Now he's gone and done it. Donald Trump has declared that a decades-old situation at the US - Mexican border has suddenly become a "national emergency." He thinks that, having done so, he can now spend money on a "big, beautiful wall": money that Congress has, just now, refused to appropriate.
I don't think so, and I'm not alone. The media have published various pieces on ways that he could be prevented from doing this. One of those is Answers to 4 Key Questions About Trump’s Declaration of an Emergency, by Nicholas Fandos, published yesterday in The New York Times.
From the second paragraph of that story: "Lawmakers seeking to block the president have two paths — one in Congress, the other in the courts." It becomes clear, a little further down, that the path "in Congress" that he has in mind is this: "Under the National Emergencies Act, the House and the Senate can take up what is called a joint resolution of termination to end the emergency status ...."
Well, yeah, they can do that. What surprisingly few people have mentioned, so far, is that there's something else, something more decisive, that they can do. That something is called impeachment.
I have posted a comment on that Times story. The full text of my comment reads as follows:
From the story: "Lawmakers seeking to block the president have two paths ...."
That is not correct.  There is a third option, and it is the one that I recommend.
The House of Representatives can vote to impeach the president, and the Senate can remove him from office.
This so-called "state of emergency" is utterly unlike any declared before.  Let's call it what it is: an attempt to overthrow the Constitution.
As such, it is fully sufficient, even without the other high crimes and misdemeanors of which we know or suspect, to justify removing him from office.
And there is no need for committee hearings.  The House, at least, could have its floor vote today.
President Trump has proven me wrong about something. I never thought I'd see the day when he did something that was memorable for its originality.
But he has! He has created a highly innovative, and quite effective, method of terrorism.
Think about it. The people of this country have been attacked with bombs, with guns, and with crashing airplanes. But it took the genius of Donald Trump to realize that you could bring the United States of America to its knees by committing political suicide.
Thank you for taking the position that the government shutdown needs to end. If I understand correctly, you have recognized that some compromise is likely to be necessary.
Something else that is clearly necessary, if reopening the government is to happen: a bill [or several] must be passed by both houses, and sent to the president for his signature. The majority leader has it backwards: he wants not to bring anything up for a vote until after the president has already agreed to sign it. Please tell him that this approach does not work for you and your constituents.
I deliberately say nothing about *how* you should vote. That's a separate issue. But not to vote at all? I'm afraid that most people will see that as the Senate not doing its job.
Thanks for your attention. / Tom Edelson
I certainly hit a speed bump at the end of the last post (the one dated 2018-12-27, with subject line "... but we should fire the poor bastard anyway."). And it has taken me this long to figure out what the source of the difficulty was, and how to get past it.
To put it simply, I lost track of what point I wanted to make. Here's the part of the text where, I now believe, I went off the rails:
... how can I say that it's time to get to work on firing the poor bastard, when in just the last post, I said that we need to emphasize Donald Trump's incompetence more, and his evil nature less?
That quote implies that there is some sort of a contradiction between emphasizing Trump's incompetence, and suggesting that the new Congress should be looking seriously at impeaching him. What made me think that those things were, or even sounded, contradictory? Answer: the idea that you can't impeach the president for being incompetent, only for doing something wrong, something with [at least] the "flavor" of criminality.
Well, I might actually believe that, and I might not. But if I hadn't lost track of my point, I would have realized that it was a mistake to even raise that question, let alone go off, as I did, on a long detour on the subject of whether or not it is possible to give a positive definition of what constitutes an impeachable "offense." That may be a worthwhile question, but for purposes of the point I was actually trying to make, it doesn't matter.
Why not? Because I never intended to suggest that Trump should be impeached "merely" for being incompetent.
On December 25, I posted a journal entry with the subject line, "Pity our underprivileged president ...," whose central point was that Trump's critics, myself included, "tend to focus too much on his being bad, and not enough on his being incompetent." Two days later, I posted the one already mentioned, the one that said (though not in these words) that I thought it was now time to begin impeachment proceedings. By posting those two statements in quick succession like that, I may have misled the reader into thinking that I wanted to claim that they were very closely related: that we should be looking at impeaching and removing the president, because of his incompetence.
Whether or not I did give any readers that mistaken impression, I now realize that I somehow managed to give it to myself. Why, actually, did I follow a statement about incompetence with a statement about impeachment?
Not because I wanted to say that he should be impeached for incompetence. No, in my original train of thought, mentioning impeachment was meant to be nothing more than an aside to the reader. "Don't misunderstand me," I wanted, in effect, to say. "Just because I think Trump's incompetence deserves more attention, doesn't mean that I believe that he shouldn't be impeached. I do think he should be (or at least that Congress needs seriously to be considering the possibility)."
And if someone were to object that incompetence isn't grounds for impeachment, there would be no need to argue with that person. I could just say, "Oh, you mean that there needs to be a flavor of criminality, an intent to do something wrong? No problem. He's got those, too."
And then, having gotten that out of the way, I could have returned to my main thread: clarifying, and arguing for, the claim that with all the focus on Trump's unethical character, we tend to forget that his incompetence is a major factor in the situation, the mess in which we find ourselves, as well.
Exhibit A: the government shutdown. A competent individual would never have let himself get caught in the double-bind in which Donald Trump finds himself now.
Things move so fast that I can't be sure what I will write about next. But I will surely find an opportunity, sooner or later, to expand on this point about the shutdown. Just not today.
What's that? You say you can't stand the suspense? Okay, here's a hint. Whose shutdown is it?
Does Trump "own" it? A good guess, but I don't think it gets to the heart of the matter. Ask yourself this: can you think of anyone who is active in American politics, and who actually benefits from the shutting down of the United States government? If you give that some serious thought, I think you will come to the same conclusion that I have: that we should be calling this the "Putin shutdown."
Just a few things to clarify, in relation to the last post (the one with the subject line, "Pity our underprivileged president ...").
Do I really think we should pity him, or consider him "underprivileged"? Absolutely. If you could choose, wouldn't you prefer being mentally privileged, rather than financially so?
What do I mean by "we should fire [him]"? I mean that the House of Representatives should impeach him, and the Senate should remove him from office.
I've written, in this journal, on the subject of impeachment before. I made myself sound dubious on the subject. But I never really said we shouldn't impeach him; only that the time didn't seem right to put energy into promoting the idea.
I think that has changed. Don't you?
Specifically, I am now prepared to say that it's time to begin impeachment proceedings.
Why? Well, I won't pretend that a Democratic majority in the House is totally irrelevant to my coming to this conclusion. But it's not really the reason for it.
Then what is? I won't attempt a comprehensive, general answer to this (not here and now, at least). For one thing, new facts have come to light. Also, other contributors to the public debate have, in the interim, come to the same change in, or clarification of, their positions; I generally agree with their reasoning.
There's really only one [more?] substantive point that I want to make, here, and even that one will be somewhat abbreviated. I just want to take a shot at answering this question: how can I say that it's time to get to work on firing the poor bastard, when in just the last post, I said that we need to emphasize Donald Trump's incompetence more, and his evil nature less?
Now, why is that even a question? Because the Constitution has that infamous phrase: a president (or other official) may be impeached for (and, apparently, only for) "high crimes and misdemeanors."
There is nothing like consensus on what, exactly, that phrase means. Indeed, there may simply be no answer as to exactly what it means. There does, in my reading, seem to be something close to a consensus on one thing that it doesn't mean: the most respected scholars on the subject seem to agree that an "impeachable offense" is not, always and necessarily, a crime in the penal-code sense.
And yet, and yet. Those words, "high crimes and misdemeanors," continue to bedevil us. So, for that matter, does the phrase "impeachable offense" (emphasis added). These usages nudge us into thinking that valid grounds for impeachment must be something like being guilty of a crime. In particular, they make us reluctant to think that it would be proper to "fire" someone, under this process, "merely" for incompetence.
And shouldn't we be reluctant to do that? At this point, the best I can do is to answer the question with a question: how reluctant should we be? I agree with the intuition that we don't want the House and Senate to feel that they can remove the president whenever they feel like it. But that doesn't give us a set of criteria, an algorithm that will tell us, or them, when it is Constitutionally proper to take this step.
Maybe it's just not possible to frame a usable set of criteria for this. Maybe such decisions can only reasonably be made in examining the facts of a concrete case. Maybe we need to say, today, about "impeachable offense," what I believe a Supreme Court justice did say, years ago, about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Essentially, I do believe that. At least the part about its being impossible to frame an explicit, algorithm-like set of criteria for what constitutes an impeachable offense. But I also think that there is more that can usefully be said about what would constitute a fair-minded approach to such a decision, in the matter of Donald Trump.
There is more to be said, but I am not prepared to say it now.
In the last week and change, something has come into clearer focus for me. It's not really a new thought, but it's gotten much more vivid and concrete. Namely: those of us who think Donald Trump is a lousy president tend to focus too much on his being bad, and not enough on his being incompetent.
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a child born on the same day that he was: June 14, 1946. Imagine that child's genetic endowment, and his parents' personalities, to be the same as they were for the real Trump. But imagine that family's economic status to have been lower middle class.
What would this child have become, 72 years later? My best guess: a wino.
Assuming he even lived that long.
I wrote a letter today to Richard Burr, one of the U.S. Senators for the state in which I live. (Or, to be more exact, I left a message on his Web site.)
My subject line was "Please vote no on Kavanaugh." And here is the body text:
Full disclosure: I am a Democrat, and I have multiple reasons for not supporting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. But today I learned of a new reason, which can be stated in the title of a New York Times story: "Trump Taunts Christine Blasey Ford at Rally".
You might say, "Huh? Surely even a Democrat can see that a comment by the president changes nothing .. that is, nothing relevant to whether Kavanaugh is qualified for the job." True enough, it doesn't.
But someone has to let Trump know that he can't get away with making such disgusting remarks. Since he clearly has no shame, the only way to get that message to him is to show him that his words have consequences.
