Are We the Poisoned Darts?

Vox recently had a good analysis of an increasingly pertinent question: is the chaos emanating from Washington part of a diabolical plan to generate social unrest that can then be used to justify the imposition of martial law or its equivalent, or is it evidence (as if we needed any) of the incompetence and ignorance of the embarrassing buffoon sitting in the Oval Office?

That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.

The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.

The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

As Pepinsky points out, all we have to go on is “observable” action. For example, perhaps Trump put Steve Bannon on the NSC to consolidate power, part of his intent to sideline the establishment figures who actually know something about American foreign policy. On the other hand, perhaps he brought Bannon into the NSC because he doesn’t understand the discussions occurring in that venue (or perhaps everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging their feet and otherwise trying to keep him from doing something that will trigger a diplomatic crisis or a war), and he brought in Bannon because he felt the need for a loyal “interpreter” he could trust.

The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

The author of the article, Dave Roberts, prefers the latter explanation; as he notes,

[N]arcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.

In any event, Roberts says that the consequences of Trump’s behavior will be determined not by his intent, but by the strength of the institutions that have shaped our ability to resist.

If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.

Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)

The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained….

What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.

I like this analogy, muddled or not.

Trump is a raging bull. (As Jon Stewart memorably told Stephen Colbert a few nights ago on the Late Show, the “official language” of Trump’s America is bullshit.)

We the People must be the poisoned darts.


  1. I am VERY concerned that professionals in our intelligence community and in NATO reportedly fear that sharing intelligence with the White House, National Security Council members, and perhaps the Secretary of State and others as well because the intelligence professionals feel the information will go directly to Russia. Those fears now appear vey justified given the news that the FBI and Justice Dept. alerted the White House to General Flynn’s conversations to Russians BEFORE Flynn was put in charge of intelligence. Flynn was given that super-sensitive position regardless.

    I generally hold a jaundiced view of governmental leaks to the media – especially on intelligence matters – but it’s become apparent that the President and his staff leave no alternative. The leakers are our patriotic ‘darts’ right now. Congress – where are you?

  2. Not for a New York minute do I believe that Trump and Pence did not know before the fact that Flynn would bring up the sanctions with the Russians in his phone calls to them.
    Watching the maneuvering this morning on the various news shows is a real lesson in what not to do when you get caught. MSNBC is desperately trying to paint Pence as the innocent one in this mess. CNN is hot after Kelly Ann. The New York Times and Washington Post have yet to editorialize. Meanwhile, Trump, who has no problem with holding National Security Meetings in public, is conspicuously silent.
    IMO today the darts will fly.

  3. Unfortunately, the poisoned darts will have to wait until the next election. As long as Trump does not do something even Ryan and McConnell cannot stand, they will let him do anything as long as they can cut as much of the Social Contract as possible. They are the guys who are dangerous to the nation.

  4. The unifying principle of the Trump administration is pathological lying – top to bottom. I believe that Trump knew that Flynn was going to talk to Russia and may have told him to reassure the Russians that things will be different now that he is in charge. I understand Flynn resigned today, falling on his sword for his king.

  5. Was/has been/IS/WILL BE Flynn the linchpin firmly securing the Trump/Putin/Russia connection – with Bannon’s full support and assistance? It is now being reported in some areas that Pence is the person bringing about the culmination of Flynn’s once stable position in Trump’s administration. But; is this merely a distraction from Trump’s undeniable enthrallment with Putin and Russia with oil and money at the core? There has all along been murmering and speculation that the GOP really wants Pence as president and are giving Trump enough rope to hang himself and his highly questionable and dangerous appointees.

    “Are We The Poisoned Darts?” I don’t see that as an insult as a viable weapon against the current administration; we have helped bring about the halting of TWO major targets in only one week of Trump’s three week reign. Kudos for us.

    “What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.”

    Dave Roberts’ astute comments, especially his reference to “civil society” are a call-to-arms. We must strengthen the current momentum evidenced in on-going protest rallies and marches which I believe will strengthen the resolve of the courts and military, knowing we are behind them and warn Congress that we will continue to fight them at every turn.

    I suggest we take as our battle cry, Mr. Khan’s question to Trump during his speech at the National Democratic Convention; and put it to the entire administration. “HAVE YOU NO DECENCY?”

    We might also use his heartfelt offer to loan his copy of the Constitution of the United States of America, and provide as required reading, to the entire administration and all staff members.

  6. Theresa Bowers; YOU ROCK! You also must get up earlier than I do to have covered so many news sources by 6:58 a.m. Keep on keepin’ on, girlfriend!

