Monday, August 6, 2018

The big guns of August


OF ALL THE MONTHS on the calendar, August always bears watching as a kind of pivot-point  month, a transitional buffer between the chronically overheated days of July (when both tempers and temperatures reliably tend to flare) and September, when the first whispers of autumn announce themselves, giving us just a hint of the change of seasons to come.

It’s not always like that in August, but it’s true often enough. It was sure as hell like that 44 years ago.

That was the month in 1974, in the halcyon doomsday summer of Watergate’s crescendo, when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. Thursday, Aug. 9 (the 44th anniversary of the official resignation) was the day that marked a capstone to a season of relentless upheaval, as the scandal of Nixon’s creation, or at least his acquiescence, finally overwhelmed him.

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A lot can happen in the tree-ring time of 44 years; we’ve seen numerous opportunities for politicians to learn from the mistakes of the past. But when a mistake keeps happening, it’s not a mistake anymore. It's on purpose. Past may yet be prologue: What’s playing out in Washington and America this August is a fresh visitation of Santayanan wisdom.

In more and more inescapable ways, President* Donald Trump is facing the artichoke/Russian doll disaster of his proximity to, or complicity in, an attempt to subvert the American electoral system in the service of a foreign power. He is the point man of a White House angrily obsessed with the ongoing investigation into that subversion, and the role that Trump, his minions, lackeys and stooges may have played in it.

Every day, Trump has taken to Twitter, his soapbox of choice, to complain about the speed of the inquiry conducted by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller. Faster, faster, The Donald would say, get on with it, get it over with.

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IF ONLY the rest of government ran as methodically: Mueller, appointed Special Counsel in May 2017, has been to this point conducting a master class in ethical, painstaking, circumspect prosecution. Releases to the media have been unflashy and all-business. No breast-beating, no Friday afternoon news dumps, no interviews every other day. And all of it done in a remarkably leak-free environment.

Now, though, as summer grinds on and patience at House Trump (already in short supply) gets rarer still, it’s somewhat easier to surrender to a gut feeling that we may be nearing an endgame on Mueller’s investigation — like really nearing an endgame — and it’s not because Trump demands that it be so, it’s because of the way Trump reacts when he discovers the Mueller probe won’t be subject to his demands in the first place.

There’s a lot of August left (whether Congress gets to take any part of its storied August recess or not remains to be seen), but it’s possible, and with an election coming up, maybe even prudent, for Mueller to show more of the cards he’s holding sooner rather than later.

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TRUMP’S growing exasperation over all this is obvious. You saw that on Monday, when news surfaced about House Trump leadership calling on the president* to stop posting tweets related to the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. He’s getting more and more emotional about everything. There’s a manic edge in his statements of late that suggests someone actually unhinged, the frantic work of an administration fully at odds with itself.

Nothing else explains the schizoid aspect of the Trump White House as when Trump himself called the media “horrendous” and “horrible,” on Aug. 2, the same day that First Daughter/consigliore Ivanka Trump said, convincingly, that the media was not “the enemy of the people,” as her old man had tweeted some time before that.

Nothing else would account for what happened that same day, when his top intel specialists — National Security Advisor John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of the National Security Agency and US Cyber Command — collectively blamed the Russians for meddling in our 2016 election ... and Donald Trump ignored their assertions outright, or countered with his very unpatriotic own.

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And it’s about to get more interesting for Team Donald. News has surfaced that Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” who once serviced high-profile clients in New York City, has been subpoenaed to testify before the Mueller grand jury on Friday, Aug. 10. Davis is the friend and confidant of a man Mueller is increasingly interested in:

That would be Roger Stone, the former Trump political advisor and showboat conservative fixer known to have been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the online persona of the 12 Russian agents thought to be responsible for hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee and then leaking the findings to Wikileaks, after opening a backchannel with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Davis once ran a novelty campaign for New York governor; Stone was her campaign adviser. And Stone has already admitted that he’s the unnamed person in the Mueller indictment against the Guccifer hacking crew, which was looking for dirt against Hillary Clinton — dirt to be used by the Trump 2016 campaign.

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A lot can happen in 44 years, and not much at all. The same hubris, the same thirst for power at the expense of ethics and morality that played out in 1974 is unspooling again. The past was the prologue we're living through today.

And while the endgame for the Nixon White House came this month, the Trump White House is still fighting to hold on, pushing back hard against the political history it is, despite its best efforts, already a part of.

And other guns besides those described here will go off in the distance. And Donald Trump will snarl, and tweet, and bully ...

And worry. And flinch. And look at the calendar to see: August is just getting started.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pre-trial balloons


SOMETHING’S IN the air: In the last few weeks, protest of the policies of President* Trump has lately soared to, uh, new heights.

First, of course, there was the Trump baby balloon, which famously floated over London’s Parliament Square and its environs during his visit to the UK earlier this month. It was classic passive protest — a 20-foot-tall balloon whose cartoon aspect perfectly suited its subject: a bloated Trump in his orange glory, sporting a diaper, mouth in customarily unhappy position, the U.S. maximum leader clutching a cellphone in one short-fingered hand.

It captured the world’s fancy. There hadn’t been so much attention paid to a balloon over England since Pink Floyd sent an inflatable pig aloft in 1976, with that critter floating over Battersea Power Station while being photographed for the cover of the Floyd’s Animals album — a record that brilliantly invoked Orwell’s Animal Farm to make pointed commentary about social injustice and power in pre-Thatcherite England.

“It seemed like an appropriate symbol of someone of his temperament," said Matthew Bonner, the graphic artist who designed the Trump baby. Bonner, who works with activist groups, told Dezeen that he used “this language of mockery, because this is the language that he understands. So we're giving him a taste of his own medicine.”