And it is in your self-interest to rebuke him in that way. Not despite the fact that you are a Republican, but because you are. Republican politicians who let the president say such things, without consequences, are tying themselves to him in a way that will not be good for you. You are tying yourselves, not just to his political views (to the limited extent that he has any coherent political views), but to his character.
If you don't think that that will be detrimental to your own political prospects, sooner or later, then all I can say is: Good luck with that.
This just in: the President of the United States is nuts. I know, I know, it's a shock. I mean, we all had no idea, right? (Shut up.)
Now here's the bad news. Just knowing he's crazy, that doesn't tell us exactly what his diagnosis is. You see, there's more than one way of being crazy ... more than one way, even, of being crazy with the exact same symptoms.
To be able to talk about this more clearly, let's drop the word "crazy" and use "irrational" instead. We call someone's behavior irrational when we think that it is -- in a way that should be obvious to a normal person -- ineffective in getting him what he wants. In order to draw that conclusion, though, we have to know, or assume, what it is that he does want. More often than not, we can't know; we have to assume. Because more often than not, there's more than one answer to that question (what the person wants) that makes sense in the light of his observed behavior. Faced with this ambiguity, we generally end up assuming that what the person wants is like what most other people want.
For example, suppose the president frequently says things that are so obviously untrue that hardly anyone is going to believe them. In fact, it's so obvious (that he won't be believed) that we feel that he must be aware of it. Or at least, he would realize this if he thought about it.
This is puzzling behavior, because, when a person asserts something, we usually assume that he wants to be believed. This is a pretty safe assumption if he's telling the truth, or thinks he is. But it's also pretty safe if he's lying. What purpose could possibly be served by saying something when, not only do you know it's not true, but you also know that you won't be believed? (Or "should" know: remember, we've already ruled out simple ignorance as the explanation.)
The behavior is puzzling because we usually expect, by default, that people will act rationally, and that doesn't seem to be the case here. However, it can be irrational in more than one way. I will mention two.
The first way we could interpret it is to figure that the president doesn't want what we originally thought he did; in this case, that he doesn't want to be believed. Why wouldn't he? Maybe he doesn't want to go on being president. Maybe he's actually hoping that people will notice that he's acting irrationally, and rescue him from the job in which he feels trapped.
Interestingly, this is not just something that "someone might think": it has actually been put forward as an explanation of President Trump's recent behavior. In the cases I've seen, the writer doesn't explicitly use the word "unconscious" (as in "has an unconscious desire to be removed from the presidency"), but I take it to be implied. It's certainly more plausible that way.
But as I said, there could be a different kind of irrationality at play here. This one's a little harder to explain, but that could be merely because we're not used to talking about it in such detail.
Under this theory, if you ask whether he wants to be believed, the answer isn't a simple "yes" or "no." Instead, it needs to be something like this: generally, he does want to be believed. And presumably, he would in this case too ... if he took the time to think about it.
But he didn't. Someone said something negative about him. That made him feel bad. Snapping back and contradicting what they said will make him feel better, so he does that. The reaction is so automatic that he literally never thinks about whether he will be believed.
This is called being impulsive. And this, also, has, in the real world, been put forward as an explanation of some of Trump's behavior. I believe that this is what people are referring to when they say Trump acts like he's nine years old (or thereabouts).
For what it's worth, this seems pretty plausible to me: more plausible, in general, than the theory that he has an unconscious desire to be removed from the presidency. But that's not very important. What matters is that both theories have some plausibility; each is sufficiently consistent with the observable facts that it can't be easily, and with certainty, ruled out.
So that's what I meant by different ways of being irrational. Same observable behavior, different possible explanations of what's going on inside his skull. What to do?
Perhaps we need to fall back to a behaviorist approach, also known as stimulus-response theory. The basic idea here: since you can't directly observe what's going on inside the subject's head, don't even try to guess. Just look for patterns in what stimulus produces what response. If you think you see a pattern, then ideally, you should confirm it experimentally: predict the response to a new stimulus, apply that stimulus, and see whether your prediction was correct.
Here's a really simple example. First, the observation from which you will be asked to infer a pattern. (Normally, one would prefer to have many more observations, but in this case it hardly seems necessary.) Stimulus: Trump learns that a number of people, who interacted with him one-on-one in the White House, have been saying that he's an idiot. Response: he produces a tweet saying that he's a genius.
Now the test question. How do you think Trump would respond if he were told that he is suffering from gravitosis (a disease which I just made up)? The symptoms, we explain, are that the body feels as if the force of gravity were steadily getting stronger. And it looks that way from the outside, too. In a case like his, the prognosis is not good: chances are that, in about two months, he will no longer be able to walk.
What's he gonna do if we talk that way? My own guess: the next morning, he will deliver himself of a tweet announcing that he can fly.
And then ... this is admittedly less certain, but maybe ... he will declare that he intends to prove it. The following day at noon, he's going to jump out of Air Force One, from an altitude of ten thousand feet, without a parachute.
If this experiment were to be performed, and the result were to be as I have suggested, then what? Presumably, everybody with half a brain would then agree that the man is not playing with a full deck. (Um, right?) And so someone would lead him away to a nice safe place.
What? You were thinking of letting him go through with it? You should be ashamed of yourself.
The last three entries in this journal, like this one, all had subject lines beginning with "Impeachment: Why Not?" None of them, however, was about reasons not to impeach President Trump. Instead, they were about reasons why one might not choose to spend time, in the current situation, promoting the impeachment of President Trump. See the difference?
The same is true of this one, except for one thing. This isn't about why "one" might not "choose to spend time ... promoting the impeachment of President Trump." This is more specific: not why "one" might not, but why I, personally, might not choose to keep on spending time on this. (In fact, the chances are that, in the near future, I won't.) There's more than one such personal reason, but, to a first approximation, they all boil down to one thing.
Reason Four: I Don't Want To
Okay, why don't I want to?
For one thing, I've developed a real craving to spend some time on things that have nothing to do with politics. Computer programming, for instance. It would be such a relief to take a break from worrying about mushy things like how to persuade someone of something. With programming, it's much more straightforward: you write the program, you run it, and it either works or it doesn't.
And besides that, even when it is about politics -- even when it is about dealing with the nightmare that is the Trump presidency -- I'm not that sure that working for impeachment is the only way to go. I can't shake the feeling that maybe what I, personally, really need to do is to move to Canada. I'm not 100% sure about that, but I've reached the point where I am sure that I need to devote some serious time and energy to exploring that possibility more deeply.
At this point, my divided self manifests again. To say such things, even in my head, provokes an angry response from another part of my mind. It's a little like the argument I had with the lady in the peanut gallery, back in the entry headed "Impeachment: Are We There Yet?" But this time, I will make it more obvious that I am arguing with myself, by presenting it as a dialogue between two "sides": the prosecution and the defense.
Prosecution: I am shocked -- shocked! -- that you would even consider such a selfish response. You want to go off and write computer programs? Isn't that a lot like fiddling while Rome burns?
And as for moving to Canada, that may be even worse. You'd really save your own sorry butt, without a thought for the poor souls left behind? I thought you were better than that.
Defense: That seems a little harsh. With regard to the computer programming and other such alternate activities: when you have a big long-term project, sometimes you just need to take a break and do something else for a while. It will probably benefit the project, in the long run, because you will come back to it fresher.
But more fundamentally, I'm not sure that this impeachment process is meant to be my project ... any more, at least. Maybe I've already done the part of it that I'm even minimally qualified to do.
I can convince myself that there are good grounds for impeachment, in principle, based on what we already know, and on my own understanding of the Constitution. But I already noted, back under "Impeachment: Why Not? (Reason 2)," that I am likely not the best person to convince others of this, if only because I am not a lawyer.
Besides, the question before us is not merely whether impeachment is justified, "in principle." It's whether we should be throwing our efforts into making impeachment (and removal from office) actually happen. And even if you assume that we could succeed in that -- maybe after the midterm elections? -- are we sure that it would be the best thing for the country? (Assuming, again, that the grounds for impeachment are "just" the things we already know: that Trump hasn't, in the interim, made a blatant grab for dictatorial power. If he does, that will change things.)
Because speaking for myself, I am not convinced, at least not yet (that removing Trump from office, before the end of his first term, and absent the "smoking gun," would be the best thing for the country). I am not, however, aiming to start a discussion of whether it would be. My point is simply that I don't feel like I'm the best qualified person to render an opinion on this.
In fact, I am sure that I am not qualified -- let alone the "best" qualified -- to render such an opinion. Not at the moment, at least. I am sure of this because I find that I don't even have an opinion on it ... not one that I'd feel comfortable sharing.
Perhaps I could develop one, in time. But that's just "perhaps." And, even if you assume that I could, I have no idea how long that would take. I am almost sure that the only way I could do it, with real confidence in the result, would be ... wait for it ... first to clear my mind by taking a break from struggling with these issues, and, yes, to spend some time writing computer programs or something.
Prosecution: Unbelievable. You are such a wimp (even if I, being you, say so myself). Do you think that this is some sort of game? The fate of the world may, quite literally, be at stake.
And you seem to be assuming that you can just take a pass, and someone else will take care of it. But maybe you are the only one who can! Maybe you are the one person who can think this through deeply enough, and find the right words to explain your conclusion, so that any rational person can read, and learn the truth.
Mind you, I can't prove that you are "the one." But with so much at stake, since you can't prove that you're not the one person who can do it, aren't you obligated to try, whether you "want to" or not?
Defense: Got you, you self-righteous son of a bitch! You fell right into my trap.
Prosecution: Huh? What trap?
Defense: Let's grant you, "for the sake of the argument" (as we philosophers like to say), that you could get me, with continued liberal application of the whip, to write something that was ... acceptable. Something that got the job done: that showed us all the safest way to get out of the Trump mess.
