Barack Obama comes for Trump.

Plus, is Tangle leaning left?
Isaac Saul Aug 20, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Barack Obama’s precedent-breaking speech, a question about Tangle’s “left lean” recently and some really important numbers.

NBC News screenshot of Obama’s speech last night.

Mugs.

Okay: The people have spoken. I had no idea how popular mugs were, but demand is high. There will be Tangle mugs. In the next few weeks, I am launching a new website, moving off of Substack to a new newsletter hosting platform, and hope to get a merchandise store off the ground. Those exciting developments are right around the corner, so all I ask is for a little bit of patience!


Reader feedback.

Dan from Winnipeg, Canada wrote in about this line from yesterday’s newsletter: "Madison seems right in that no political government can exist without parties — or if they can, none have yet." Dan told me that Nunavut, a territory in Canada, operates on a consensus decision-making model and has no political parties — then linked me to Nunavut’s Wikipedia page. Kudos to Dan — and leave it to Canadians to figure this out.

Margaret from Tennessee, responding to yesterday’s reader feedback, wrote in to point out that not every state will accept your ballot if you try to drop it off before the election. This was a good point and something that should have been clearer. If you’re looking for a guide on how to vote this year, check out this Wall Street Journal breakdown of voting by mail — they just unlocked it so people can read it without subscribing.


Quick hits.

  1. Steve Bannon, the former top Trump campaign aide, has been arrested on charges of fraud. Bannon was charged for an alleged scheme behind a “Build the Wall” campaign, and an online fundraising effort that took in $25 million and claimed to be helping construct President Trump’s promised border wall. Bannon and three other defendants “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” Audrey Strauss, the acting United States attorney in Manhattan, said. Bannon was arrested early Thursday in Connecticut.
  2. Alexey Navalny, an opposition leader in Russia who has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, has fallen ill from a suspected poisoning, his spokesperson said. Navalny is unconscious and on a ventilator in a Siberian hospital. Navalny drank some black tea at an airport on his way to Moscow. "We assume that Alexey was poisoned with something mixed into the tea. It was the only thing that he drank in the morning. Doctors say the toxin was absorbed faster through the hot liquid," his spokesperson tweeted. Navalny is one of at least three outspoken Kremlin critics who allege they’ve been poisoned in the last few years.
  3. At least 217 people have been charged with a federal crime and more than 1,000 arrests have been made under the Justice Department’s “Operation Legend.” Attorney General William Barr launched the operation in major metropolitan areas in an attempt to fight violent crime, the department said. Nearly 400 firearms have been seized. The operation was named after LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old who was shot and killed in Kansas City, Missouri, while he was sleeping, in late June.
  4. A 19-year-old Kansas Democrat named Aaron Coleman won his primary election yesterday, despite admitting he harassed girls online with revenge porn. Coleman, who says the alleged events happened when he was in middle school, has been under unusual scrutiny for a little-watched local race, but his candidacy has nonetheless alarmed Democrats who think he will hurt other politicians in the general election. Coleman won his primary race for a small seat in the Kansas House of Representatives by 14 votes, taking down a seven-term incumbent. Democrats have been making inroads in Kansas and have hope to break the Republican supermajority this November.
  5. Former Department of Homeland Security official Miles Taylor said President Trump “wanted to see if we could sell Puerto Rico, could swap Puerto Rico for Greenland, because, in his words, ‘Puerto Rico was dirty and people were poor.’” Taylor served as chief of staff for the DHS during the president’s first two years in office and has become an outspoken critic of Trump, who he worked alongside, in the leadup to the election. In a separate interview, Taylor told Politico it “often felt like his office had to fight against the president to secure U.S. elections from foreign meddling,” the website reported.

What D.C. is talking about.

Barack Obama. Last night, the former president delivered a scathing 18-minute speech about the 2020 election. In it, he named Donald Trump directly, criticizing him for his coronavirus response, for millions of jobs being lost, and for “our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

It was a remarkable speech — one that has little precedent in American history. “This isn't just the sharpest criticism Obama has made of Trump,” Politico’s Tim Alberta noted. “This is the sharpest criticism a former president has *ever made* of a sitting president.”

Obama’s speech was expected to be the keynote event of the third night of the DNC convention, but he reportedly told Kamala Harris she should go last, and Harris accepted. He spoke in a lineup that included vice presidential candidate Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, among others. And yet it was the former president’s speech that drove much of the conversation through the night.

The keynote address was on the front page of nearly every major newspaper, along with headlines about Kamala Harris making history as the first Black woman to accept a vice-presidential nomination for a major political party.


What the left is saying.

“Finally!” For four years, Obama has seemed constrained to many on the left who have worried about the threat a Trump presidency poses. He’s been picky about the moments he speaks out and he has seldom addressed Donald Trump by name, even when it’s obvious who he is talking about or criticizing. Last night, “those constraints fell away,” EJ Dionne Jr. wrote in The Washington Post. Obama’s speech, paired with other addresses, “reflected the astonishing discipline that the two-hour-long online convention has imposed on a party that has often turned its guns toward internal rivals.”