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The Trump baby stunt was followed by another on this side of the Atlantic. In San Francisco on July 22, some inventive balloon aficionados re-launched another Trump balloon, this one depicting The Donald as a chicken in prison stripes. That balloon, 33 feet high, sailed serenely around San Francisco Bay, making appearances at Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, and McCovey Cove, Curbed SF reported.

The Trump chicken, a fixture of protests in the area since April 2017, was last seen fittingly circling Alcatraz early this year.

More airborne antics are yet to come. There are plans afoot aloft to bring the UK Trump blimp to the United States. CNN reported on July 17 that a group of New Jersey activists plan to bring copies of the Baby Trump balloon to fly near the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., where Trump spends summer weekends, and elsewhere around the country.

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A GoFundMe page was launched to cover expenses. By July 17th, about $17,000 had been raised, more than three times the original funding target of $4,500, CNN reported. They’re no longer accepting donations, but at this writing, they’ve amassed about $23,700.

An alternate GoFundMe page, sponsored by Code Pink, hopes to bring Baby Trump to float over the military parade planned for Washington, D.C. on Nov. 10. They’ve raised $10,173 out of a $20,000 goal. (Check out the GFM page at this link to contribute.)

Image credits: Baby Trump: GoFundMe. Animals cover: © 1977 Columbia Records/Pink Floyd. Trump chicken: CDEL Family.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Republican base, revisited


JAMELLE BOUIE, in an essay in Slate on July 22, deftly explores particulars of the deeply feared panoramic Republican base, and finds it may not be the boogeyman that Democrats are fearing and Republicans are counting on. The monster we’ve been told is hiding under the bed may not be as fearsome as advertised.

And digging further, it's possible to see that the identity of the Republican base is such a shifting sand that its value as a weapon against Democrats may be marginal or even illusory — not least of all because of the volatile nature of our electoral politics.

Bouie observes: “Presidents always have partisans, and it’s rare that they break ranks. On the eve of his resignation in 1974, half of Republicans still supported Richard Nixon, and 59 percent said he shouldn’t be forced from office. Likewise, around 80 percent of Republicans backed Ronald Reagan at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. For Trump, the key question is less ‘how many Republicans still support his administration?’ and more ‘how many voters are still Republicans?’”

A fair question. Here’s another one: How many voters will vote Republican despite not being Republicans? In 2016 independent voters asserted their independence by voting for Trump. Likewise, there were Democrats who did the same thing. “I voted for Trump because I wanted some change going on,” said Sharla Baker, 28, to The New York Times. “But then again, maybe he's going to do the wrong change.”

Similarly, The Washington Post reported in May 2017 that “[a] sizable chunk of Obama-Trump voters — 30 percent — said their vote for Trump was more a vote against Clinton than a vote for Trump.”

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You can see why many variables should keep you from relying on any single facet of political identity. Party self-identification — an emotional connection to a party — is one thing, party registration — an official connection to a party — may well be another. And then there’s the vote itself — the actual connection to a party.

In an unusual election like 2016’s, this created a challenge to clearly identifying who and what the Republican base is. Then as now, people can self-identify with one party, register with that party (or another one) and then actually pull the lever — in a way that may be in lockstep with that party. Or not. That’s a decision arrived at in the privacy of the voting booth. And that reliably unpredictable human factor, played out in 2016, is what makes our current fears of (or confidence in) The Base so irrational. And probably wrong.

Even the GOP base as broadly sketched in November 2016 wasn’t responsible for putting Donald Trump over the top.

When all was said and done, the 2016 presidential election came down to three states: Trump won Michigan by 0.2, Pennsylvania by 0.7 and Wisconsin by 0.8 percentage points — in raw vote, by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes, respectively.

Those 89,646 votes hardly constituted a groundswell of fellow feeling for the Republican candidate, and they can hardly be seen as the vanguard, or even the representative, of a broad Republican base. There’s not much there there to extrapolate nationally. Especially compared to the 2.8 million more votes Hillary Clinton had over Trump in the final national count.

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IF NOT for that literal handful of states, the crazy-quilt electoral map, the power of gerrymandering, and the machinations of the Electoral College, Trump wouldn’t have won. All to say that, as a demon in the closet to Democrats and independents, The Base may not exist as it’s been conjured in recent months. Insofar as there’s a solid, unchanging, Pantone-red core of conservatives, it’s necessary to understand that the base as now identified was created long before the GOP’s current travails. Well before the current White House took power.

A lot of people have mightily convinced themselves that these voters will deliver a message about their belief and faith in Trump this November. They’re wrong. The election this November won’t be a referendum on Trump’s performance; that’s not until 2020. This coming election won’t even be much of a referendum on Trump’s legislative agenda — there’s too precious little of that agenda in the first place.

November’s election will be a referendum on the performance on the lawmakers seeking re-election — most of whom were in office, doing the people’s work, well before Trump even got to Washington — or first-time candidates hoping to give voters a better, fuller sense of Republicanism than Trump can. It’ll be less of a referendum on Trump per se than an assessment of voters’ willingness to elect or re-elect lawmakers willing to march off a cliff with the Republican Party that’s enabling him.

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One problem with the Republican base is that it derives its identity so aggressively, so assiduously, from what it is not. It is not, as a rule, a body as culturally inclusive, as demographically pluralistic as the core of Democratic voters, and that’s something Republican voters seem perfectly happy about. Which is, or will be, a shame.

In 2012, Barack Obama won re-election with just 39 percent of white voters; he defeated Mitt Romney with 93 percent of African American support, 71 percent of Latino voters, 73 percent of Asian American voters, 60 percent of the voters under 30, and 55 percent of women.

This combination was one that, for the second time in as many election cycles, captured the White House without a majority of the white vote.