Except that in the real world, we'd never be really sure how much the outcome had been influenced by this thing I wrote. Nor would we really know whether someone else could have written it, and maybe would have, if I had not.
But never mind that. Here's something you can take to the bank. If I actually did write something that was even potentially that important, then, before I finished it, I'd have at least half convinced myself that I actually was the only person who could have written it. I know this for a fact, because it's happening to me right now. And you know it too, because I'm you.
Prosecution: Yadda yadda. What's all this about a trap?
Defense: You're going to have to put some big boy pants on, and be patient. I'm getting there.
Now where was I? Oh, yes. I was saying that I would at least half convince myself that I really was the only person who could have written it. And that would start me down a very dangerous path.
Prosecution: What are you talking about?
Defense: Once you start believing grandiose things like that about yourself, you can't stop. It becomes an addiction: you keep on convincing yourself of more of them. I -- we -- would be in serious danger of turning into another Donald Trump.
Prosecution: What ... oh. I think I see where you're going with this.
Defense: Good; that means you're not as stupid as you look. You remember, it was part of his standard stump speech. He'd do his bad imitation of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, except he wasn't talking about the hereafter, he was talking about how awful everything supposedly was right now. And then he'd finish that riff with these five words: "Only I can fix it."
Defense: Which would have been fine, I guess; it was great theater ... for a certain sort of audience. But then he had to go and win the damn thing. So then everybody was watching him, to see if he could deliver. And you know how that turned out.
So think about it. Do you really want us to end up like he did? The laughingstock of the planet?
Prosecution: [remains silent]
Defense: I didn't think so.
In the last entry
I had more to say about some possible grounds for impeachment of
Donald Trump, grounds which I had originally laid out two entries
earlier than that. I said that impeachment on those grounds
(while I do think it justified) would be difficult: in particular,
that it would be difficult to get public acceptance for it, because it
doesn't fit very well with people's preconceptions about what "grounds
for impeachment" ought to look like.
This is as good a place as any to acknowledge a sad fact. There is a segment of the public which will, almost certainly, never "accept" the impeachment of Trump, no matter what grounds are given. Perhaps not even if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone (to repurpose an example which he himself offered, during the 2016 general election campaign). I'm not sure how they would justify rejecting impeachment after he did that, but I am confident that they would find a way. Calling it justifiable homicide, perhaps.
But I digress. It's probably true that you'll never convince everybody, but still. My original suggested grounds for impeachment, namely failure to defend against Russian hacking, face some particular obstacles which are not common to every imaginable case for impeachment. So it's not unreasonable to ask whether we really need to undertake to do it the hard way. In other words ....
Reason Three: Perhaps an Easier Way Will Turn Up
Perhaps, for example, solid evidence will turn up that Mr. Trump has, indeed, committed an actual crime. A serious one, and one that is clearly relevant to whether we can continue to entrust him with the powers of the presidency. Alternatively, maybe he will commit one, with those same properties ... and nice and easy to prove.
Or, of course, perhaps not. Perhaps no such evidence of a suitable past crime will turn up. There's more than one reason why it might not; in particular, we can't rule out with certainty the possibility that he hasn't committed one.
And it's conceivable that he might manage to avoid criminal transgressions going forward, as well. So where does that leave us?
I shall answer that question with another question: What do we mean by "us"?
What I mean is: people who would prefer that Donald Trump not finish his first term as president. That is, in effect, an unspoken assumption behind this whole series of journal entries.
Now let me clarify right away: I don't mean to assert that I am entitled to assume this. I don't claim that "any reasonable person" would share this preference. All I mean, in calling this an "assumption," is that what I am writing is primarily addressed to those who do share it. That's because those are the people who have the clearest reason to care about the questions that I am raising.
The most recent of those questions is "Where does that leave us?" In the context, what that means is: given that we would prefer that Trump not finish his term ... and given that I have offered a case for impeachment that could, perhaps, be successfully pursued, but with difficulty ... and given that an easier way to make the case for removing him from office might turn up, but also might not ... what should we do now?
That depends. (Of course it does, but on what?) Well, each of the three considerations noted in the last paragraph is a matter of degree. Here are three questions:
How important (and urgent) is it to you that Trump not finish his first term?
How feasible do you think that it would be to bring about an impeachment based on grounds like my suggested "failure to protect us from hacking by the Russians"?
How likely do you think it is that more straightforward grounds for impeachment will come along?
Now imagine that you could express your answer to each of those questions in the form of a number. And let's make the question, "What should we do now?", more specific: "Should we be trying to make a case for impeachment based on 'failure to protect'?"
Then I suggest that:
The higher your numerical answer to the first question ("How important?"); and
the higher your answer to the second ("How feasible?"); and
the lower your answer to the third ("How likely?") ...
... the more likely it is that you "should" answer the final question, "Should we be trying to make a case ...?", with a "yes". Or in summary: if you want the result, and you think "doing it the hard way" is feasible, and you aren't very confident that an easier way will come along ... then go ahead and try to do it the hard way.
I've presented a sort of decision procedure: suppose that you are a member of the House of Representatives, and you are already personally convinced that impeaching President Trump is a good idea (meaning some combination of: it would be better for the country, and the reasons for doing so also fit the "permissible" grounds for impeachment, under your own interpretation of the Constitution). So you have to decide whether publicly to start a move for impeachment, now, or wait. What goes before, in this journal entry, is offered as a possible framework for making that decision.
Before finishing, I want to mention that this "decision procedure" could, perhaps, be generalized somewhat. In particular, one might allow for different versions of what counts, within the procedure, as "doing it the hard way."
So far, I've used that phrase to represent a particular "hard
way" of arguing for impeachment: the one based on the theory first
laid out three entries ago, under the heading "Impeachment: Are We
That theory, again, was that we have an "impeachable offense" sitting
right in front of us, with no need to wait for more findings from the
special prosecutor's investigation; and that "offense" consists of a
failure to defend us against Russian efforts to interfere with our
election (even if Trump had done nothing actively in support of that
But our hypothetical Congressbeing could have something else in mind, as her example of "doing it the hard way." That is, she could believe that something else that Trump has done, and that we already know about, constitutes grounds for impeachment. Furthermore, in order for it to count as "the hard way," it would have to be similar to my specific example in some ways: her "impeachable offense" would have to be something other than a crime explicitly defined as such in the statute books, and/or something for which we do not [yet] have evidence sufficient to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
In any such case that we could imagine, she would be in a similar position to the one we found ourselves in, starting with my own specific example of an alleged, publicly-known "impeachable offense." That is, in deciding whether to wade in, and make an all-out effort to procure an actual vote for impeachment on her chosen grounds, she'd have to balance how strongly she felt about it, and the difficulty of persuading her colleagues to agree, against the likelihood that the same result might be procured more easily, if she waited for something more like a "smoking gun" to be offered up by the special prosecutor's investigation.
And therefore, my "decision procedure" could be useful in a wide range of cases, not just in the particular one which I dreamed up, having to do with failure to protect the nation from Russian hacking.
That "decision procedure" is way cool, is it not, even if I say so myself? It's almost like an algorithm that could be run on a computer. You just plug in your three input numbers, turn the crank, and then act according to the results.
Two entries back, I offered you an admittedly half-baked argument for impeaching (and removing) President Trump, based only on what we knew at the time. I also promised you an explanation of why I was not planning to press forward, right away, to make that argument more fully baked.
One entry back, I gave you part of that explanation. I said that I saw no hurry about building out the case for impeachment, given that there was at least one thing that the Congress needed to attend to more urgently than impeachment. That would be the passage of a "no first use of nuclear weapons" law.
In that same entry, I said that this "nuclear thing" was only one of the reasons "why not," and that I had three more reasons in mind. This time around, I plan to tell you about one more of the reasons.
But first, I want to clarify a couple of points. The first is to emphasize that when I speak of a "reason why not," I don't mean -- at least, not primarily -- a reason not to impeach. I mean a reason why I am not devoting my energy to arguing for impeachment. Sometimes, a reason for the one may also serve as a reason for the other. But not always.
And furthermore -- here comes the second clarification -- I'm also not giving reasons not to argue for impeachment, as such. Rather, they are reasons why I'm not devoting energy to strengthening the particular argument for impeachment which I introduced two entries earlier.
(As you may recall, the crux of that argument was that it was the president's duty to improve our defenses against foreign manipulation of our election processes, and that his abject failure to perform that duty could be grounds for impeachment, even if we assumed that he was not himself actively complicit in those manipulations.)
With those points made, I am ready to get on with telling you about the second reason.
Reason Two: There's a Lot of Groundwork Involved
It is something of a truism that impeachment is a hybrid process: quasi-judicial, but also quasi-political. One way that the latter is true is this: the process is actually performed by elected officials, that is, politicians (members of the House of Representatives, and then the Senate). Unlike federal judges, these people are elected for finite terms; if they want to remain in their respective positions, they need to be re-elected. And it is a simple fact, whether we like it or not, that this need has an effect on the way they do their jobs. In particular, it means that they are concerned about what the voters will think of their actions.
Yes, in the real world, they are also concerned about what potential donors of campaign funds will think. But in this particular discussion, I think we can afford the luxury of not focusing on that. Instead, I am drawing attention to the difference between "What will the voters think?" and "What is the right thing to do?" Federal judges are appointed for life, and the framers of the Constitution made that decision so that judges, unlike members of the House and Senate, could do what they thought was correct, in interpreting the law, and be relatively unconcerned about public opinion.
So ... the framers took this particular pair of responsibilities (impeachment and removal), and put it in the hands of people who -- by the nature of their jobs -- do care about public opinion. In particular, it is safe to assume, when they think about impeaching or removing a public official, that they care about whether the voters back home will think that what they are doing is proper.
What are the voters likely to think about that? That depends, partly, on whether those voters want to see the official in question -- in this case, President Trump -- remain in office. And that in turn depends, partly, on their political views.
