Making sense of the news in the Trump era

The view from where I sit

Ten days in, it is clear that one of the main tasks of responsible citizens during the Trump administration is to distinguish facts from fiction, hysteria from reasoned analysis. This, of course, is always the task of a responsible citizen, but it becomes paramount with an administration happy to baldy lie about the most trivial issues and a media driven to hysteria by every move the administration makes.

As much as I wish Donald Trump were not President and as much as I doubt his competence, I am unwilling to assume that every single action he takes is abhorrent and wrong-headed. I have neither the emotional stamina to live in outrage for four years nor the confidence that continual panic serves the common good. Instead, I must sort through the facts, do my best to discern the truth, and then pick my battles. Which actions and appointees are tolerable, and which ones threaten our democracy?

So, how do you discern this? I cannot say that I have figured it out entirely, but I have determined a few steps. First, on any issue or appointee, I make sure to read both liberal and conservative writers. I take care to read analysis by those whom I have seen historically to be fair-minded. By that, I mean that they give the benefit of the doubt to their ideological opponents and that they are willing to occasionally criticize their own side. David Brooks and Ross Douthat on the conservative side, and Nick Kristof on the progressive side are good examples of this.

Second, I have found it useful to not only read articles in (left-leaning) newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, but also to read articles written by independent conservative thinkers like those at National Review. One of the tasks before us is to distinguish between the times when Trump is acting in a traditionally conservative way and the times when he has gone rogue. This provides helpful context. The easiest way to determine this is to read conservative thinkers who opposed Trump during the election. They represent a baseline of traditional conservatism, and they have proven their independence from party motivations. In this category, I recommend Jonah Goldberg.  Other right-leaning yet independent thinkers worth looking at are Meghan McArdle, Ana Navarro, and Michael Dougherty.

Some of my most progressive friends may say “I don’t care about those distinctions because conservative principles and players are abhorrent no matter what.” To those friends, I would suggest that such wholesale dismissals of conservatism will cause serious problems going forward. In fact, I wonder if it was that very attitude that so thoroughly alienated some in our country that they rose up and voted for Trump in protest. Although I don’t agree with that action, I can sympathize with its motive. Paying respect towards those we disagree with can go a very long way.

The routine painting of men like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney as evil fools by many on the left proved to be a grave strategic error. Those in the media and in entertainment who did that could then not gain a hearing on the particular issues with candidate Trump because they had already used up all their words on more reasonable candidates. They had simply cried wolf too many times. Does George W. Bush not appear different than you originally understood when you stand him next to Donald Trump? I pray that we will all take this lesson to heart. Let us save our hysteria for true horrors. Be measured in your speech so that you have chips left to play when they matter most.

Having taken the above steps, my reading over the past couple of days suggests that Trump’s reordering of his National Security Council may be of even graver concern than his recent executive order on immigration. Don’t get me wrong – he mistreated thousands by blocking admission to our country of those with green cards and valid visas, and he threatened key relationships in the Muslim world by issuing a complete ban on people from seven Muslim countries. And, as David Brooks says,

Other Republicans have gone far out of their way to make sure the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam or on Arabs, but Trump has gone out of his way to ensure the opposite.

The demotion of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence alongside the promotion of Stephen Bannon to his National Security Council, however, is unprecedented and even more gravely concerning. With that make-up of the National Security Council, we may well end up with a series of errors even more costly than the recent executive order. To sideline people with actual expertise on matters of intelligence and military strategy is frightening. To elevate a person as morally questionable as Bannon to such a seat of influence is further terrifying. Friends and concerned citizens, we need to keep an eye on this.

©2017, Laura Goetsch and Thinking about Such Things

4 thoughts on “Making sense of the news in the Trump era

  1. Kristen Johnson

    Appreciated the thoughtful and specific words of wisdom here, as well as your perspective on the National Security Council change. Thanks for this, Laura.


  2. jon carlson


    Congratulations on an even-handed statement on how we should evaluate the various issues that will occur in the next four years and the ways the Trump Administration processes and disposes of these issues. I would add one other point to your well thought out and balanced essay. We also need to make sure that we UNDERSTAND SPECIFICALLY what the Administration is attempting to do and then RESPOND PRECISELY to that issue.

    Unfortunately, your quote from David Brooks, whom I respect and may have even introduced his writings to you, is an example of how NOT to react. The Trump Administration is NOT banning Muslims or Arabs from the U.S. nor arguably discriminating against these groups. The Trump Administration has placed a 90-day pause on open entry into the U.S. by citizens from certain countries that apparently have been diagnosed as containing a significant number of individuals, who could pose a security and safety threat to the U.S. President Trump wants to examine how best to vent people from these countries before indiscriminately allowing them to enter the U.S. If his order was intended to be anti Muslim, why are we not barring citizens from the largest Muslim countries on earth (e.g., Egypt, Indonesia, et al) from entering the U.S.?

    It is also important to understand precisely and accurately the issues that the U.S. Federal Courts have been asked to review. First and foremost is the question of whether the courts even have jurisdiction over issues raised by the Trump immigration pause policy. I believe that they do NOT have the power to litigate POLICY questions of national security, an opinion shared by the drafters of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Congress in 1952 when it passed a law specifically applicable to this issue. There are also secondary legal issues involved here (most notably, whether state attorneys general and immigrant citizens of other countries even have standing in court), but I will leave it to the lawyers and judges involved (NOT editorial writers on both sides of the fence) to decide these questions.

    As for the composition of the National Security Council, my advice is to “stay tuned.” I am old enough to remember that in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s there was no more outspoken anti Communist and friend of Taiwan China than Richard Nixon. Yet interestingly, it was the same Richard Nixon that opened up our relations with Communist China. We never know how circumstances and current strategic needs may end up influencing our national security policy, and history suggests that it is best not to pre-judge what policy makers may do.

    Again, I think your recommendation to read and ponder the arguments of intellectually honest proponents from both sides of an issue is sound and a good reminder for all of us.



    1. Dad, we are going to have to agree to disagree about the current 90 day pause on immigration from seven muslim nations. Given that 1) Trump turned down a number of intelligence briefings during the transition and that 2) he did not consult with any national security agencies or experts while crafting this executive order, I have little confidence that his choice of countries to bar entry from accord with actual dangers presented by individuals in them.


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