Is There A Case For Trump As a Russian Asset?

Images like this make you feel a little paranoid, da? Image from New York Magazine, linked below.

So, for a few days I’ve been mulling over Jon Chait’s epic piece making the case that Trump has possibly been a Russian asset since 1987, trying to figure out how I figure it. The piece has gotten surprisingly little attention, partially because Chait is anathema on left-wing social media, but also because the whole thing just seems ludicrous, and to the mainstream access-friendly media, downright impolite.

Chait’s article boils down to one essential element: Trump being a Russian asset would explain a lot of things that are otherwise inexplicable. It would explain both the recent and lifelong actions of a man who is being pressured, cajoled, flattered, induced, and otherwise beset by both positive and negative pressures from a foreign state.

Of course, that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories. They make sense of a crazy world, tie everything together in a neat little package. They tie strings between disparate elements, creativing a cohesive story out of the fractured wooziness of modern life. They are actually a source of great comfort, which is why people cling to even the most far-fetched ones.

So how far-fetched is this, really?

(Warning: this piece is super long, even for this blog)

Continue reading

Some Good News: Ethiopia and Eritrea Declare Peace

Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea embrace

One of these men is a terrible monster, but this is still good news. We’ll take what we can get. 

In the late 90s, Ethiopia and Eritrea, two states, large and small, united and divided by the forces of history, waged a fierce and terrible war over a handful of dusty towns and lifeless fields at the heart of their disputed border.

In fighting that resembled the pointless muddy carnage of WWI, trenches appeared in this no-man’s land, poison gas was used, and tens of thousands lost their lives for no gain on either side. By 2000, with both sides exhausted, a state of not-war was declared, though peace was elusive. A UN commission awarded the territory to Eritrea, but Ethiopia never accepted it, and war was still always on the table, balancing on a knife edge in the fierce heat of the Horn of Africa.

Until now, that is.

The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have signed a declaration saying that the state of war between the two countries is over.

A peace deal ending the 1998-1999 border conflict has never been fully implemented and there has been tension between the neighbours ever since.

The countries have also agreed to re-establish trade and diplomatic ties.

The declaration came at a landmark meeting between the two countries’ leaders in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.

The summit between Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed marked the first time the neighbours’ heads of state had met for nearly two decades.

This is very good news. From a US perspective, it means that our main ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, will be less distracted by their disputatious neighbor. That can only help in the on-going fights against AQAP and ISIS and al-Shabab in the region (merely stating a fact, not saying that our methods/tactics are good).

Beyond the US, of course, is the possibility of peace in the region, a genuine one, instead of the tense terrors of the last 20 years. Or really, the last 70. And because of this, we can see that not all conflict has to last forever, even the seemingly intractable.

For those not familiar with the history, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, but only due to the weird legacy of colonialism. It had been a collection of kingdoms and sultanates, Christian and Islamic, demonstrating the eclectic intermingling at one of the world’s inflection points. It’s a mix of sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, north Africa, and more. Indeed, it is much more relevant to think of it as a Red Sea country than an African one. It’s ties are to Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti, and of course, Ethiopia.

A map showing Ethiopia and Eritrea

But not by choice. Ethiopia was invaded by Italian fascists, led by noted fascist superstar and street-named-after-guy Italo Balbo, and they brought together these independent kingdoms into Italian Eritrea. When the fascists lost to the English, both Ethiopia and Eritrea were “administered” by the British. When that got to be too expensive, the Brits just lumped everything together and gave Eritrea to Ethiopia. This was sanctioned by the UN and Western nations under their longstanding and time-honored policy of “Eh, they’re pretty much the same”.

Needless to say, this didn’t lead to a state of peace, especially when vicious Ethipoian leaders made a point of harassing and starving restless regions. A civil war took place over the course of decades, with “rebel” troops entering the Eritrean capital of Asmara in 1991. That paved the way for a de facto state, made de jure in 1993.

So needless to say there’s been some tension, and the 1998-1999 war was as much an exercise in revenge and historical anger than it was about a handful of cities. But time, apparently, can sometimes heal wounds, and countries don’t have to be beholden to the past. They can actually get past it, and move forward.