“Over and over, the party has stressed three themes: the catastrophe that Trump’s reelection would bring in its wake; the empathy and competence that Biden would bring to the White House; and the Democratic Party’s devotion to diversity, inclusion and social justice — a nation, as Harris put it, committed to ‘the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect,’” Dionne Jr. wrote.

Michelle Goldberg noted in The New York Times that Obama looked and felt almost as sick as the rest of the left — something that seemed to unsettle her.

“Barack Obama is known for his Spock-like steadiness, so it was bracing to see that he is, like so many of us, afraid and heartsick for our democracy — he seemed to have tears in his eyes,” she said. “He spoke directly to the cynicism and hopelessness that Donald Trump’s presidency has engendered, reminding us of the Black civil rights activists who were failed by America but still insisted on realizing its ideals.”

Jeet Heer was less convinced of the effectiveness, though. He knocked Obama for the “civic high-mindedness” of the speech in The Nation, pointing out this quote from the former president: “Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry.”

Heer responded: “But is it really true that democracy isn’t transactional? Don’t most people vote for politicians because they expect their lives to be materially improved in some way—not to have all their problems solved, certainly, but at least to have major issues addressed?”

In fact, Trump has succeeded precisely by being transactional: promising evangelical voters conservative judges and more restrictive LGBTQ policies, giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy, and promising immigration restrictionists draconian policies and border walls. “If Joe Biden is to succeed, he might have to put aside the high-minded rhetoric of his former running mate and concentrate on bread-and-butter transactional politics,” Heer wrote.


What the right is saying.

They were critical. Dan McLaughlin acknowledged Obama’s prowess as an orator, admitting that “nobody has ever questioned the man’s talent at delivering a speech” and claiming that Harris may regret positioning herself as a follow-up.

“Conservatives will (as I did) gag at a lot of Obama’s platitudes about the Constitution and being a president for all the people (the latter a pretense he ditched later in the speech to start ranting about what THEY want and how THEY are standing in your way), as well as his long standing tic of referring only to religion as “worship” (as president and in his 2012 campaign, he was not so big on letting people practice their faith) and lauding Biden as the last man in the room when he made big decisions (skimming over the time Biden opposed the raid that got Osama bin Laden), but none of that is likely to stick in the craw of any persuadable voter tonight,” McLaughlin wrote.

But he did write that Obama was effective in hitting Trump for “not taking the job seriously,” a complaint that is even shared by some Trump voters.

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin said Obama “gave it a good try” Wednesday night, hoping to emulate the magic of his years in office by firing up Democrats to vote for Joe Biden. He even praised Obama for a rebuke of cancel culture, “saying how earlier generations overcame greater hardships than young people face today.”

“In one sense, you can’t blame Obama for not being able to pull off a miracle,” Goodwin wrote. “Despite their public demonstration of being best buds after eight years in the White House, they have a complicated relationship… recall that Obama didn’t encourage Biden to run for the presidency either four years ago or this time, and didn’t endorse him until there were no other opponents. Obama clearly doesn’t believe Biden’s cut out for the Oval Office, and there have been recent reports about sniping between their camps, so there is clearly some lingering bad blood.”

In Spectator, Amber Athey criticized the night as a whole, pointing out that there were very few — if any — solutions offered. Obama “blamed Trump and his obsession with personal enrichment for this phenomenon, even as his own administration stood idly by while jobs were shipped overseas to China and he graduated from the Oval Office to the board of Netflix,” Athey said. And while “MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the cable news host for liberal wine moms, moaned in millennial: ‘President Obama’s speech tonight slayed me,’” the former president offered very little in the way of an alternative.

“Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered the only real policy prescription of the evening by advocating for affordable childcare and universal pre-K,” Athey wrote. “She also gave her speech standing in a classroom in front of ‘BLM’ spelled out in alphabet blocks, a perfect example of the party’s performative wokeness.”


My take.

There’s part of me that has an old timey reverence for the unwritten rule that former presidents keep quiet about current ones. It strikes me as a deeply human rule, one that maybe lacks logic, but contains a great deal of heart and respect for tradition. That Obama would cut through this unwritten rule, and do it in the way that he did, speaks far more to what Trump has done to the office of the presidency than to Obama’s lack of respect for tradition or his commitment to decency. It struck me that very few right-wing commentators really criticized Obama for the act of giving his speech — a testament to their understanding of how Trump has moved the goalposts.

And let’s be honest: Trump forced his hand. The president entered politics by suggesting that Obama was not American. He’s called Obama the “founder of ISIS,” suggested Obama “didn’t try” to push police reform (something Republicans stubbornly blocked over and over) and has taken credit for Obama’s push to pass and then sign a Veterans Choice bill. Through so many lies, Obama has stayed quiet.