However big the white vote may be within the storied Republican base, its size relative to the overall national population is greatly diluted. If what happened in 2012 holds to 2020, one party attaining the majority of the white vote may be even less necessary than it was before. Sooner or later, if the GOP base’s voting patterns aren’t transferable to that wider national population, the Republican Party is in trouble — regardless of how monolithic its leaders believe the base is.

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AND THANKS to the Trump White House and its enablers, widening that base appreciably isn’t much of an option. They’ve seen to that. Latinx voters? Not likely; look to the House Trump immigration policy of tearing apart migrant families, overwhelmingly of Mexican or Central American heritage, in the name of national security.

The power of the Latino vote isn’t to be ignored or overlooked. In 2012 an analysis by Resurgent Republic, a GOP-leaning research organization, forecasted that “the political influence of this voting bloc will increase exponentially as 50,000 Americans of Hispanic descent turn the age of 18 every month for the next two decades.”

From the analysis: “[T]he overarching trend of a less white electorate will continue as Hispanics, Asian Americans, and other minority groups increase their political participation and the white vote continues to age (white seniors increased to 14 percent in 2012).”

Unless the Republican base tries to reach this and other cohorts of an evolving America, the GOP is doomed to circle its own wagons in a tighter and tighter circle, preaching its gospel to a smaller and smaller congregation with every election cycle.

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These troubles for the Republican base didn’t just happen. Bouie borrows from Pew Research Center data (released in March) parsing party identification trends over 25 years, from 1992 to 2017. He cites Pew data that shows Republican Party identification fell 3 points, to 26 percent, from 2016 to the end of 2017. He also cites Gallup survey data showing a 5-point drop in those who called themselves Republicans, from 42 percent to 37 percent, between November 2016 and November 2017.


But that’s low-hanging fruit, the direct result of the antics of the Trump administration. What’s more telling are the numbers from earlier years. The same trove of Pew data shows Republican self-identification dipped to 26 percent in 2009, then climbed higher, but never surpassed Democratic numbers from then on. And Gallup data shows that Democrats have consistently eaten Republicans’ lunch on party affiliation going back to at least September 2008.

That’s where the real story of the Republican base lies: in a wider, more historically-driven overview, an overview that proves the stasis and decline of the GOP base didn’t begin with the Trump White House — and likely won’t end there either.

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THE REPUBLICAN base may not even be able to count on holding on to the people it's got. Whether their adherents admit it or not, some parts of the Republican base feel co-opted, disappointed, disenchanted by certain Trump policies since January 2017.

Policies like Trump’s aggressive pursuit of trade tariffs, which will deeply affect businesses large and small around the country. Like the workers at the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis, Indiana. During the 2016 campaign, Carrier's workforce was assured by candidate Trump that he’d fight to keep their jobs in the United States. Many of them voted for Trump, believing he’d do just that.

The reality? Not so reassuring; the Carrier plant went through three rounds of layoffs; the second, in January, saw the loss of 215 jobs. Many of the positions were outsourced to Monterey, Mexico.

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“We took him serious because he did seem to be an entrepreneur,” said Renee Elliott, ex-Carrier employee, to Charles Bethea of The New Yorker in January.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Romney redux?


THE METAPHOR of “dipping a toe in the water” is a bane of political discourse, invoked forever to describe a prospective candidate’s consideration of a run for the White House. Less attention’s paid to that rare politician who dips that toe in the moist shoreline before the water even gets there.

We may be seeing that with Mitt Romney, the biggest loser of the 2012 presidential contest. We’re more than two years out from the 2020 derby, but it may soon be time to welcome back an old favorite, hopefully smarter than he was before.

In ways both predictable and less predictable, the former Massachusetts governor and prime mover of the Salt Lake City Olympics seems to be slyly entering the 2020 conversation before it’s really even started. But certain statements of his own beg the question of what he’d bring to the table that’s any different from the people there now.

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He’s of course taken the customary route back into the national debate by way of op-ed commentary. Since January 2017, Romney has shrewdly picked his spots, weighing in on various actions and statements by President* Trump, and seizing other opportunities in their own right.

In January, Romney offered fulsome praise to Orrin Hatch, the Republican lion of the Senate who announced his retirement that month.

“I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation.

“As Chairman of the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees and as the longest-serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, Senator Hatch has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor. Ann and I wish Senator Orrin Hatch and his loving wife Elaine all the best in their future endeavors.”

There was another reason for Romney’s hosannahs for Hatch. Romney threw his hat in the ring for the Utah primary election in June, seeking to replace Hatch in the Senate.

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ROMNEY’S SPOKEN his mind about House Trump, cherry-picking through the policies and practices of the White House, and apparently rejoicing when he’s not in lockstep with The Donald, and otherwise exhibiting some measure of dependent independence. In the early going, he’s been nobody’s poodle.

“I will support the president’s policies when I believe they are in the best interest of Utah and the nation,” Romney writes in the June 24 Salt Lake Tribune.

“I have noted, the first year of his administration has exceeded my expectations; he made our corporate tax code globally competitive, worked to reduce unnecessary regulations and restored multiple use on Utah public land. In addition, I am pleased that he backed away from imposing a 35 percent tariff on all foreign goods. ...

“I have and will continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions. I do not make this a daily commentary; I express contrary views only when I believe it is a matter of substantial significance.”

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And Romney used a familiar metaphor in his own campaign pledge: “I will call them like I see them.” On June 27, Romney won that Utah primary. He’s the odds-on favorite to win Hatch’s Senate seat this November.