But not entirely. A fair fraction of the voters are aware, if only vaguely, that impeachment is also a quasi-judicial process. They know that the Constitution says something (though not much) about the permissible "grounds" for impeachment; that is, about the criteria that Congressbeings are supposed to use in making impeachment-related decisions. Quite a few, by now, have at least heard the phrase "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors".
In short, many people do understand that this is a difference between our system and a parliamentary democracy. In the latter, the legislature can dismiss the chief executive simply because they no longer approve of the way she is doing her job. Under the US Constitution, it's not supposed to work that way.
Furthermore, not only do quite a few people know this, but a significant fraction of those people care about it, too. They believe in following the rules. So there are many people who would like to see President Trump gone (including, but not limited to, most of those who did not vote for him), but not all of those people automatically favor impeachment. They won't favor that until and unless they are convinced that it is being done on Constitutionally authorized grounds.
On the other hand, there isn't a lot of clarity about what that phrase -- particularly the "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" part -- means. Particularly among the general public. I suspect that most folks are under a mistaken impression about this. They think that impeachment requires the subject to be guilty of an actual crime: something explicitly prohibited in the statute books. Along with this, they probably also think that, in the Senate "trial" phase of the impeachment process, this guilt must be established by the same standard of proof that is used in criminal trials: "beyond a reasonable doubt."
I call these beliefs "mistaken," because, having read one short book on the subject, I think I know that neither of them is the consensus view among legal scholars. On the other hand, "mistaken" may be the wrong word, if only because there is no person or institution empowered to rule authoritatively on these things. Gerald Ford was probably thinking about this latter fact when he expressed the opinion that an "impeachable offense" is whatever the members of the House and Senate, at the time, think it is.
That opinion about the permissible grounds for impeachment -- we might call it the "Ford doctrine" -- amounts to saying that impeachment is a political process, not a judicial one. Whether or not you believe that it should be that way, one thing seems clear. Assume I was right, earlier, in saying that most Congressbeings, when considering impeachment or removal, will give some thought to whether "their" voters will approve of what they decide. If so, then, as a matter of practical fact, the Ford doctrine is at least partly correct.
That brings us close to the conclusion that I teased in the section heading, above: "There's a lot of groundwork involved." To establish that, I just need one more premise, concerning the particular "case for impeachment" that I laid out two journal entries ago. Namely: that argument did not claim that President Trump has committed a literal, on-the-books crime.
Given that fact about my argument ... and given the supposition that most of the public thinks, mistakenly or not, that crime is the only legitimate grounds for impeachment ... and given that the Congressional mind cares about public opinion ... it follows that you aren't going to get an impeachment, on the grounds I suggested, without doing a lot of public education first. (If you prefer a more neutral word, substitute "persuasion" for "education.") People will need to get used to the idea that the permissible grounds for impeachment are not that narrow.
Some voters will be much less receptive to the idea than others. That will depend, at least partly, on whether the voters in question, legal arguments aside, like the idea of removing Trump from office. In other words, it puts us squarely back in the political side of the process.
With the particular "case for impeachment" that I presented, it may be even a little more challenging than that. Based on my extremely limited reading in the legal literature, that is. That's because ... while those authors seem to have a consensus that a genuine, lock-'em-up-style crime is not required for impeachment ... almost all of what they say still uses the language of "offense" (as in "What constitutes an impeachable offense?") My "case," on the other hand, turns on a failure by President Trump to perform the duties of his office, and it's not entirely clear how to fit that into the concept of "offense," even when the latter is taken in the looser, not-necessarily-criminal sense.
I'm not saying that it can't be done, just that it will take some work. And in fact, there are places where the scholarship does seem to referring, obliquely, to cases of failure to perform one's duty. I just haven't seen anyplace where "grounds" of that type are addressed head-on.
If they haven't been, then that's another chunk of "groundwork" that needs to be done. Of course, that again raises the question: if it needs to be done, why don't I just get on with it?
Part of the answer to that question is quite simple: I am not a lawyer, let alone a "legal scholar." Someone with those qualifications could probably do a better job at clarifying these points about "proper" grounds for impeachment. And that person would definitely stand a better chance of being listened to.
Last time out, in the entry headed "Impeachment: Are We There Yet?," I presented a rough sketch of a claim that President Trump is impeachable right now. I readily admitted that it wasn't complete: that I myself didn't really think I had proven my case. Furthermore I said I would not, in the near future, attempt to make it complete. I promised that I would, in the following entry (this one), give my reasons why I don't plan to do that.
Events have intervened, so that my plans have partly changed: I now intend to fulfill, in this entry, only part of that promise. As recently as two days ago, my intention was to list as many as four reasons "why not." But as it turns out, I will list only one of them, leaving the others for another time.
By the way, the one reason I will mention today is the one that I was planning to mention first. So without further ado, here it is.
Reason One: The Nuclear Thing Takes Priority
By "the nuclear thing," I mean the position that I took, principally in http://edelsont.dreamwidth.org/2160.html, to the following effect: Congress needs to pass a law saying that, absent a declaration of war (or similar Congressional authorization), the president may not order the "first use" of nuclear weapons. "First use" means attacking with nuclear weapons, other than in response to a prior nuclear attack by the enemy.
And what do I mean when I say of this "thing" that it "takes priority"? I mean that Congress needs to attend to it first, because the need for it is greater, and more urgent. Once they have protected us from nuclear war, then we can allow them to move on to the fun stuff, like impeaching Trump.
That's really all that needs to be said, under the heading of stating "reason one," and offering some justification for it. One might ask, however: what made me change my mind? Why did I decide to present only "reason one" today, when I had been intending to include three more reasons in the same journal entry?
The short answer to that: in my view, over the last few days, the "nuclear thing" has gotten even more urgent. So I want to post something fast, and not to dilute the impression that it makes.
Okay then; what has happened to make me say that this issue has gotten [even] more urgent than it already was? For one thing, North Korea has tested another ballistic missile. And so it seems likely that the Trump administration is now engaged in deciding what, if anything, should be done in response. Military responses (perhaps among others) are possibly being considered.
Notice that I am not taking a position as to whether a military response should seriously be considered at this time. For all I know, if one had all the relevant intelligence information, a reasonable person might conclude that military action is now, regrettably, necessary.
To me, though, that makes it even more important that Congress act now to prevent the one deadliest kind of military action: the first use of nuclear weapons. That is one option which should not even be on the table.
Besides the ballistic missile test, there is one other recent development which pushes my thoughts in the same direction. (Well, maybe more than one; but one can stand in for the others.) This one is different in that it has no obvious connection with the subject of nuclear weapons.
What might that be? Why, the "Access Hollywood" tape, of course! (I am kidding about the "of course" part, but only about that.) More specifically, I am referring to the fact, which has only recently been published, that President Trump is now denying that the tape is real: denying that he even said those regrettable things, such as the bit about grabbing women by the feline parts. (When the tape first came to light, he didn't deny saying it, and in fact he made a sincere-sounding apology for doing so. He only denied actually doing the things that he boasted about on the tape.)
Here's a link to a one-day-old New York Times story about
You may be thinking: yes, Trump seems to be unmoored from the truth on that one. But so what? It's not like that's anything new. How can I claim that this relatively trivial thing is important enough to affect such a weighty matter as a law on the first use of nuclear weapons?
A fair question. I certainly do agree that there's nothing new or surprising about Donald Trump's saying something that isn't true. However, this one feels different. The difference isn't in the intrinsic importance of the subject matter; it's in what this particular untruth seems to say about the mental state of the man who uttered it.
Ironically, you see, what's so disturbing about this one is that it doesn't sound like a lie. It sounds, instead, like a delusion, and I don't mean that metaphorically; I mean a full-blown, psychotic delusion. (I am not a mental health professional, but I do have some experience with such phenomena. By all means, let's get some shrinks to weigh in on this.)
Why does this particular departure from reality seem, to me, more like a delusion than like a lie? My best guess: because it sounds like a man who is not even trying to check his notions against the facts. And, perhaps an even stronger indication of this: he also doesn't sound like he's even pretending to try. When he makes such a statement, having previously said the opposite, the impression I get is that the question "But is it true?" just never arises in his mind. It's as if the very possibility of asking that question is outside his realm of awareness.
Which scares you more, a man who lies or a man with delusions? I rather think that that depends on the context. If you are negotiating a business deal or a tax bill, lying might prove the greater obstacle to a satisfactory result. The motivating force behind a lie is what the liar wants someone else to believe.
What if, instead, the subject of concern is the president, and he is currently engaged in deciding whether to order a nuclear attack? Then "what he wants someone else to believe" doesn't enter into it. At least not under the present state of the law, where there is no constraint on his power to decide as he chooses ... including, in particular, no requirement that anyone else concur with his decision.
In that situation, what is, instead, relevant is what he himself believes -- at the moment. Has he convinced himself that all the people in North Korea are engaged, right now, in a magical working which will, if not immediately stopped, throw the planet out of its orbit? Then his decision will be based on that, exactly as if it were real.
And that's why Donald Trump's recent denials of the reality of the Access Hollywood tape scare the hell out of me. And out of you too, I hope. Let's get this man's finger off the nuclear trigger.
I more-or-less promised that I would write something about impeachment. And so I shall. In particular, I shall explore whether there are grounds for impeachment based on what we already know.
I'll say right up front: my gut feeling is that there are. We could, in principle, impeach the president without waiting for investigative results: all the needed facts are lying in plain view. Those facts, if viewed correctly, supply good grounds for impeachment, and removal from office, of President Trump.
Note that when I say "good grounds," I mean that impeachment (and removal ...) would be justified, in a legal / constitutional sense, and in the light of the threats which a continued Trump presidency pose to our nation. Whether impeachment and removal would be politically possible, or politically advisable at this time, are separate questions.
