commute to their uninspiring jobs? Hard to figure that one, when there ain’t much budget left to cut.

Maybe that’s why the hard right is making such headway. If Biden does manage to get through Congress his billions to help these folks, they will piss it away on gasoline or beer, and then what? You bite the hand that feeds you.

I am just as bad. The pickup cartridge on my lovely vinyl-playing setup is going south after many years of usage. It is of course an essential link in getting the music to my ear, and a new one of equal quality will cost about $500, plus shipping here (maybe another $100). Not buying it renders my whole collection mere wall decoration. Buying a cheaper one is cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. How many quarts of Haagen-Dazs is that worth?

These kinds of quandaries are of little concern to people with real money. Instead they complain about the stock market dropping and worry about what they should do—as if there were any choice but to just hang on. Suzie Orman was interviewed on CNN the other night. Actually she looked pretty good for a 70-year-old dispensing commonplace advice. Her counsel on the stock market? Just do nothing and hang on; the market will come back; it always does (like it did in the 1930s?).

For the rest of us, my uncalled-for advice is like Suzie’s: just hang on. Or you could try one of the four tips from a popular Google site: “ask for a raise.”

Have the Dems Finally Found a Voice?

Years ago I coached political people in how to give effective speeches. Only a few had the kind of controlled passion that Michigan Senator Mallory McMorrow demonstrated last month. She understood that a speech has to be very personal if it’s going to move you. It has to reflect who you really are.

With the furor aroused by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade debacle, you can be sure that women will dominate the discourse to come. Most men sound foolish and presumptive discussing abortion. Women will inevitably put the issues on a personal level. They will be the best political weapon the Democrats have.

Power to the People

Guy Immega

I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.

 To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.

 A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”

 Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.

 We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.

Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.

The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?

There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.

You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.

And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.

In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.

I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.

So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.

You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?

Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.

Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.

There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.

And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.

So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.

Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.

“You sound so Putinesque,” she said.

Two hip ladies having lunch were talking—not about the horrors unfolding in Ukraine but about Vladimir Putin, whose personality they found fascinating.

“His big thing is Russia’s return to greatness. There are two problems with that: one, he forgot the costs—in body bags and world opinion; and two, he’s going to lose his Kremlin buddies, who may in fact ultimately do him in.”

“Julia, you sound like a CNN analyst. I want to know how he came to be this way. So I consult my horoscope every week. You know, Putin is a Libra, and here’s what my astrologer said about them: ‘It takes a surprising amount of courage to confess, even just to yourself, that you aren’t where you’d like to be.’ Pass the salad, please.”

“You honestly think he’s going to do that? The grandiose overreacher? His strategic blunders in Ukraine and his basic character flaws will be his undoing. The interesting question is how world leaders were taken in by him for so long. Their blindness to this budding Hitler got us into the mess we now confront.”

“Does Putin have a wife? I don’t even know. Does anybody have any influence on him? The dude was smart enough to protect himself all these years from palace revolts or how much the Russian people are willing to put up with. Looks to me like Putin has worked hard to be a kind of Don Quixote, misled by his romance with the past. People still believe in that kind of fantasy.”

“I’ll have another cocktail, thank you, Gracie. I hope you’re not endorsing this war criminal. He has tried to create a colony of slaves. But he’d rather kill the slaves than free them.”

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.

Ukraine Was Predicted

Sometimes Tom Friedman blathers and sometimes he speaks the truth. But he often has a sense of history and geopolitics that others lack. He came on strong in The New York Times yesterday about how the U.S. and its NATO allies aren’t just “innocent bystanders” to Putin’s despicable offensive in Ukraine.

In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after—indeed, despite—the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership.

In what now seems like the dreamlike ‘90s Friedman says that the U.S. chose recklessly “to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.” Bill Perry, Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, later recalled that moment in 2016: “Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.”

Our present disaster, however, has been years in the making. After NATO expanded in 1998, Friedman talked with George Kennan, then and still one of America’s wisest foreign policy professionals. Here’s what Kennan said to him in full, though you should read the whole piece.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.

Friedman comments: “It’s EXACTLY what has happened.” We also should note that Putin is living out a distorted view of history, a revanchist effort to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory. How we get into conflicts like this can be as important as how to resolve them.