  7. JoAnn; Yes, I get up very early, but it is not some disciplined routine. It’s the dog and the cat both of which like an early breakfast and have no trouble jumping up on the bed and attacking me until I get up… usually around 5 AM! Once awake I can’t get back to sleep.

  8. Getting rid of Flynn makes it too easy for them. Keep saying it: what did Trump and Pence know and when did they know it?

  9. Can the progressives maintain their resolve for twenty-one months? That’s how long we have until the elections of 2018. That will be the first real opportunity to end this national nightmare. Right now, everyone is riled up and ready to fight. What we need is cold calculation, focus, and determination. We need to turn the energy and the angst into a long term plan. That’s what the Kochs did for the right wing.

  10. The focus of rallies and marches are the national issues due to Trump and his cronies actions and lack of action, repeals and enacting new rules and laws while ignoring those set in place legally and Constitutionally. Did anyone here in Indianapolis know beforehand that there was a rally in Indianapolis on Saturday to support Planned Parenthood or that Mayor Hogsett was to lead the rally to “welcome all to Indianapolis”? Did anyone see a report after the pitiful turnout of approximately 200 for Planned Parenthood? There was a brief news item regarding Mayor Hogsett’s welcome AFTER the fact. Why are these vital rallies not reported; is there a deliberate cover up to prevent the massive turnouts we have seen at national rallies and marches and large turnouts at the local level? The local rallies and marches are just as important as those on the national level.

    Bernie announced on Sunday that on February 25th there are rallies and marches planned in major cities across the country to protest repealing the ACA. Has anyone seen any other reports? We will lose the momentum which has brought about some amazing results in only three weeks to counter Trump and his administration. We need to know prior to these actions that they are planned and need to be assured of strong press coverage to be reported.

    Who and how? What good are “poisoned darts” laying on the shelf?

  11. There is no way for “the people” to sustain focus like the Kochs. We would have to make enormous sacrifice to spend a day every weak marching and protesting, risking arrest, the loss of our jobs, etc., while they can just throw money at professionals and point them in the right direction. And no, I was not aware of the PP march, and how would I have been?

    The poisoned darts will be a) those in positions of power who have something to lose with the chaos being introduced, and b) those in positions of power who will oppose on conscience. All you can do is hope that we managed to place some good people in a structure that is stronger than the bull.

  12. OMG, your point is very valid. One thing we all CAN do is stop this charade of pretending religion is not a corrosive force to democracy. We need to speak out publicly to those who will listen until we as a country can accept the truth: religion, to those who are extremely devout/fundamentalist/orthodox/whatever, is a replacement for the authoritarian structure they lack in their lives. These people crave guidance from above and rules to live by. There is a reason evangelicals have chosen to support a man who is so decidedly not Christ-like. They seek not Christ, but a Lord.

    Fundamentalist Abrahamic religion, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, IS a grave threat to our Republic. The attack on public education is all about replacing it with mindless gullibility and respect for authority. We MUST defeat fundamentalist religion or our grandchildren will be serfs in a new Dark Age.

  13. Over It; I learned of the Saturday Planned Parenthood rally on Sunday at a family dinner. She said she will “tag” me about any rallies or marches here she knows of. With Sheila’s permission, I will post the information on the blog and on Women 4 Change.

    There is so much crap on Facebook; it would be easy to miss postings on that social media site. Of course; there is the question of how rally and march organizers get the word out themselves and do they notify local organizations. We are in an entirely new realm of political participation, especially ANTI- political participation, so maybe we need to rely on one another to play Paul Revere to spread the word.

  14. Still none of the “poisoned darts” weighing in on the bigotry and violence that always seems to accompany their peaceful protests against the violent, bigoted administration…
    A conspicuous silence. I read most of Sheila’s stuff when it crosses my feed, but I don’t recall seeing anything about that.

  15. I have a question for the group: Why are the lobbyists or Kochs running campaign-type commercials for Gorsuch? My thought is that he is another cog in the monied interests’ control and should be defeated. In spite of his qualifications.

  16. Sally Gates warned Drumpf that Pence was talking policy with the Amdassador 3 weeks ago. You saw what happened to her.

    Steve Miller said Drumpf’s power will not be questioned. Sounds like the first stages of a dictatorship.

  17. Krunk: the only bigotry and violence I have read about where the black-masked group at the anti-Trump march the night of his inauguration and the black-masked group days later at Berkley rally and march. Is the entire nation covering up bigotry and violence or have these been non-bigoted and non-violent rallies and marches. We are again fighting for our civil rights; obviously Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, non-violence is still the way to regain our rights and freedom. IF there was bigotry and violence involved it would be large headlines in all media and Trump would be using it to send in federal troops.