He jumped into the debate over Trump’s disaster of a performance in Helsinki, opposite Russian President Vladimir Putin, taking to Twitter to call it “disgraceful and detrimental.” “Russia remains our number one geopolitical adversary; claiming a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia not only defies reason and history, it undermines our national integrity and impairs our global credibility.”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Trump Enragement Syndrome:
Dan Coats may be the new patient zero


I F DIRECTOR of National Intelligence Dan Coats gets fired in the near future — paying the price for a perfectly normal reaction to a disruption in a workplace chain of command — we can save time and energy by not being flummoxed, or even stymied. President* Trump’s done this kind of thing before.

As with the departures of Reince Priebus and Rex Tillerson, two once-solid pillars of House Trump, Coats’ possible departure signals a kind of Trumpian return to form. If past is prologue, look for Trump to further cut Coats out of the loop, in a fashion consistent with past practice. Thanks to even a shallow reading of American political history in Trump time, we needn’t be surprised. The viral particles of Trump Enragement Syndrome are in the air again.

Remember how Priebus got his walking papers? After months of being in the White House wilderness — ignored by staffers, made to be the 12th man on the team, treated like the leper intern instead of the White House chief of staff — Priebus was replaced in July 2017 by John Kelly, formerly the head of Homeland Security.

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Politico reported last July 28, the day Priebus resigned as White House chief of staff: “From the start, Priebus — whose presence was intended to give the Establishment wing of the Republican Party a line into the White House, and to smooth Trump’s relations with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill—was hemmed in, with senior advisers like Bannon, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway reporting directly to the president.

From Politico: “The unpredictable nature of the information flow in the White House made him uneasy, several administration officials say. He lost his cool when other West Wing staffers knew things that he didn’t, and he would call people who had spoken to the president to ask them what Trump had told them. He would run from meeting to meeting trying not to miss anything. He would corner people who criticized him publicly and ask them to stop – but admit the criticisms were close to accurate. He would rarely leave Trump's side and rush into the Oval Office when he saw others were in the room.”

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AND WE can’t forget Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil and secretary of state. Weeks of backbiting and recrimination preceded his exit, time spent in a quiet kind of tension with Trump. Tillerson’s attempts to exercise some degree of autonomy, of standing on the not-inconsiderable power of its authority (an office that is, after all, in the line of presidential succession), all came to nothing. Thanks to some primal twitch in the Trump amygdala, Tillerson was found to have gone too far, to have run afoul of The Donald. Never mind how.

It started with the usual manifestations of TES: not outright, scenery-chewing outrage but a smoldering resentment from the president* couched in passive-aggressive Trump tweets, as well as persistent leaks to the press from “Trump administration officials” about how close to Tillerson’s head the sword of Damocles was positioned. Reports of Tillerson’s pending ouster circulated as early as three months before his departure.

In December, Bloomberg reported James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush saying that “[t]he administration’s foreign policy team seems “to be working with two voices, that of President Trump’s Twitter voice and the rest of the administration, so credibility of cabinet members and their negotiating power is always an issue.”

Not for long. Early March 13, as Tillerson returned from a trip to north Africa, he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who (according to different sources) dropped the guillotine blade on Tillerson over the phone while the secretary of state was in the can.

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And it may be about to be Coats’ turn. It’d be especially galling if it’s true, since Coats has been a loyal Trump operative from the beginning. Coats may be dismissed for doing nothing more or less than acting as a symbol of order in a house known for disorder.

It started, of course, when Coats took umbrage with Trump’s actions in Helsinki, as the president stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and basically pledged allegiance to the dictator.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats wrote in a statement that managed to elude the green eyeshades of the Spin Police in the West Wing.

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THE MOST recent source of Coats’ trouble is his appearance July 19 at the Aspen Security Forum. Interviewed by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Coats was diplomatic and circumspect when asked questions about Trump’s recent upheavals on the world stage, most recently Trump’s breathtakingly inept performance in Helsinki.

Then Mitchell announced some breaking news there on the stage with Coats: According to a tweet by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Putin has been invited to come to the White House in the fall.



A perfectly normal professional’s reaction to finding out your boss has blindsided you in ways that should never have happened. No big deal. I’ll sort it out when I get back to the office on Monday.

Only Coats’ boss, the president*, didn’t see it like that. Neither did the tailors and haberdashers attending the wannabe emperor’s new clothes. By late Thursday and into early Friday, news circulated that White House officials were “furious” over Coats’ off-the-cuff statements in Aspen. The word went out that Coats had “gone rogue,” making the director of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies sound like a bull elk in heat.

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Abigail Tracy at Vanity Fair sets the record straight: “Coats, of course, is only expressing publicly what many Trump aides are whispering in private. One administration official told me that National Security Council staffers were ‘pretty rattled by the summit’ and that morale is ‘back down to very low levels.’ Over in Foggy Bottom, a State Department staffer told me ‘lots of folks are planning an exit’ in the wake of the Trump-Putin summit.”

Whether those folks engage in their own predictable behavior depends, apparently, on how likely Trump is to act predictably himself.

To be clear: Predictability has its place; in an environment defined by chaos, anything that’s foreseeable is pretty damn refreshing all by itself. But Trump Enragement Syndrome is an acute condition — in the short-term, at least, a (politically) terminal disease for everyone but the host.

Priebus, Tillerson and others will tell you: Just because something’s predictable doesn’t make it preventable.

Image credits: Coats top: Getty Images. Priebus: Aude Guerrucci/Pool/Getty Images via Politico. Tillerson: Alex Wong/Getty Images. Coats lower: Aspen Security Forum via The Associated Press. Trump: Evan Vucci/Associated Press.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

President Stradivarius in Helsinki


AMONG THE hundreds or thousands of drawings, paintings, sketches and Photoshop illustrations of the man who would be president, Donald Trump, created since he took custody of the Oval Office, there’s one that’s especially memorable.

