Trump is Putin’s “free chicken”

(Credit: New York Times)

In an article posted this morning at The Atlantic’s website, former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, rejected the idea that the Russians are blackmailing or otherwise using leverage to get President Trump to toe the Russian line. Why? Because they don’t have to.

“In the Army we call this ‘free chicken,’ something you don’t have to work for—it just comes to you. This is what the Russians have in Trump: free chicken.”

Trump, Vindman says, needs no incentive to praise Vladimir Putin or to shape US policy in pro-Kremlin ways. It comes naturally to him.

He has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.

Vindman, who left the Army in July in the wake of professional bullying, intimidation, and retaliation, was asked why he’s speaking out publicly now. Here’s his answer:

I was drawn into this by the president, who politicized me. I think it’s important for the American people to know that this could happen to any honorable service member, any government official. I think it’s important for me to tell people that I think the president has made this country weaker. We’re mocked by our adversaries and by our allies, and we’re heading for more disaster.

The whole interview, with Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, is well worth your time.

Nothing is normal and everything is bad

Someone more clever than I am made this meme.

Shakespeare had it wrong when he suggested that “our winter of discontent” could be “made glorious summer” whether by Richard III or anything else. At least that’s the way I’ve been feeling about things.

So here we are nearing summer’s end, the discontents of winter turned into the miseries of COVID spring, the angers and unrests of summer, and a numb stumble into a fall of tension, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Blacks keep dying at the hands of mostly white police. American cities are roiled by 100+ days of protest, mostly but certainly not entirely peaceful. California burns.

Millions — 13.6 million as of August — are jobless. Millions more have contracted a dangerously virulent virus. COVID deaths in the United States now top 190,000, more than any other country on earth.

And we learn today that the president knowingly and purposefully lied to the American people about how dangerous this virus really is. He admitted it on the record in a taped interview. And he could still win re-election in November.

Boats keep sinking at Trump boat parades. OK, that one may be a bright spot.

So yeah, I haven’t been writing much. But I’m working on changing that, not because I think anyone has been hungering for my perspective, but because I need to do it to get myself back onto something that feels like a normal track.

Let’s face it. Nothing is normal now. Certainly not in my personal or professional life. Maybe your situation is different.

Anyway, to get back to normal I need to do some normal things. Writing is one of them.

‘You have to dominate …’

National Guard on the streets of Minneapolis (Credit: Start Tribune)

President Trump, in a 45-minute conference call with the nation’s governors today, told them how to handle the waves of protests, some violent, that have swept more than 50 cities across the country over the last several days and nights:

Get a lot of men. We have all the men and women that you need, but people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate and you have to arrest people and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.

Six minutes into the call, after recounting scenes he apparently saw on television, and then passing along to the governors rumors his friends have told him, Trump, who spent part of Friday night cowering in the White House bunker while protesters rallied outside, returned to his main theme:

There’s no retribution. So I say that, and the word is dominated. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington and DC. And we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before, but you’re going to have total domination.

Before turning it over for questions, Trump again berated the governors for he called their “weakness,” and their failure to call up even more than the 17,000 National Guard troops already deployed in 29 states to confront these disturbances.

I don’t know what it is, politically, when you don’t want to call up people. They’re ready, willing, and able. They want to fight for the country. I don’t know what it is. Someday you’ll have to explain it to me, but it takes so long to call them up. We’re waiting for you. We’re shocked at certain areas. L.A., we’re shocked that you’re not using the greatest resource you can use, and they’re trained for this stuff, and they’re incredible, but you’re not calling them up. I don’t know, but you’re making a mistake because you’re making yourself look like fools.

And some have done a great job. A lot of you. It’s not good. It’s very bad for our country. Other countries watch this. They’re watching us and they say, “Boy, they’re really a pushover.” And we can’t be a pushover. And you have all the resources. It’s not like you don’t have the resources. So I don’t know what you’re doing.

For Trump, strength means putting soldiers on the streets of American cities, to dominate fellow Americans into silence and acquiescence.

But this is far from the first time we have heard Trump speak this way, disparaging those who fail to meet popular dissent with maximum force and praising those who crush protest with cold ruthlessness. In fact, I wrote about it right after election day in 2016:

In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump was asked about his impressions of the Soviet Union after an unsuccessful trip to Moscow to try to make a hotel deal:

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; The signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

The interviewer pressed him: “You mean firm hand as in China?”

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.

Read that again. “Put it down with strength.” That’s what the Chinese did in 1989, and thousands died. And that’s what Trump is telling America’s governors to do in 2020. Dominate.

President Trump wants occupying armies on American streets, and he doesn’t understand why America’s governors balk at the idea. This exchange, between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Trump, lays it bare:

Tim Walz: (24:21)
If I’m still on, the one thing I would say, I spent 24 years in the guard. So one thing I would say is you could do is, a lot of people don’t understand what the National Guard is. And you need to get out there from a PR perspective and make sure that it’s not seen as an occupying force, but it’s their neighbors, school teachers, business owners, those types of things. That’s a really effective message.

Donald Trump: (24:39)
Okay, good. I think that’s a good idea. I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago, that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force. I wish we had an occupying force in that. But for some reason, I don’t know what it is, governors don’t like calling up the guard. 

For some reason …

Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.