But even given that limitation on what I would try to show -- that impeachment is legally justifiable, not that it is also politically advisable -- I am not going to prove that this is so, or even attempt to. The most that I will do is to give an idea of what a valid argument for impeachment might look like. A sample argument, let's say ... and to make it easier to understand, let's base it on a simplified version of the real-world facts.
Before even starting to develop my sample argument, let's look at a preliminary question: what kinds of things can be grounds for impeachment? Under our Constitution, Congress can't throw the president out because of just any presidential action of which it disapproves. So if not all kinds of "bad decisions" are grounds for impeachment, what kinds are?
I referred, above, to "... the threats which a continued Trump presidency pose to our nation." There are many such threats, of various kinds. For purposes of impeachment, though, I would focus on one kind: threats to the Constitution.
"Threat to the Constitution" is a hackneyed phrase, these days, but what does it actually mean? Here's a partial answer, for free: it does not refer to a danger that someone will break open the vault holding the official copy of the Constitution, and burn it. (There is no "official copy." The original of the document is kept in secure storage, but that is because of its historic, and symbolic, value; the possibility of its destruction is not a "threat to the Constitution" in the relevant sense.)
If that's not what we mean by a threat to the Constitution, then what is? I suggest that the phrase refers to a threat to the functioning of the Constitution; that is, to the functioning of the United States government (and state governments ...) in accordance with the [United States] Constitution.
With that much said, I can begin to describe my "sample argument" for impeachment: a hypothetical example of presidential conduct that would constitute a threat to the Constitution. Except that, in the example chosen, it's not exactly that the president's actions are the threat: the original threat comes from outside. But the president's conduct makes the threat worse.
Suppose that some foreign country (unnamed, because this is a hypothetical example) were engaged in intensive efforts to undermine the functioning of our Constitution. These efforts, we suppose, are ongoing, and they have multiple goals. Sometimes they are directed at causing a specific candidate to win an election. At other times, the goal is more diffuse (but just as toxic): to increase polarization, and thereby increase mutual distrust, in the American population. Hitting a home run, in respect to this latter sort of goal, would consist of pushing our nation into at least a partial state of anarchy.
Some readers, at this point, might be bursting to say: "How can you stand there with your teeth in your mouth and call this a 'hypothetical example'? It's just like our real, current situation!"
Ah, but I haven't finished describing the example yet. Here's how it differs from the SCR (Sad Current Reality): in the SCR, something additional is alleged: that the current president, or members of his posse, actually "colluded" (whatever that means) with the hostile foreign power in question. And because of the sensational nature of that second accusation, discussion has focused mostly on it, and less attention is being given to the underlying issue of the foreign interference itself.
Suppose that were not the case. Suppose that there was no suspicion at all that the president, or any of his associates, were in any way complicit with the foreign interference. The foreigners were doing it entirely on their own.
On the other hand, the hypothetical situation, let us stipulate, is also similar to the real one (as I see it) in some ways. For one thing, suppose that no reasonable person doubts that foreign attempts at interference are happening, and are having some effect. There is no indication that the actual counting of votes was (successfully) tampered with, in the last general election, but it does seem clear that it was attempted.
And suppose that we also know, because our intelligence professionals tell us so, that these pesky foreigners planted a lot of false stories (while making those stories appear to have come from Americans) on social media (and sometimes in other media as well). It is impossible to know whether or not anyone, as a result of their exposure to these false stories, voted differently from the way he or she otherwise would have. But it's certainly possible, and we can't even conclusively rule out the possibility that the overall results would have been different.
If you were living in this alternative reality, and were aware of these foreign efforts to influence our political process, I suspect that you would be concerned about them. You might even go so far as to declare that what these bad people across the water are doing constitutes a threat to our Consitution. And your next thought might be: "Our government needs to doing something about this!"
Just for example: remember that the bad guys made some effort to hack into the computer systems that actually count the votes. We're confident that these systems were not actually compromised, but if Boris and Natasha are working on improving their techniques, the outcome next time might be different. Clearly this calls for a major effort on our part to improve the security of these systems. Or so, I suspect, you would be inclined to think.
Here we learn that an Alternate Reality can be Sad, just like the Current Reality. For it turns out that, in the SAR we are looking at, this major "secure the systems" effort is just not happening. Some states may be trying to do something about it on their own, but there is no nationwide coordination: nothing from the federal level.
Why not? Well, to do this right would require cooperative efforts by multiple agencies of the federal government. And successful interagency cooperation on this level hardly ever happens without active leadership by the President of the United States. And as hard as it may be to imagine this, those active efforts by the POTUS, in this SAR, are ... just not happening.
To strain your credulity even further, here's something even more odd. The hypothetical president is not just refraining from issuing the needed hypothetical orders. He is even, from time to time, doing things that could be reasonably expected to impede whatever security efforts the various agencies are putting forward on their own.
No, he's not calling up agency heads and demanding that they stop. Not that we know of, anyway. What he is doing, quite publicly, is letting it be known that he is not convinced that the foreign efforts at interference even exist.
His way of doing this varies from day to day, based on ... something. (His mood? Who knows?) Sometimes he just mutters that he has doubts, or that the denials by the foreign leader sound sincere to him. At other times, he is more assertive, declaring that all the accounts of such foreign efforts to interfere in our political processes are nothing but -- are you ready for this? -- a "hoax." Perpetrated by the "fake" mainstream media, no less.
As some alert readers may have noticed, if you put together the right pieces out of what I have said, above, I may seem to be imagining a world in which the president of the US is not a "reasonable person." What a notion! But bear with me, please. Thinking about an imaginary situation, even such a far-fetched one as this, can sometimes tell us useful things, things that we can bring back and apply in the real world.
After that pause for reassurance, let's review where we are. You, dear reader, have (willingly, I trust) imagined yourself into the role of an American citizen in a bizarre alternate reality. In that reality, you have learned, the leaders of a foreign country (still unnamed) have caused their minions to do some nasty things which (it has, by now, become clear) pose a threat to the effective functioning of our constitutional system. Furthermore, our president is not, as you might expect, throwing his leadership abilities into thwarting these nefarious plans. Indeed, he sometimes complains about the efforts to thwart them, saying that certain misguided officials are wasting their time in fighting an imaginary threat.
You, on the other hand, are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the threat is not imaginary. Therefore, you reluctantly conclude that the president's conduct -- the combination of inaction, and sometimes active discouragement of efforts to combat it -- are materially increasing the threat. Or in other words, the president's conduct is materially increasing the risk that our constitutional system of government will break down.
Faced with all that, what would you do? I think you might begin to wonder whether this peculiar conduct on the part of the US president constituted grounds for impeachment and removal from office.
At this point in my discourse (if not sooner), an argumentative person seated in the peanut gallery can contain herself no longer. "You fraud!" she says. "You are pretending that all you are talking about is an alternate reality. That serves to induce the reader to lower her guard, so that it is easier to suggest to her that she 'would,' if she were in that reality, start thinking about impeachment.
"But what you are really trying to do, without admitting it, is to convince the reader that there are good grounds for impeachment (not just in the alternate reality, but) in the real world. After all, the reader might come to the conclusion that the 'hypothetical example' differs from the real world in only one significant way: by the fact that, in the real world, the president is also suspected of active collusion with the enemy.
"Now either you believe those additional charges, or you don't. If they are false, then there is actually no significant difference between the alternate reality and the real one. If there is no significant difference in the facts, and if impeachment is warranted in the alternate reality, then it is also warranted in the real one.
"On the other hand, if the charges of active collusion are true, that can only make the grounds for impeachment stronger, not weaker. So either way -- whether the president is also guilty of active collusion, or not -- if there are sufficient grounds for impeachment in the alternate reality, then there are also sufficient grounds for impeachment in the real one.
"So," the lady in the peanut gallery concludes, "if the reader accepts your argument that there are good grounds for impeachment in the imagined example, then (she may not realize it at first, but) she logically is required also to accept that there are good grounds for impeachment in the real world."
Well, alrighty then! How do I respond to that?
I hope I would remember to begin by thanking her for sharing her closely reasoned thoughts. Perhaps I would continue by saying that what she suggests is a novel idea, one I hadn't thought of. And so, I will need some time to think about it before I can be sure, but at first blush it sounds like her main argument may very well be correct.
If that turns out to be the case, then I will quarrel with only one part of what she said: her assumption that I was deliberately trying to mislead, rather than unintentionally leading the reader in the direction of a final conclusion which had simply not occurred to me.
However, when I claimed that it never occurred to me, possibly I was lying. Were that to be the case, then everything that the peanut gallery lady said would be true.
Okay, all kidding aside. It seems that I have laid out, shall we say, a scaffolding of an argument in favor of the impeachment, and removal from office, of President Donald Trump. But a scaffolding is not a finished structure: let me be the first to admit that I have not proven my case.
That is true on several levels, beginning with the facts. I have said a number of things about the president's conduct. Originally I presented them as hypothetical "stipulations" ("Let's suppose ...."); eventually I admitted that I believed them to be true in the real world. But my saying so is not likely to be sufficient to convince two-thirds of the Senate. Nor should it be.
The same goes for the conclusions that I drew about the likely effects of that conduct. I said that there was a real danger that the foreign efforts would undermine the functioning of our system of government. I further claimed that the president's lack of positive action to meet this threat, along with repeated claims by him that the threat is imaginary, could be expected to produce a net increase in the level of this risk: to make it worse, I'd go so far as to say, than if he had done nothing about it at all. But to all of this, it would be perfectly reasonable to respond: Prove it!
Now suppose that all of that were proven. There would still be questions about the intent, and/or causes, of the president's actions (including his inaction). To begin with, one might wonder whether he sincerely believed that the threat was imaginary. And if he did, one might well wonder how on earth that came about. Depending on the answers to those questions, one might construe his conduct as anything from malicious to merely incompetent.