It’s an image of the president* in a deep and passionate liplock with Vladimir Putin, the maximum leader of the Russian Federation. I first saw it in a mural on a building on Yucca Street in Hollywood, about a year ago, as the relationship between the two was just starting to come to light. It turned up on the side of a barbecue restaurant in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, back in May 2016. There have been any number of sightings since then.

But it almost doesn’t matter how far back it originates. Monday’s events in Helsinki have revealed just how prescient that artist really was.

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In a summit that wasn’t so much a summit as a prom date for autocrats, Trump on Monday effectively renounced the country he presumably leads and accepted the denials of a foreign power over the proven findings of his own intelligence community, in the matter of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The American president* shocked the world and his own nation when he stood next to Putin and took the word of a dictator over his own countrymen.

At a joint news conference after the leaders’ 131-minute closed-door meeting, Trump was asked if he believed his own intelligence agencies or the Russian president when it came to the allegations of meddling in the elections.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said during the news conference. “President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be.”

“Russia has never interfered in and is not going to interfere in US internal affairs, including the elections," Putin said, backing up the president who backed him up. “If there are any specific materials, if they are presented, we are ready to review them together.”

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TO AN administration for which the words “a new low” are an embodiment of the aspirational, the actions and statements by Trump are, or will be, deeply problematic for people at many levels and stations: for House Trump, whose inmates are desperately hoping to right the ship of state; for a dispirited U.S. intelligence community, now thrown under the bus by the man supposedly driving it; for our global neighbors in NATO, rightly concerned as to WTF is going on with the United States and just as rightly terrified of how it might affect them and the 70-year alliance; and for the American people, less and less sure of what it means to be an American in the face of a president* who apparently couldn’t care less about being an American.

The blowback began immediately.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a reliable Trump cheerleader, put his pompoms down today. “There is no question that Russia interfered in our elections,” he said in a statement, calling on Trump to recognize that Russia “is not our ally.”

“The President must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals,” Ryan said in the statement.

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Trump's comments “made us look like a pushover.” And John Brennan, CIA director under President Obama and a career intelligence officer, called Trump's comments “nothing short of treasonous.” And more.

“Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors,' ” Brennan tweeted. “Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and a former head of the CIA, said Monday was “probably the most tragic day in the history of the presidency. Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and no stranger to hyperbole, called Trump’s remarks “the most serious mistake of his presidency.” On CNN, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum called it “a betrayal of the United States.”

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EVEN “Fox and Friends,” Trump’s amen corner, took issue with his performance. “Nobody’s perfect, especially [after] 10 intensive days of summits, private meetings, and everything on his plate,” said host Brian Kilmeade. “But that moment is the one that’s going to stand out unless he comes out and corrects it.”

Abby Huntsman, a Fox News fixture and daughter of Jon Huntsman, Trump's ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.”

John McCain, as resolute a cold warrior and as ardent a patriot as this nation has ever produced, called the Trump Helsinki episode “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

And Ash Carter, former Obama defense secretary, invoked architecture to poetically grasp the gravity of what had just happened in Finland. For him, observing the Trump exercise in national defeatism “was like watching the destruction of a cathedral.”

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You knew something was afoot early; Trump looked off his feed before the press conference even started. You won’t see it in most of the still photographs, nearly all of which were focused on both men standing at their respective podiums.

But in other images and videos of the two men as they walked up before the media, Trump — shoulders slumped, frowning more deeply than usual — looked defeated, whipped, bearing the expression of a man on his way to either get bad news himself or give bad news to someone else.

Or is that the look of a man who knows he's utterly, privately co-opted? Speculation has been around for months: Maybe Putin's Got Something on The Donald. Maybe Trump was just personally reminded of what that leverage is. Whatever. Every picture tells a story. Look at the smirk on the face of Vladimir the Impaler. He may not have a musical bone in his body, but turns out the veteran Russian spymaster plays the American violin pretty well.

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THERE’S BEEN plenty of damage to go around. The injury done to Trump and his biography (assuming that the pedigree of his biography can fall any further) is bad enough. Trump’s performance also has a deleterious impact on the American presidency, its role as a foundational leg of the triad of our governmental system, its power as an inspirational force for positive change.

And whether they admit it or not, Trump’s antics — not just in Helsinki but also in the runup to the event — are having a corrosive effect on those in his inner circle. When Trump threw America’s 17 intelligence agencies under the bus on Monday, it also called into question just how much more of this crap can be tolerated by (among others) White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who took the unusual step of breaking with Trump by issuing a statement effectively refuting the comments of his boss.

What’s their threshold for self-respect? Have they got any? Have they got any left?

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But in an election year like this one, the party most grievously damaged in the short one is the party Donald Trump claims to represent. The Republican Party — heir to the triumphs of Ronald Reagan, still the party’s patron saint — faces a reckoning of its identity.

The aspect of the Republican brand that hews to the trappings and stagecraft of patriotism, an unalloyed and unstinting defense of the United States and its institutions has been damaged in recent weeks, and certainly since Monday. There’s no walking this back. No do-overs. Not while Trump inhabits the Oval Office. The GOP has vacated that high ground, and the party may never get it back.

The Republican Party doesn't stand for what it used to stand for, and that has to be a problem. The GOP can no longer invoke its customary nationalistic platitudes as a shibboleth, a political club to be brandished against the opposition. Those longstanding imagistic Republican benchmarks, those weaponized conservative optics, are no longer valid. They’re null and void. Donald Trump has damaged this core, existential component of Republican identity, the conflation of the fortunes of the party and the nation. And the Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. And Donald Trump.

Image credits: Putin-Trump kiss: numerous sources. Trump-Putin at Helsinki: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. Traitor in chief protest: via Sky News. Corker: Talking Points Memo. Trump-Putin at Helsinki lower: via The Weekly Standard. Kelly: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

King James Inc. comes West


THE BIGGEST unsecret in the history of professional sports was officially revealed on Sunday: On the first day of NBA free agency, LeBron James opted out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in order to join the Los Angeles Lakers, which  everyone on this planet and worlds beyond our own knew was coming.