  18. We can’t overthink Trump because he never overthinks anything. He is a narcissist, to be sure, and he craves attention and adulation. The entire quandary about Trump and the things he does is as simple as that. His agenda is “look at me, see how great I am, I’ve got a good looking piece of ass [his wording, not mine]”, and so on. He is approached by people who are smarter, like Steve Bannon, who understand his narcissism and lack of sophistication for the job of President. They use him to further their agendas, by flattering him and telling him how successful he’ll look if he appoints someone like Flynn, for instance, so he jumps. When the doo doo hits the fan, he digs in, snipes, calls the media dishonest. You know, you’ve seen it. As you pointed out, narcissists aren’t capable of stepping outside themselves to see the big picture or to act with altruistic or patriotic motives, so he can never, ever admit to being wrong, even to himself. His psyche would be crushed if he ever had even the slightest inkling that he has been used. Even his surrogates are prohibited from admitting that he messed up. The basis for everything he does is him, looking good, receiving praise, positive kudos, on and on. The manure storm is just starting, and it’s going to get a lot worse. As I’ve said before, Trump may be the reset button for democracy and real journalism.

    Some positive notes: journalists are actually stepping up, stopping the lying spokeswitch right in her tracks when she tries to pivot, pressing her and demanding answers. Even in today’s IndyStar, Varvel actually did a negative Trump cartoon. This is shocking! People are discussing politics and getting involved as never before. This is all good.

  19. We had a coup in the USA a long time ago. Marine Corps General Smedley Butler warned of the attachment of Corporate America to the US Government and Military back in the 1930’s. IKE warned of the power of the Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address.

    Since then America has been a perpetual state of War – Cold War – Vietnam War – War on Terror under it’s many disguises, also include the numerous coups instigated world wide by the USA. What would have been unheard of and unbelievable back in JFK’s time has become routine and even mundane. Air strikes, drone strikes, invasions and raids by boots on the ground are so common now they rarely draw a raised eyebrow.

    I suspect the Trumpet is disappointed he is finding out he cannot rule by decree. Years ago during the age of the Soviet Union you could tell by watching the assemblage of people on the Kremlin Wall during a parade in Red Square who had favor, who was in or out. Personal Loyalty to the Trumpet is a high value trait as it is to any Authoritarian. Personal Loyalty is valued more highly by the Authoritarian than competence.

    In the Trumpet’s case rule by chaos, is the Method of Operation so it it is difficult to tell who is in, who is descending or who is ascending. For sure Mike Pence is acting as the Trumpet’s political and cultural flak jacket.

    Bill Moyers mentions David Petreaus maybe in line to take Flynn’s place – he also compromised. In 2015 he was convicted of sharing classified information and sentenced to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

    Marv – I guess you could make a case that Flynn’s stupidity ranks just below Hess’s flight to England. Flynn’s flight in this case was not on an airplane but out in cyber space on a phone.

  20. daleb @ 10:45 am, concerning the ads for Gorsuch. I have heard Democratic Senators like Donnelly are being targeted. A not so friendly reminder that to oppose the Trumpet’s agenda could have consequences when he is up for election in 2018. Donnelly may not have the luck to run against another Mourdock type again.

  21. I feel sorry for all you liberals on this thread… I really do. There is so much hate, name calling and hysteria here that it must just emanate from your soul. You are poison darts for sure, but the only target you keep hitting is yourself.
    You don’t understand one true thing about Trump or his supporters. You get it wrong EVERY single day. But then your news sources deliver the elixir for your poison. Conservatives are pretty bliss these days because however delusional you’ve become, you’ve got no effective strategy. Happy Valentines Day.. try to find something to love today, rather than loving the hate you spew.

  22. so much of the comments are suggesting the problem is that the WRONG person has excessive power and once we return the imperial power to “rightful” owners (such as the beloved Clinton Dynasty) the Fatherland will be saved. The fact is that our current scenario would be the same if Hillary had won, and the intelligence leaks had come from her illegal and unsecured server that is read by everybody in the world. (Although, to be fair, between Snowden and Manning? and Wikileaks there is little that Flynn could leak that hasn’t been leaked over the last 8 years). The better solution is to recognize the growth of the Imperial Presidency and work to reduce ALL the elements (i.e. executive orders) that contribute to it.

  23. I have posted this link a couple of times to find a local group you can join and be actively involved in the Resistance!
    Type in your zip code or search for “find a local group”

    From facebook search for “Indivisible” or “Berniecrats”

    These facebook groups are keeping a running schedule of events and if you join the local groups, you should have more awareness of what’s going on.

    Good luck.

  24. Right, Aimee! That line worked on a previous President, thank goodness, and he resigned in disgrace.

    Daily Kos had a splendid yet totally unworkable idea today: Keep the immigrants and deport Trump! Good for a chuckle, like the comments of our recent Gopperette. Honey, you have opened the wrong door here! The other wingnuts are several doors down the hall!