However, it could also be claimed that the answers to those questions about intent, while interesting, are irrelevant. Not relevant, that is, to the end in view, which is to decide whether there is justification for removing the president from office.
That question about relevance is part of a larger question, which is actually the remaining question, once we suppose the actions, and their consequences, to have been proved. Given the actions and the consequences, and given that the consequences are (at least potentially) very bad for the country, it still remains to ask: does all of this rise to the level of an "impeachable offense"? Does it fit under the heading of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors"?
So there we are. I think I have proven that I have not proven my case; to put that in a possibly less confusing way, I hope I have convinced you that the case for impeachment is not proven by what I have said so far. We may have some promising ingredients, but there is a good deal of mixing, and seasoning, and cooking yet to be done. What we have so far hardly qualifies as "instant impeachment (just add legalese)."
If there's all that work left to be done, then, you might think, clearly my next step should be to get on with it. But I'm not going to do that. Not in this journal entry, nor the next; in fact, not in the currently foreseeable future.
Why not? There are multiple answers to that question. There are so many answers that I expect my entire next journal entry to be devoted to providing them.
In my last entry in this journal (http://edelsont.dreamwidth.org/2160.html, which was posted on October 18), I called for Congress to pass a law restricting the president's authority to order nuclear attacks. Specifically, I suggested a "no first use" law: the president would no longer be permitted to order a nuclear attack on any country unless at least one of the following two things was true:
- the attack was in response to a nuclear attack on the United
States or its allies; and/or
- Congress had authorized the attack, for example by declaring war.
Imagine my surprise, then, when The New York Times published an
editorial, about a week later, which endorsed [almost] exactly the same
idea. You can find it
Why do I say "almost" exactly the same? Well, to get one thing out of the way: "no first use" was explicitly the main subject of my journal entry, but not of The Times' editorial. Its main topic was the size of the US nuclear arsenal: it argued that, even though the number of warheads maintained as operational by the United States has been considerably reduced, it should be reduced further.
One paragraph in the editorial, though, did explicitly call for a "no first use" law. Here's that paragraph in its entirety:
Every effort must be made to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. Reducing the nuclear stockpile is one important step. But legislators can go even further by requiring the president to seek a declaration of war from Congress before launching a first nuclear strike, as Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, have proposed.
So relatively little of The Times' editorial was on the same subject as my journal entry. There are also further differences in how the two pieces addressed that subject.
One important thing that The Times did, I and didn't: they went further toward identifying a specific bill that has already been introduced, by naming the senator and representative who have "proposed" it. This would be useful information to the reader, should you feel led to write to your own Congressbeing on the subject.
I will also [im]modestly claim that my journal entry made some useful contributions to the discussion of the subject, not all of which were duplicated in The Times' editorial. In this entry, I will bring up only one of them again. Before explicitly propounding that difference between my work and theirs, it is necessary first to mention one of the similarities between them.
Clearly -- though they don't say so in so many words -- the authors of the editorial believe that this is a matter of added urgency, given the nature of the man who occupies the White House at the current moment. I believe that they are referring to the bluster and bombast of President Trump's rhetoric, and to the doubt (perceived, in some quarters, at least) that he can be trusted to make the soundest possible decisions, especially in a life-and-megadeath matter such as this one. I share this concern.
I did make that point -- more explicitly than they did, in fact. I did so in order to make another point, which they did not make: that in principle, the need for a "no first use" law is not "about" Mr. Trump at all. In other words, I want to say that, had the question been raised, it would have been a good idea to enact the same law during the previous administration ... or indeed, during the term of any president since the nuclear age began. The qualifications, or lack of same, of President Trump are relevant to this issue for only one reason: because they have led him to do us the favor of bringing the matter to our attention.
I further claim that this is an important point to make, for two reasons. One reason is that it is always better, when possible, to make laws which are appropriate in the general case, rather than being tailored to a particular personnel situation.
The other reason is purely political, in this sense: making this point (that the bill is not really about Trump) is likely to be helpful in getting the thing passed. It can provide "cover" (as I put it in the previous entry) for any member of Congress who may wish to vote for this bill, but not wish to be seen as implying that we cannot, in general, trust our current president.
That concludes my effort to compare and contrast my work with that of the editorial board of The New York Times. In closing, I want to try to explain the subject line of the current entry, that is, "Nuclear problem solved. What's next?"
That was at least partly a joke, and not a very good one. I'll even admit that it is in questionable taste, given that "the nuclear problem" is most assuredly not solved: not in general, and not with respect to our current situation vis-a-vis those deplorable people north of the 38th parallel. (I mean, of course, the Koreans. Not the ones who have created their own widely-enjoyed genre of pop music; the other ones.)
What I meant by "nuclear problem solved" -- to the limited extent that I meant anything serious at all -- was a piece of shorthand. You could unpack it as follows: I raised the issue of a "no first use" law; then that issue was taken up by The New York Times, which has a somewhat wider readership than I have; so my own work, with respect to this issue, is done.
Okay; what did I mean by "What's next?" That was a foreshadowing of what I'm going to do now: to pretend to believe a ridiculous theory, and then to ponder the implications of that theory. The theory: that my journal entry somehow caused The New York Times to write about the same subject ... "about a week later," as I mock-portentously said above.
The implications: this reveals that I have a hitherto-unsuspected superpower. If I write about something, then The Times will write about it, too; and that, as we all know, will make that topic officially part of the National Conversation (TM).
In turn, that takes a question which I need to decide anyway, and reveals that question to be of far greater importance than I had realized. That question, of course, is "What shall I write about next?"
(Pregnant pause while I contemplate this awesome responsibility ....)
Oh, I know! I should write something about impeachment!
I ended my previous journal entry by posing an apparent dilemma: the American people might want to voice their opinions on President Trump's plans with regard to North Korea, but are inhibited from doing so by the fact that we don't know what those plans are. I refer specifically to his plans about attacking North Korea with lots of nuclear weapons: has he already decided to do this? If not, what sort of "provocation" from the North Koreans would lead him to do it?
What a mess. It does seem -- doesn't it? -- that, without more information, we have no opportunity to formulate a meaningful opinion, let alone to express it.
Oh, wait. I have an idea. I previously answered the predictive questions with "We just don't know, full stop"; but maybe that isn't entirely correct. As I said, I don't think that there's any basis for saying what kind of military action against North Korea we will probably get, if any. Nor, for that matter, even for stating the likelihood of a massive nuclear attack in terms of a numerical probability. But ....
Maybe what Trump previously said, and what we think he meant, is not, after all, entirely irrelevant in this context. Suppose that I am right in my conclusion about that; suppose, at the very least, that Mr. Trump knows, by now, that many people think he was talking about dropping lots of nuclear bombs. And further suppose, since he hasn't issued a clarification, that he doesn't mind having a great many people thinking that. Does that really tell us nothing whatever about what he might actually do?
Now that I come to think of it, no. It does tell us something: not something that can usefully be expressed as a numerical probability, but something about how we ought to act in the face of our present uncertainty. Namely, that we ought not entirely to ignore the possibility of a massive nuclear attack; that we would not be wasting our time in expressing our views as to whether that would be a good thing.
And so I shall: it would be a very bad thing. (No surprise there: I've previously stated this view.)
But, you might think, it is indeed a waste of time to express that opinion. Not because the possibility is negligible that Trump would take such action ... but because there's nothing we can do about it. He is, after all, the president; under current law, he is clearly empowered to order a massive nuclear attack. We can protest all we want; he can ignore us. And let's further suppose, if only "for the sake of the argument," that he almost certainly will.
Did you notice the phrase, "under current law"? That, dear reader, is the key; it is the reason why, even under these pessimistic assumptions, we need not count ourselves powerless. We can ask Congress to change the law. And, whatever you may think of the chances that they will do so, I submit that the stakes are high enough that it is certainly worthwhile to attempt it.
Okay, let's further suppose that we're all agreed that Congress should change the law. But change it to what? It turns out that several bills on the subject have already been introduced in this Congress; they seem to fall into two groups.
The first group is procedural in nature. They say that the decision to launch a nuclear strike should not be in the hands of the President alone: that, for example, the concurrence of the Secretery of Defense and/or Secretery of State should be required.
The second group of bills does not address the "who," that is, which officials need to assent to a strike. Instead, it focuses more directly on the "what." These bills say: the President may not order a "first strike": that is, may not order a nuclear strike except in response to a prior nuclear strike by a hostile power. Or rather, that the President may not do so unless Congress has declared war.
Both types of proposals have some merit; either would be preferable to what we have now. But I prefer the second approach, a straightforward limit on what may be done: no first use.
In so saying, I reveal that, for me, this isn't just about Donald Trump. His loose talk, and indications of his mental instability, have done a lot to bring the issue to our attention. But now that it has come to our attention, I realize that I already had a clear conviction about this. I believe that our nuclear weapons have no legitimate purpose other than deterring others from attacking us with the same sort of weapons. I would prefer to live in a world in which no other use for them is even considered.
And it is, indeed, a matter of choosing the sort of world in which we prefer to live. There is no way to prove, purely by facts and reason, what the right choice is.
Now let's assume, just for a bit, that we're all agreed on this, too: we favor a "no first use of nuclear weapons" law. I just want to mention that, even within this space, there are details to be worked out as to what the law should say. I already gave a slightly expanded gloss of what "no first use" means to me: that, absent a declaration of war by Congress, the President "may not order a nuclear strike except in response to a prior nuclear strike by a hostile power." But this still leaves open lots of questions; a few of them follow, but it isn't a complete list.
What is a "hostile power"? Does it need to be a nation? If not, I think that presents a difficulty with the "declaration of war" part: it is my impression that, as a matter of international law, war can be declared only against a recognized nation-state.
Perhaps, then, "declaration of war", in our proposed "no first use" law, should be changed to some other form of Congressional authorization. There might be other reasons for this, too. In fact, this opens the way for a sort of compromise: the more open-ended the language used to describe the required sort of Congressional authorization, the more you are still preserving, even under the new law, some potential flexibility for the executive.