Fans of professional basketball had been milking the drama hard for all it was worth. Sports columnists tried to pretend King James was going somewhere else. It’s as if they hoped to preserve the delicious unknowing — the start of the third act, when everything hangs in the balance — even after such cheap drama exhausted itself in a losing footrace with the facts.

And the facts were obvious. It wasn’t the money; King James could write God a check for walking around money right now. It wasn’t even necessarily the chance to win a fourth ring of the lords, the necessary hardware for any serious comparison to the inevitable Michael Jordan Benchmark. LeBron James is really coming to the Lakers for one reason: It’s the opportunity to place a capstone on a stellar career in the one American city whose outsized mythology is a match for his own.

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And no other city can do it. Not New York. Not Boston. Oklahoma City? Please. Houston? Yeah right. Another sojourn in Miami? Nope, been there, done that. For King James, closing his career with the Lakers completes a personal coast-to-coast resumé of winning work at teams across the country, from Miami to Cleveland to Los Angeles. He could have played anywhere, but it was the siren song of La La Land that beckoned him.

Well, mostly. It was also the siren song of Magic Johnson, the Lakers head of basketball operations who charmed James with a personal touch — and a personal Saturday visit to James’ palatial digs in Brentwood. The result: By Sunday evening, at the end of the first full day of the free-agency season, the marquee attraction was already off the table. LeBron James was a Laker, with a four-year deal worth $154 million. Safe bet: Next season, Staples Center will be at capacity, 19,067 asses in 19,067 seats. Jack’s too.

Tributes came in thick and fast, of course, via the Twitter quick-twitch response. Lonzo Ball, the Lakers’ promising point guard, didn’t waste any time acknowledging the new sheriff in town. “Y’a ll thought he was gonna pass up the greatest city in the world ... #TheKingIsHere,” Ball tweeted on Sunday. Ball’s tweet, diplomatically timed to The Announcement itself, made sense for other reasons. Ball and fellow Laker Kyle Kuzma have been recently engaged in a social media dissfest that’s gotten personal. Almost too personal for the front office.

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BALL’S performance on the court has been mixed but in a generally positive way. Last year his shooting was inconsistent, but he was a force in rebounds and assists. Being sidelined for a strain in his median cruciate ligament didn’t help. Since then, his on-court performance has improved — somewhat: A look at Ball’s rookie season stats show, well, room for improvement, which is to be expected from a rookie.

So to the extent that Lonzo is serious about his career with the Lakers, his congratulatory tweet was a way of telling King James, without actually saying it: “All due propers, LeBron, I’m down for the program.” It was also a way of proving Lonzo understands that, with the arrival of LeBron (and his ravenous work ethic), school is about to be in session, and Lonzo damn well better not cut class.

The other Ball — the unspoken LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s father and the brains behind Big Baller Brand athletic apparel — may be a thornier issue. The outspoken father, who’s been praising his son and his company to the skies, may be the X factor in Lonzo’s future with the Lakers, and how smoothly that future unfolds next season.

Jemele Hill of The Undefeated weighed in on the LeBron/LaVar relationship. “I’m most interested in what happens with Lonzo Ball,” Hill tweeted on July 1. “If he’s not included in any future deals to bring another star, LeBron being there is going to force LaVar to be quiet. Let him pop off about LeBron at any point, and they’ll put Lonzo in a one-way U-Haul with some Cliff bars.”

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Brad Botkin at CBS Sports wrote about how, despite the hoopla and celebration, and the obvious shift in the NBA balance of power, the Lakers may have left a lot on the table — by overlooking or ignoring the free agency of the electrifyingly dominant DeMarcus (Boogie) Cousins, just snapped up by ... the Golden State Warriors.

“In the end, the real winner here is Cousins, who can take his time getting back to full strength on a team that doesn't need him in any way. Seriously, they don't need him. Potentially one of the best players in the league is a luxury. And a very cheap one. If he makes it back to something near full strength, the Warriors are going to be the greatest basketball team ever assembled, bar none. Discussion over.

“Imagine trying to keep your eye on the two greatest shooters in NBA history in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, quite possibly the greatest pure scorer in history in [Kevin] Durant, and even if you somehow manage to stop those three (which you won't), you now have to deal with a seven-footer who averaged 25 points and 13 boards last year. Then, even if you shut all four of those guys down, you have a borderline Hall of Famer in Andre Iguodala COMING OFF THE BENCH. Then, on the less than 1 percent chance all those guys are having an off night on the same night, the Warriors, behind one of the 10 best defenders ever in Draymond Green, have the best defense in the league, too. It's a joke.”

Rest assured, the Lakers aren’t laughing. You don’t beef up the marquee like this for nothing. Before James was signed, Johnson had already said he’d quit his Lakers job if he couldn’t attract a major world-rattling talent. Johnson, the team and the city knew what was at stake.

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WITH MAYOR Eric Garcetti making exploratory presidential noises, and the 2024 Olympic Games in the wings, Los Angeles is set to cash in on a fulfilled pop-cultural manifest destiny, and that includes sports, and at least a shot at attaining the lofty perches of the past, when Showtime was in session and Jack showed up pretty much all the time and ... and everything was just better.

We’re almost fated to a “High Noon”-style face-off between the Lakers and the Warriors, maybe as soon as next season. The early betting line is that the Warriors will almost certainly re-repeat as champions. But you don’t play the game on paper.

You play it in the streets and alleys, you play it in the gyms and driveways. You play it in the cities. And no other city in America transmits the shock of the new like LA does, and the Lakers know that. And LeBron James knows it too.