I know that sounds antithetical to most of what this blog has been preaching over the years, but the not really. I think we have to be aware of the past, to understand its terrible pull and grasping hold, in order to move past it. When we aren’t aware is when we get in trouble. When we don’t try to understand the historical forces working against us, the ground underneath our feet, is when we are caught unprepared.

I don’t want to say things are good over there, now. The President of Eritrea is still Isaias Afwerki, who once seemed like a brave new leader, but has since descended into brutal, paranoid madness, a Stalin-like leader who has maybe surpassed the darkest days of Mengistu. It’s a police state gripped by terror and brutality, and with its own insurrections in the name of freedom.

There’s a long way to go. But this is a day no one thought could ever come. So to that, we’ll celebrate, still wary, but relieved. There can be good news, even in these dark and weird times.

Scientists Find More Rivers, But Dry Areas Create More Conflict

Obvious obligatory musical cue

One thing which anyone who studies space will tell you is that there’s a lot of it. Like, a whole lot. As Douglas Adams puts it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, space is “really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The corollary to that is that, relatively, the earth is pretty small. Pale blue dot, and all that. All our hubris and dreams in this one little rock, etc. And it’s true! Compared to space, compared to even our unremarkable little solar system, the earth is pretty small.

But in our lifetimes, we don’t compare the earth to space. We can’t. We can only compare it to the size of our lives, which live outsized and all-encompassing in us. And in that sense, the earth is huge. It is a long road down to the chemist.

That’s why stories like this one from Inverse are both surprising and unsurprising.

(R)esearchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas A&M University have charted a multitude of new rivers and streams, showing that we have 44 percent more of them than we ever thought.

That’s a lot of rivers and streams! It’s actually sort of boggling to think about: there’s a decent amount more running water in this world than we had accounted for. This isn’t to say that these are undiscovered streams and rivers; almost certainly people living near them knew of their existence, and had them charted and all that. But we’re just beginning to understand the way river systems work, and the enormity of their feeder systems, and their interplay with the land. It’s a buffet for limnologists.

Unfortunately, as the paper, which wasn’t just a river counter, showed, we’re also beginning to understand how moving water takes human pollution and mixes biochemically with the air to throw more carbon dioxide in the sky.  So 44% more moving water sort of means more chance for bad biochemistry.

The ramifications of global warming are already playing out, everywhere. And while there may be more water than we thought, there isn’t actually more water. Freshwater is running out in some of the world’s hottest places, which are going to get a lot hotter.

Here’s a few.

  • Lima, Peru. It’s a city of 10 million people. It gets .3 inches of rain a year. It’s already beset by poverty and vast inequality. As this report from Circle of Blue demonstrates, these factors are colliding, with poor on the dry end of the stick, and an explosion seems on the near horizon.
  • India. 90 cities are “water-stressed”, as India faces what officials are calling its worst-ever water crisis. It’s already beginning to turn ugly, as it will, with officials being attacked and people being killed in the streets in water brawls. An Indian think tank estimates that 600 million people have extreme to high water stress, and that by 2030 (which is in only 12 years), 40% of the population won’t have access to clean water. Can Indian democracy and any hint of ethnic/religious peace survive such strains?
  • Iran. Iran is already roiling with discontent, and has been for a very long time. The generation that overthrew the Shah is gone or calcified, and generations are frustrated. And now water is becoming a huge issues, and protests have broken out and been broken up by security forces. When the state can’t provide clean drinking water, and beats people up for demanding this basic right, it becomes more difficult to claim a divine right to rule. It’s a bad look!

We’ve talked an enormous amount about Iranian regional influence here, and how it is in line with the historic record, and is essentially inevitable and needs to be managed, It’s a hope that a responsible government establishes itself, instead of this one. But all my geopolitical maunderings can be made irrelevant by a lack of water.