Similarly, how much effective flexibility you are leaving to the executive also depends on how the law defines "in response to a prior nuclear strike." We're now talking about what the President will be authorized to do without Congressional authorization. Is retaliation allowed only after at least one warhead has actually exploded? My guess is that military leaders would advise against this. But then, how is the President to determine that a nuclear strike against us (or, of course, our allies) has already been set in motion? Should the law spell out what kind of evidence to that effect the President is required to have, in order legally to order a counterattack? To this particular question, I do not propose an answer; I merely raise it.
On the other hand, I am not shy about expressing an opinion about the following: mere threats of a nuclear strike against us are not enough to justify a nuclear strike in return. Not even if we also knew that the hostile power in question had the capability to carry out its threats. "No first use," to me, means that the United States shall not attack with nuclear weapons unless our leaders have good reason to believe that a hostile power has, at least, attempted to use them against us.
I will make one more such suggestion about the details of the hypothetical "no first use" law. Among the belligerent utterances by North Korean officials, one that stands out in the memory is the statement that they might "test" a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (I believe that the official in question even specified that he was talking about a hydrogen bomb.)
In the above, I put "test" in quotation marks because we might not be willing to accept the description of this action as merely a test. Since the North Koreans brought this possibility up, those drafting a "no first use" law for the United States might want to consider specifying that such a detonation would constitute a "first use" within the meaning of the act: that the President would be allowed to consider it to be a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.
It would be, in actual effect and regardless of the stated intentions, an attack against the whole world. Because, you know, of the radioactive fallout: a physical phenomenon which kills lots of people, and it is impossible to predict how many, nor where.
I am not, however, actually advocating that such language be included in the "no first use" law; I am just raising the possibility. I defer to the judgment of the members of Congress, with the advice of their staffs, on the nuts and bolts of drafting a bill. And particularly, quite importantly in an example like this one, I recognize that they have to consider what version of a bill can actually get passed.
By the same token, it is possible that a "no first use" bill could not pass, but one of the more "procedural" proposals could. If so, by all means pass that: as I already said, either kind of constraint would be preferable to the present situation, in which the law places no explicit constraint at all on the President's ability to order a nuclear strike.
And yet, I shall offer one more consideration in favor of "no first use," as opposed to a procedural measure. This argument is political, in the sense that it deals with the question of what kind of bill can get passed.
Namely: I submit that the bill's chance might very well be enhanced by the fact that its proponents can claim, truthfully, that this is not fundamentally about Donald Trump. They can say that, now that their attention has been drawn to the matter, they realize that this should have been done a long time ago. Suppose that you believe that no such law is necessary under President Trump, because he would never order a first strike anyway. You still might want to consider the possibility that some future POTUS might not be so worthy of this trust.
In other words, compared to proposals which just modify the decision procedures, "no first use" offers more cover to Republicans in Congress, and others who have reason to be concerned about the reactions of pro-Trump voters. Politically, the problem with the purely procedural ideas is that they don't support that kind of claim very well. They make it almost impossible to avoid giving the impression that what this bill is "really saying" is that we don't trust this particular President.
Of course, many of us, myself included, really don't trust him. I suppose that's the fundamental reason why I keep coming back to this point: virtually any kind of constraint on the use of nuclear weapons would be better than the current lack of constraints.
Those who really, really don't trust President Trump might be tempted to feel that there is no point in passing such a law, since Trump could ignore it. But if you're suffering under that temptation, here's something else to think about: what about the people who receive the President's order for a nuclear strike, and whose job it is to carry out that order? If an explicit "no first use" law were on the books, and President Trump (or any president) ignored that law, those people would have clear legal grounds for refusing the order. And so they would be more likely actually to refuse it.
And there I rest my case. Congress, it's time for y'all to get on with it.
Over the prior three entries, I've been talking about Donald Trump's threat to "totally destroy North Korea." When I first heard that he had said that, I simply assumed that he was referring to a large-scale nuclear attack. Then I found out that a friend understood him differently.
So I set myself a task of finding out how a wider range of people understood the same threat. I make no claim that there was anything scientific about this "research." For what it's worth, most people seemed to understand it the same way I did. Most of those people, in turn, seemed to treat the nuclear interpretation as I had originally done: as obviously correct, with no need to even think about other possibilities.
I did find a few other people who had understood him differently. They thought, like the friend mentioned earlier, that Trump was talking about a military response, but not one using nuclear weapons.
All of these people (in my absurdly small "sample") had two more things in common with each other. All of them (like me) did not want a nuclear attack. They indicated that they would not approve of a nuclear response on our part, at least not as a response to a non-nuclear provocation on the part of the North Koreans.
On the other hand, all of these same people (unlike me) generally approved of Trump's performance in office. In particular, they did not share my perception of the man as unstable, in the sense that his actions are often ruled more by the emotions of the moment than they are by reason.
I then raised the question: are these people kidding themselves? Are they irrationally holding on to their favorable view of Trump, by refusing to believe that he was making a nuclear threat, as everyone else understood him to be?
My answer to that question was "not necessarily." Alternative explanations are available. As to why their favorable overall view of Trump could not be overthrown by hearing about the "totally destroy" threat: perhaps that doesn't represent a failure of rationality on their part. It need not, because it can, instead, be explained by supposing that their belief about him is based on a different set of facts. I had already, before that fateful day at the United Nations, read a lot of things about Donald Trump that already had me doubting his stability. Perhaps they were simply not aware of those things. Perhaps, also, they knew things about Trump that I did not know, things which would tend to support a more benign picture of his character.
That's a brief summary of what I've previously written on the subject. Now, I need to repair an omission: I never explicitly said whether I, after all this study of other people's thought processes, had undergone any change of my own opinion about what Trump meant by that phrase.
The short answer to that one is: not much. My original opinion was that he was talking about a massive nuclear attack. My revised opinion is that he was probably talking about a massive nuclear attack. Or, at the least, that he was willing to give that impression. I'm almost sure about that much. (And even if I'm wrong -- if he wasn't even aware that people would understand it that way -- then surely he knows by now that many did, in fact, understand it that way.)
Now let's switch over to talking about what President Trump actually will do. Is there a nuclear war in our future?
I already called your attention, two entries ago, to the fact that that is a separate question. I could have added then, but didn't, that it is a question of more direct concern. Of overwhelming concern, maybe even.
It's a momentous question, which makes it regrettable that we don't know the answer. In fact, on this question, I don't see any basis for offering even a "probable" answer, let alone an "almost certain" one. We just don't know, full stop.
In fact, our state of ignorance is even greater than that, because "what Trump will do" (or, "Will he order a massive nuclear attack?") is not one question, but many. I will cite just a few of the many forms it might take.
Has he already decided on such an attack, so that he knows (but we don't) that it's just a matter of time?
Now suppose that's not true: that he will unleash the nukes only in response to some further provocation by North Korea. If so, what sort of provocation would it take? Would he rain fire and fury on them in response to ...
... another nuclear test?
... another test of a long-range missile?
... their firing an anti-aircraft weapon at one of our planes?
... some North Korean infantryman accidentally firing his rifle, which just happens to be pointed across the Demilitarized Zone?
And if any of those things happens, is it already predetermined what President Trump's response will be? Or might that also be influenced by logically extraneous factors, like what the mayor of San Juan had said about him the previous day?
We don't know the answer to any of those questions, either.
Which is kind of too bad, because we, as American citizens, might want to say something about the prospect with which we are faced -- if only we knew what it was. During this "calm before the storm" (an even more recent quote from our presumpident), if we knew what kind of storm he was promising us, we might wish to express how we felt about it.
But don't worry! In my next journal entry, I shall come to the rescue. I will explain one weird trick which will allow us to escape from our paralysis, despite the fog of ignorance in which we are being kept.
In my last journal entry, I told you what various sorts of people thought President Trump meant by the phase "totally destroy North Korea." Then I raised a question as to "what it all meant." (The question itself wasn't very specific. I had in mind something like this: from perusing this "data set" about people's interpretations, what -- if anything -- can we learn about how people's minds work, when they think about politics, in general?)
And then I offered an answer to that question ... though I told you at the time that it wasn't an answer that I actually believed. In summary, that answer (and my supposed justification for it) was:
- different groups of Trump supporters believed different things about what he meant;
- but the groups had something in common: what each group believed (about what Trump meant) matched up with what that same group would want him to do;
- so -- since the two groups couldn't both be right about what he meant -- they were not being honest with themselves.
So now, my job is to tell you why I don't really think that.
Even if that argument did support the conclusion that some people were not being honest with themselves, it would certainly not support the conclusion that all of the Trump supporters were guilty of that. At the very least, it would leave open the possibility that some of them were, and some of them weren't.
Here's an example. You will recall that my own original interpretation of Trump's phrase was: the United States would, " ... if forced to defend itself and its allies ...", drop lots of nuclear bombs on North Korea. Or, as I later crudely put it, would "nuke the NoKies until they glow." So now -- just supposing that we still consider that to be the correct interpretation -- what would follow from that?
Well ... you may also recall that one group of Trump supporters (namely, most of the people leaving comments on Breitbart News) interpreted those words of his in exactly the same way that I did. So were those people failing to be honest with themselves? Meaning that I believed something because the evidence supported it, while they believed the same thing for a completely different reason, namely, because they wanted to believe it?
That could be so. But "could be" isn't good enough here. The more appropriate question is: would I have rational justification for claiming, on the basis of what we've seen, that this (I and they believing the same thing, but for a completely different reason) actually is the case?
I think not. I think it would be more plausible (and more fair-minded) to suppose that, if I have good reasons for believing something, and they believe the same thing, then they believe it for good reasons as well.