Image credits: James: Maddie Mayer/Getty Images. Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball: Ethan Miller/Getty Images. DeMarcus Cousins: Getty Images. James Laker jerseys: poshmark.com

Friday, June 1, 2018

President Stradivarius and the two Kims


SO MUCH FOR “fire and fury.” Goodbye to “a campaign of maximum pressure.” Adios, apparently,  to “a menace that threatens our world.”

That’s the language that animated the House Trump relationship with Kim Jong Un and the hermit kingdom of North Korea as far back as January, at President* Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and as recently as last August. Now? Meh. Not so much.

Why? Because it’s all different now. The summit between Trump and Kim, once set for June 12 in Singapore, then canceled, is back on again. But what’s been positioned as a meeting that Pyongyang desperately wants will be anything but. The denuclearization issue that was a tripwire for the United States is now, amazingly, not such a big damn deal after all. Such is an object lesson in the risks of improvisational diplomacy at the hands of Donald Trump.

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In a June 1 grip-&-grin from the Oval Office, Kim Yong Chol, spy chief and the warden king of a North Korean gulag thought to hold as many as 200,000 North Koreans, was welcomed at the White House, huddling with Trump in a long meeting in the Oval. He presented Trump with a letter from Kim Jong Un — a message inside a comically oversize envelope, the kind of thing they use to hold the winning check in the Publishers Clearing House ads on TV.

It was Kim Jong Un’s opening gambit, an overture that Trump will be hard pressed to regard in antagonistic terms.

Trump made a mid-course correction on Friday in terms of his new expectations for the June 12 summit — he’s calling it “a getting-to-know-you meeting, plus,” whatever the hell that means — but it’s a shame he didn’t do that in March, when the summit idea first surfaced. If he had, he’d have more credibility on the issue than he does now.

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AS IT STANDS, Trump’s doing more or less exactly what he’s accused his Oval Office predecessors of doing: slow-walking the process of diplomacy with Pyongyang. It’s what a CNN analyst on June 1 called “a carrot-and-stick approach,” with the current negotiation being the carrot — negotiation that will certainly include Trump soft-pedaling on sensitive issues like human rights, a guaranteed nonstarter with Pyongyang.

Which makes sense since the rhetorical sticks of the past — Trump’s “fire and fury” gibberish, his cheap “Rocket Man” taunt at the United Nations — didn’t get anywhere.

For his trouble, Kim Jong Un acquires instant credibility. And leverage: The issue of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula — one of the main reasons for the summit, and something Trump and his minions have tried to hammer home for months — may not even be on the table in Singapore.

The meeting that Trump now characterizes in anodyne terms comes just eight days after it was previously canceled. (Which is curious in itself: Eight days ago Trump announced plans to “terminate” the June 12 summit date. Isn’t it strange that in the eight days since then, nothing else emerged in Trump’s presumably busy schedule to fill that June 12 date? It’s like time was standing still, just waiting for the summit to be back on again — in exactly the same time and place as before, with nothing in the Trump schedule intervening in the meantime ...)

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All this lurching from lane to lane points to the way Trump apparently intends to do business. On CNN, political analyst Ron Brownstein got it right: “The controlling dynamic to the president’s approach to diplomacy is volatility.” And that’s not just true for diplomacy, it’s been just as true for Trump’s approach to domestic politics, campaign politics, and congressional politics.

So when one willfully volatile leader faces off with another, it’s foolish to expect a smooth glide path at the negotiating table. The two Koreas have been in conflict for more than 60 years. Anyone who thinks the differences between them will be magically erased in one or two shiny, happy Kum Ba Yah moments needs an intervention.

When he walked away from the summit before, Trump was playing to his base in crafting a rationale for that meeting being canceled, waving the flag and rattling sabers in equal measure. But months of bluster and bellicose tweets scarcely concealed an administration on the back foot when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell understands. “You have to not want the deal too much,” he said on Friday, at an event in his home state of Kentucky. “If you fall in love with the deal, and it’s too important for you [not] to get it, and the details become less significant ... you could get snookered.”

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THE TWO KIMS may be wondering if Trump can be taken seriously. The two Kims may also wonder how seriously Trump takes himself.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior White House official and scholar at the Carnegie Institute, grasped the situation in a May 24 piece for Politico after the summit was first scuttled: “Don’t be fooled. Trump wants the meeting as badly as ever, and will jump at the chance to reschedule if and when the time suits him.

“For the past six months, Trump has been reacting to events both in North and South Korea and as a result, North Korea’s position has greatly improved at the expense of the United States. Now, by canceling the long-anticipated summit, Trump is trying to play hard to get with Kim, claiming that the meeting was ‘requested by North Korea’ but cannot take place ‘at this time.’

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Duchess Meghan: Race, marriage
and the substance of symbolism


FOR THE LAST year they’ve called Meghan Markle everything but a child of God, on this side of the Atlantic and the other, but now they can call her the Duchess of Sussex. With the nuptials of Markle and Prince Harry on May 19 — with all the pomp and circumstance we in the States are inured to, if not exactly used to — life and society change, however slightly, in the island nation whose racial equation has long relied on the habits of history, tradition and family lineage to have weight over the past xteen-umpty-hundred years.

More than just a marriage, their union points to the power of symbolism in the service of substance — indeed, it shows how, in a world tearing itself apart with racial and ethnic divisions, symbolism is very much its own substance.

Doreen St. Félix of The New Yorker got it: “Love brings together Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whose train of identifiers—biracial, actress, Angeleno, divorcée, feminist, former life-style blogger—complete the Mad Libs of the new American vogue.”

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Symbolism didn’t take the day off — couldn’t have possibly done so. It was there front row center when Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, the first black leader of the Episcopal Church, borrowed from the homiletic themes of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even as he made the royal wedding sermon his very own.