Because the thing is, while space might be really big, none of us are going to see very much of it. It matters philosophically, and I would argue morally, that we’re just a tiny part of a vast and inexplicable and profoundly unconcerned universe, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

And it doesn’t matter if we found out that there is actually a lot more clean water than was thought if it isn’t anywhere near you and your family and you have no access to it. Scientists didn’t suddenly discover a vast underground river beneath the baking Indian plains, some new Alph, as potable as it is sacred, that will solve everything. This story is probably, at most, the merest curiosity to people who desperately need clean water. It’s measureless to man.

All politics is local, and at the end of the day, all politics can be crushed under the basic needs of humanity. As our planet gets both higher salty seas and drier everywhere else, we’ll have to figure out ways to increase water supplies for everyone. It’s a really long road, and it will mean actual global solutions.

These seem impossible in an age of strongmen xenophobically slamming doors, sneering at science, not looking for ways to shelter the miserable or slake the thirsty. As small as the individual is, these times are even smaller. But we can’t afford that. We have to make ourselves bigger, and fill up this terrible moment.  We have to take that step. We have to find that river.

Abolish ICE: The First Real Protest of the New Era

One of the primary projects of this blog has been to analyze America as a normal country beholden to the normal rules of history and demographics, and not an exception to everything (while still of course understood as filtered through a specific context, as you must for everywhere). Part of this has been the now-fairly-common trope of understanding America from the outside, in a “how would they cover it?” sense.

And so…

Hundreds of Thousands Mobilize Across the Country To Oppose Ethnic-Nationalist Quasi-Military Force Loyal To President

Yes, the ostensible point of Saturday’s #KeepFamiliesTogether march was to protest the family separation policy and its cruel aftermath (which includes charging migrant families thousands of dollars to get their children back). But more broadly, it was about Trump’s immigration policies in general, and, with a roiling undercurrent, a call to abolish ICE.

What started as a fringe movement has now gained steam, with major politicians like Kristin Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren joining upstarts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in saying that ICE should be abolished. The right and Thoughtful Centrists are calling it political suicide, but there is a very strong case to be made.

  1. ICE is 15 years old. I have shirts older than them. America got along fine without them.
  2. ICE doesn’t actually protect the border. While I have huge issues with CBP, and feel it needs drastic reform, eliminating ICE doesn’t leave our borders unprotected or whatever.
  3. ICE is a cruel agency which is essentially a haven for people who couldn’t be police officers or who chafed at the idea that the police should serve and protect. That’s why real police officers don’t like them: they make the jobs of those who are actually trying to protect the community much more difficult and dangerous.
  4. ICE right now isn’t going against MS-13, our President’s idiotic fantasies notwithstanding. They’re going into restaurants and busting up busboys or waiting outside of schools to arrest mothers who have been in the community for decades.


And so this is kind of the point. Trump (and many of his supporters) love ICE precisely because they are Trump’s spear point of ethno-nationalism. They are an increasingly unencumbered police force in an ever-expanding Constitution-free zone who seem to answer (and be entirely aligned with) the white nationalist political goals of Trump and his movement.

Trump’s calls to end due process and for instant deportation aren’t in a vacuum, or entirely because he doesn’t understand/doesn’t care how the law works (although there is that, too). They are genuine, and genuinely scary, because if ICE can deport anyone who can’t prove their citizenship, who couldn’t they deport. Could you prove yours?

This seems like a lurid fantasy, sure, but what impossible things have happened in the last year? We’re now a nation that gleefully deports people who have been here for decades, and that rips apart families even when they apply for asylum at legitimate entry ports. A lot of Trump’s Tweeted ramblings have eventually morphed into policy.

That’s why I think these protests were different. They weren’t just about a specific policy, even if that was the stated point. They were against ICE, and against Trump’s abuse of state power, and against the idea of an unchecked force working in tandem with a single political figure.

These weren’t against law and order. They were for law and order, and against creeping authoritarianism. More than any other marches, that hot Saturday was the first one that was pushing back against the changing American state in a very real way, in a way we’ve seen in Russia and Hungary and Turkey.

Those marches were crushed, eventually. These weren’t. Maybe that’s because America is actually different, or maybe this is the deep breath before the crackdown. It was hot on Saturday, but I think it is going to get much hotter. And we’re all going to have to decide if we are out on the streets or in our homes.