  25. There is no doubt among people that I know that there is a significant portion of Trump voters suffering from buyers remorse. Hard without rigorous research to pinpoint the percentage.

    Given that, it would be useful to have data on those who voted for him who are not yet in that category. What are they thinking?

    Some I’m sure wanted to stick it to the country and no amount of malfeasance will change them. Many others will look no further than (R) and support anything done by (R)s by blaming any consequences on (D)s.

    But are there sentient beings who honestly believe that this is competent government? I suppose that there must be.

    It would be fascinating to find such a person and delve deeper to figure out what’s behind that thinking.

  26. I neglected to mention that Marv, Sheila, and others on this list know exactly what is going on at the White House. They’ve either been there or their families and friends’ families lived this nightmare 70+ years ago. Call it “smoke and mirrors” or “distractions” or whatever one chooses to call it, the bumbling and stumbling is just what it looks like…bumbling and stumbling; however, under the smoke and broken mirrors, it’s leading right where we imagine it is leading.

    “What did the President [and Vice President] know and when did they know it?” We’re hearing and seeing that question all over again. Three weeks in and it’s very dark out there!

  27. The pattern for DT is Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. Not exactly the big reveal. Search engines are coming right out and saying it now, calling it what it is. Marv told us months ago that it would end up here, and that we had better wake up. We had better wake up!

  28. Betty,

    “I neglected to mention that Marv, Sheila, and others on this list know exactly what is going on at the White House. They’ve either been there or their families and friends’ families lived this nightmare 70+ years ago.”

    You’re absolutely right. It’s all about learning to swim in the abyss. My father taught me how to do that over 75 years ago. The ocean is a geat teacher. You learn that there are many sharks swimming in close proximity to you.

    On the one side, my father was a heroic Lifeguard. On the other side, he was a dangerous, diagnosed schizophrenic.

    Donald Trump seems to have many of the same negative symptoms….one of which is an INSIDIOUS lust for power, like many dictators have had in the past. My father was a very powerful member of the DEVIANT ELITE. Fortunately, for me, I spent my most important years growing up living with my maternal grandparents. Unfortunately, that wasn’t so for my two sisters.

    in-sid-i-ous (in sid’e es) adj. [<L insidiae, an ambush] 1. characterized by treachery or slyness 2. more dangerous than seems evident

  29. It’s not just what did Trump know and when did he know it; it’s also did Trump talk to Putin (perhaps regularly) during the course of the campaign in the recent election. Flynngate may just be the tip of the iceberg while we on our political Titanic are having cocktails unmindful that most of the berg cannot be seen but far more deadly than the tip we can see. We need an investigation of Trump’s contacts over the past year or so by an independent investigator armed with subpoena power rather than the FBI since Comey may be a co-conspirator in the result of our recent election. Conspiracy theory? Hardly, since Trump is, politically speaking, in bed with Putin and especially when compared with Hillary’s pizza parlor sex games and emails – both of which were figments of right wing imagination. Like the iceberg, there is more here than meets the eye, but let’s go to the source because if my conspiracy theory proves true, Trump will have a lot more than mere impeachment to fear.

  30. One commenter wondered if the saner element of the Republican Party is suffering buyer’s remorse now. Yes, I imagine they are and it’s late…too late. Those voters don’t know where to turn or how to back out of the mess they made. How to save face? Big problem. Hardliner MAGA ball cap guys are holding on desperately “‘cuz he said he’s gonna make Amurica great again and by God he will!” For the balding beer guts under those caps, it ain’t happ’nin’, Fellas! You were swindled by the big wheeler-dealer and we’re all paying dearly for it.

  31. Marv – This is not the time to be permanently out, but rather a reason to be permanently in. You and JoAnn have much more to bind you in the battle for what is left of our democracy than you have in tactics to achieve such a noble goal. Friends can disagree on tactics or who does what best in achieving such goals, but I think, anger aside, that such parties had ought to consider the larger goal of saving and even expanding the democratic institutions that define our history from the ruffians at the gate. Let’s not help the “ruffians” who lust for power. Let’s argue on means but not on ends. Stick around and continue to elucidate us via your usual robust use of your First Amendment rights. I don’t always agree with you or other commentators to Sheila’s blog, either, but I value your contributions – and theirs. Let’s continue this discussion, not end it.

  32. Gerald,

    We are not on the same team. You’re more the 99%, I’m the 1% in this situation. It’s the right time for me to part. This is Sheila’s team. I need my own team. Most of my friends feel that way.

    We need more than one team to neutralise Trump/Pence.

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