“There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it. There's power, power in love. If you don't believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.

“Oh there's power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There's a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it — it actually feels right.”

And there was symbolism in the quiet, electric dignity of Doria Ragland, Meghan’s mother, who sat next to Queen Elizabeth and symbolized generations, legions of black women for whom such a moment — its seeming impossibility given history’s enormous weight — might as well have been a barefoot jaunt on the surface of the moon.

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THE transcontinental reverberations were underway a long time before the ceremony at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor on Saturday last.

At the end of last year, some in the UK went out of their way to indulge in a kind of passive-aggressive damnation with strange praise. We can thank our cousins across the water for the exoticization of Markle as she rode a storybook carriage en route to the real one.

In December, the London Zoo rushed to board the Meghanmania Express, deciding to name its latest animal resident after the soon-to-be Duchess. The okapi named Meghan is a short-necked, ungainly critter, part of the giraffe family. The zoo’s new addition, officials said, was so named as a way to bring public attention to the plight of the okapi, an endangered species of which there are said to be only 25,000 in the wild.

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While that was perfectly defensible from the perspective of defenders of animal rights and (more generally) the welfare of the environment, it’s still a push to share your name with such an exotic animal whose black and white stripes couldn’t be more clumsily appropriated in the current context.

Context is everything, it’s often said, and that behind the okapi named Meghan is goofily benign. Give the London Zoo an A-minus for effort, and a C for timing.

Less easily massaged into relative insignificance is the other thing that happened in December. Princess Michael of Kent, a royal with a history of being uh racially provocative, apologized for wearing a blackamoor brooch, widely seen as racially insensitive, to the Queen’s Lunch, which was attended by Markle, in one of her first appearances since she and Harry announced their engagement.

Princess Michael, who is married to the Queen’s first cousin, has pulled this crap in the past. And last month, three weeks before the wedding, news surfaced that Princess Pushy once owned two black sheep she reportedly named Venus and Serena. Way to stay classy.

And then there was the comment by the moronic Rachel Johnson, a journalist (and ergo, someone who shoulda known better) who wrote in The Mail on Sunday that Markle would bring “a rich and exotic DNA” to the royal line.

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THE BRITISH commentator Afua Hirsch suggested in November that when Harry married Markle it would “change Britain’s relationship with race” forever. “Don’t underestimate the symbolism of a royal marriage,” she wrote in The Guardian. “From now on, it will be impossible to argue that being black is somehow incompatible with being British.”

Hirsch would prove to be half right: The marriage may have changed Britain’s relationship; time will tell how it changes the UK’s relationship with racism. Rachel Johnson and Princess Michael would seem to indicate that may not change at all.

“Britain is not in the grand scheme of things a multicultural country, especially compared to the States,” said Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, deputy editor of gal-dem, an online magazine written by women of color, to NBC News late last year. “We’re very much a minority here and there is a lot of prejudice against black people.”

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“I think a lot of people think we’re in a post-racial society but it certainly doesn’t feel that way for the black and brown people living here,” Brinkhurst-Cuff said. “Racism is still alive and cooking here.”

It’s an attitude that sheer population size makes it easy to get away with. Only 3 percent of the population in England and Wales self-identified as Black British, Black African or Caribbean, according to data from the 2011 census. Only 2 percent of respondents identified themselves as of mixed ethnicity.

“When we start unravelling everyday racism then we can talk about race relations moving forward,” said Paula Akpan, founder of Black Girl Festival, to NBC News. “People are ignoring that there is still so much work to be done."

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STILL, IT WAS a milestone moment some could see coming well before it happened. “This is a marker in 21st-century history,” said Nell Irvin Painter, history professor emeritus at Princeton and author of “The History of White People.” “This could not have happened in a previous generation, in a late-20th-century generation,” she told The Guardian, in December.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised this has happened. When you consider how British acting royalty and the makers of American movies have been tying up for decades, or how the music of the British invasion didn’t gain critical mass until it reached American shores, it’s clear that the marriage on May 19 was the culmination of a transcontinental affinity that’s been playing out for a long, long time – with each party bringing something unique to the table.

And that’s not going to change. Much has been made in the previous months of how Markle would have to change her ways, subdue her irrepressible Americanness in order to become a part of the royal family. Which may not happen, and really shouldn’t happen at all.

Aspects of her personality dovetail with her nationality — period (or as the Brits say, full stop). Trying to change that, to alter or subdue the effervescence of her American DNA, deserves to be a fool’s errand; the Crown might as well try to turn an SUV into a cocker spaniel.

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That was made clear on May 26, when it was announced that Meghan, er, the Duchess has a new coat of arms that acknowledges her California roots. The blue in the shield represents the Pacific Ocean, while the flowers spread along the bottom are golden poppies, the California state flower. The Queen approved the coat of arms, which the Duchess had a hand in designing.

Similarly, and just as important, aspects of her confidently biracial identity won’t be smothered by hidebound, monochromatic British tradition. Bet the ranch (or the castle): Meghan and Harry wouldn’t have it any other way. In the short term, at least, Meghan Markle has colonized the imagination of the British public, by accident genially repaying the once-empire whose own colonial exploits have been a lot more troublesome.

Among other things, this marriage will be a test of American and British resolve that both nations go on being much of what they’ve been to each other for centuries: best friend, geopolitical ally, and most reliable cultural trading partner.

The U.S. and the U.K. both have a dubious history vis-à-vis race and discrimination — history that's very much a current affair. What love has brought together may, just may, start to undo some of that ugliness we regrettably have in common.

Image credits: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images. Ragland: Hellomagazine.com. Okapi: EBL News/You Tube. Princess Michael: Getty Images. Jagger's flags: via Pinterest. Coat of Arms: Kensington Palace.
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