I do recall that there's one important difference between me and that group of people: while we both think that Trump (was saying that he) would drop a lot of nuclear bombs on North Korea, they also approve of his doing so. And I don't; I find the prospect utterly abhorrent.
But, for present purposes, so what? So their value judgment is wrong (in my eyes). Does it necessarily follow, even from my perspective, that they cannot be rational about a related, but still distinct, matter, namely, about what their president means by what he says? I don't see why.
If I'm right about that, then we're left, at most, with this: the other group of Trump supporters are not being honest with themselves. That would be the group who have a different belief as to what Trump was talking about; they believe that he was threatening, at most, some form of military action with more limited goals, and less devastating effects. Like "mere" regime change, for instance.
So let's look a little more at that group of people. And let's continue, for now, simply to assume that my original understanding of what Trump meant to say (namely, that he was prepared to drop lots of nukes on the NoKies) was correct.
If my interpretation is [assumed to be] right, and they have a different interpretation, then their interpretation is wrong. That, for once, is pretty straightforward. But does it follow that they are not being honest with themselves?
Not necessarily. It doesn't even necessarily follow that they are deficient in logic. It could be (and, indeed, it seems more likely) that they reach a different conclusion because they start with different premises.
If they and I are getting news from different sources, then they and I have different sets of facts of which we are aware. This doesn't necessarily mean that they or I are victims of "fake news," believing things that are factually false (although that could also be the case). If each "side" knows things that the other simply doesn't know, then they can come to different conclusions, with each being completely rational about it.
How does that apply to the present case: to the question of what Donald Trump meant by "totally destroy North Korea"? Here's a simple example. The following are three utterances by Mr. Trump:
"The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea."
"Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime."
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Now imagine two people; call them X and Y. Both of them are aware of the first quote above. X is aware of the second quote, but Y is not. Conversely, Y is aware of the third quote, but X is not.
Other things being equal, I would expect X, who knows about " ... a suicide mission for himself and for his regime", to be more likely to think that Trump, in the "totally destroy" sentence, was talking about regime change. More likely, that is, than Y, who knows, instead, about "fire and fury."; Y would be more likely to think that Trump was talking about dropping multiple nuclear bombs.
In that example, the quotes are all real, but you might reasonably think that the suppositions about what the two people know are not realistic. You might think, in other words, that almost anyone who was aware of the first quote would also be at least vaguely aware of both the second and third, as well.
Fair enough. But now imagine this, instead. X vividly remembers many times when Trump has seemed to threaten (or favor, or suggest) violence in various forms. Y, who gets her news from different sources, has never heard about most of those. Wouldn't you think, in this case, that X would be readier than Y to hear a great deal of violence in the words "totally destroy North Korea"? (Once again, would be readier ... other things being equal.)
That does seem like a plausible example, doesn't it? I mean, there at least could be news sources which report extensively on Trump, but which (for example) focus almost entirely on his more serious utterances on matters of policy, rather than his off-the-cuff remarks about punching protesters in the face. So someone who got her Trump news from sources like that would simply, and rationally, have a different picture of the man.
And thus, there would be no need to suppose that she was failing to be honest with herself.
And all this, mind you, is without even considering the possibility that my [original] interpretation of Trump's infamous remark might actually be ... gasp ... wrong. Please, don't get me started on that. Not today, anyway.
In parting, let me go all meta on you for a bit. What is this journal entry about? About North Korea? Donald Trump? Well, yes, both. But also ....
Even more fundamentally, I think, it's about two other things. One of them is generally referred to as "critical thinking." The other is civility in political discourse: the ability to express disagreement without impugning the motives of those with whom you disagree.
And if I had to narrow it down to just one topic, I'd go with critical thinking. I think that is the foundation which makes civil discourse possible. If that isn't obvious, consider this: your ability to do critical thinking is woefully incomplete unless it includes, in particular, the self-critical kind.
My previous post presented four possible interpretations of President Trump's phrase, "totally destroy North Korea." I refused to tell you, at the time, what I thought Trump actually did mean. But now I will tell you that.
My first reaction was that he meant that the US would physically destroy the country: kill most of the people, and/or leave the place so radioactive that nobody could live there, or something like that. In fact, at the time, that was the only interpretation that even occurred to me.
The same day, I had lunch with a friend -- let's call her A -- who understood it a different way. She thought that it was much more likely that he was talking about regime change, or re-unification of North and South Korea; still something involving military force, but a lot less of it.
Here's one of the reasons why she thought this was more plausible: Trump wouldn't kill most of the North Koreans, because he knows that such an all-out nuclear attack would harm his own people, as well as the enemy's. I took this to be based on the following: radioactive fallout doesn't stay put. The winds spread it around, and, if there's enough of it to begin with, there's likely to be a measurable increase in cancer deaths all over the world.
I agreed with the underlying point: I thought she was correct in saying that a massive nuclear attack on any one country would be likely to cause deaths in every country. But I wasn't so confident that Donald Trump knows that. And even if he does, I wasn't confident that he would remember it at the moment of decision. I see him as impulsive: prone to act, especially when angry, without thinking things through.
This woman, A, is a Trump supporter (which I, emphatically, am not). She agrees with many of his political positions, and has much more faith in his stability and rationality than I have.
So she and I agree on one thing, and disagree on another. We agree that an all-out nuclear attack would be a bad thing to do. We disagree on how likely Trump would be to do it.
(Or, more precisely, on whether, in his speech, he meant to say that he would do it. Whether he actually would do it is a separate question.)
After this conversation, I was very curious as to whether most people had understood him the way I had ... or the way she had, or what. I did a number of things to gather information on that. One of them, of course, was to post the question here on DW. But I also talked to some more people directly, and went and looked at a number of other Web sites. So what did I find?
As far as talking to people one-to-one, I have only a small sample. For what it's worth, all but one of them shared my way of understanding Trump's phrase. The one exception was another Trump supporter. Let's call him B.
I'm pretty sure that this man, like A, agreed with me that the US shouldn't launch a massive nuclear attack on North Korea. He didn't say that in so many words, though. What he did say was "I'm sure that there are lots of good people in North Korea." But that seems to me to be a pretty good indication that he didn't approve of the idea of trying to kill them all.
So this situation seems to me to be pretty much parallel to the one with A. B and I, like A and I, agree that "nuking 'em 'til they glow" would be a bad thing to do. We disagree, actually, on two things: in our general attitudes toward Trump (his favorable, mine unfavorable); and on how likely Trump would be to do this bad thing (he thought this less likely than I did).
Now let's look at the results of the other main part of my (highly unscientific) "research": looking at a bunch of Web sites.
I was about to say: most of those Web sites agreed with my reading of what Trump meant. But on second thought: I don't know that. Most of them just repeated his words, and gave no direct indication of how they understood them. So if I just assumed that they understood him the same way that I did, that would be nothing but cognitive bias on my part.
Some Web sites -- a smaller number -- did give some indication of what they thought he meant. Some of these agreed with my interpretation (my first interpretation, that is). And some of them indicated some uncertainty about Trump's specific meaning. For what it's worth, I didn't come across any that (so far as I could tell) definitely read Trump's phrase the way that A or B did: that what Trump was threatening to do was something comparatively mild, like "mere" regime change.
I'm almost finished reporting on my data (as opposed to analyzing it). I just want to mention a special subset of what I found on the Web, namely, comments that were left by readers of Breitbart News.
These people were not unanimous in their reaction to Trump's proposal to "totally destroy North Korea," but they were close. Almost all of them, like my friends A and B, made clear that they supported Trump, in this matter at least. But unlike A and B, they interpreted his remarks the same way that I originally did: as meaning that ... under vaguely specified conditions ... he would attack North Korea with multiple nuclear weapons. (One of them helpfully added, "I hope he uses really dirty bombs, too.")
So, to recap, here's the contrast between the two groups of Trump supporters within my overall "sample." For the two people I talked to in person:
- they like Trump;
- they don't like the idea of his nuking the NoKies until they glow;
- and they don't think Trump was saying that he would do that.
For (most of) the Breitbart commenters:
- they like Trump;
- they do like the idea of nuking the NoKies until they glow;
- and they do think that Trump was saying that he would do that.
Now contrast that with where I stand on those same three points:
- I don't like Trump;
- I don't like the idea of his nuking the NoKies until they glow;
- and I do think that Trump was saying that he would do that.
Now what about all the other people who, like me, don't approve of Donald Trump? Unfortunately, I don't have much data at all, on them. Or rather, I don't have the kind of data which I would need, for my purposes. I would need to know all three things:
- That they don't like Trump (which is given by how I defined the group); and
- whether they would approve of his nuking the NoKies; and, independently of that,
- whether they think that he was threatening to do so.
As I said, there are very few people, among the Trump non-supporters, for whom I have actual evidence on all three points. For what little it's worth, for the few people for whom I do, they all seem to agree with my own take on the situation: they don't think he should go the big nuclear route, and they do think he is threatening to do so.
Okay. That's it for data; it's time for me to tell you what I think it all means. But -- surprise! -- I'm not going to do much of that; not in this post, at least. That's partly because this post is already pretty long; it's also because I like leaving people in suspense.
There's only one thing that I do want to give you, in the way of analysis, right now. And that one thing is a straw man: an analysis that you might expect me to believe in, but which I actually don't.
Namely: the Trump supporters are not being honest with themselves. The consistency between the two groups of Trump supporters is this: whatever they think Trump should do (nuke the NoKies, for one group, and not nuke them, for the other group) ... that is also what they they think he will do. (Or, more precisely, what they think he meant to say he would do.)
The two groups can't both be right about what he meant. So we conclude that, whatever they think about what he meant, that doesn't come from any actual evidence. It comes, instead, from this: because they like him, they let themselves assume that what he meant is the same as what they would want him to mean.
Given the data ... and given that I, myself, am strongly anti-Trump ... it would be natural to think that this is the conclusion I would draw.
It would be natural to think it, but it would be wrong.