In recent weeks, though, Trump has crossed even more lines than usual. The president embraced Marjorie Greene, a conspiracy theorist and soon-to-be House candidate who believes Democrats and Obama are actually a cabal of child pedophiles, a woman who has flirted with 9/11 conspiracies, called Jewish Democrat George Soros a “nazi,” said she would feel “proud” to see a Confederate monument if she were Black because it represents progress, and called the 2018 midterms an “Islamic invasion of our government.” She’s now backtracked on some of her comments, claiming she was just looking for truth in a complicated world, but she’s clearly undeserving of and unqualified for a role in governance.

This week, a woman named Laura Loomer won a GOP primary in Florida. Loomer is a 27-year-old “conservative” activist. I spent an hour on the phone with her last year for a story I wrote about a new social media platform after she was banned from Twitter and Facebook for hate speech. Let me be as clear as I can: she is not well. She is a proud bigot. She gets a thrill out of being hateful. She described herself as an “anti-Islam journalist” to me, and says she is a “proud Islamaphobe” and that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to run for office in America.

She has argued that there should be a “non-Islamic” version of Uber so she can avoid giving money to immigrants. She celebrated when 2,000 migrants died crossing the southern border and tweeted that she hoped more would die, too. She went to Parkland, Florida, after high school students were killed in a mass shooting to spread misinformation and harass local politicians. I am ashamed that she is also Jewish — and that many Americans surely view her hatred for Muslims as a Jewish trait.

This is how Trump responded on Monday when she won her primary, which is in the same Florida district as his Mar-a-Lago estate:

So what is Obama to do? Stay quiet? Abdicate every value he claims he stands for? Sit on the sidelines while his former vice president runs for office?

I spend every day of every week of every month reading and writing about compelling, convincing, thought-provoking arguments from across the political spectrum. I’m immersed in thoughtful commentary from the right, left, and center about the state of American politics, the legislation that could make our country better and the needs of the American people. And I think Obama’s speech last night effectively addressed many of the things that concern me most.

He hammered Trump for “not taking the job seriously” and he was right to — Trump hasn’t taken it seriously. He’s continually used his time in office to troll his opponents and has defined “good” and “bad” based on who is nice to him and who isn’t. He watches an ungodly amount of television, mostly Fox News, and spends a good part of his days live-tweeting commentary about what’s happening on TV or what people are saying about him — sometimes 50 or 60 to as many as 100 times in 24 hours. On the weekends, he typically plays golf, a habit for which he hammered President Obama but is now far outpacing him in, having played 287 rounds since taking office.

He’s hired loyalists instead of qualified people to head huge and critical agencies. He’s lied, over and over, to the American public, especially about the virus. And in the last few weeks, with his falling approval ratings and a pandemic hammering the country, he’s used his power to push a payroll tax cut nobody wants or asked for, deployed federal troops to U.S. cities where they weren’t wanted, suggested the first Black woman to be a Vice Presidential candidate wasn’t eligible to run for president, and openly embraced the wackiest fringes of the Republican party.

There’s plenty to be said about the Biden versus Trump administrations and the upsides and downsides of what their presidencies might bring. I plan to continue to address them in the coming weeks before the November election. But there’s no question that Trump has permanently changed what’s acceptable presidential behavior and what’s not — and Obama’s decision to rail against President Trump is perfectly reasonable when you look at what Trump has done. In fact, I’d even suggest it’s necessary.

Some hypocrisies of the speech aside, Obama made his point and did it effectively. He argued Trump has shown “no interest in finding common ground” and “hasn't grown into the job because he can't.” He noted that Trump views “political opponents” as “‘un-American’ just because they disagree” with him. He pointed out that our economy keeps getting “skewed to the wealthy and well-connected” and our politics have become full of “meanness” and “lies” and “crazy conspiracy theories.”

What’s the case against these arguments? I’d say it’s slim. How can you deny the reality he’s pointing to? I’m happy to hear a counterpoint, but Trump’s recent actions certainly aren’t making any good arguments on their own.


Your questions, answered.

Remember: asking a question is easy. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. Give it a try!

Q: I’m a big fan of Tangle. I really like the way it’s structured and I appreciate the level-headedness of your views. But I have to say that I find the newsletter seems to “lean left” on a lot of stuff. I’ve only been reading for a few weeks but I figured it was worth calling out, since I know you strive to be non-partisan. I’m wondering if you think this is a product of my own political views or its because you are really someone who is a lefty politically?

— Eric, Mesa, Arizona

Tangle: You’re actually not the only person to write in with a similar note in the last few weeks, so I’ve decided to address this head-on. I’ve written before about my political views, my political evolution, and how Tangle came to be. You can read a longer answer about it, if you like, under the “Am I a hack?” section in this confessional edition of Tangle from May (it was subscribers only, but I’ve unlocked it).

First, I’ll just say it's absolutely true I have “left” or “liberal” or “progressive” bias in some areas of American politics. I have never voted for a Republican for president, for example (though I must say I think this is more about some very weak Republican candidates than some very strong Democratic candidates). I am quite progressive on police reform (however, this is an issue I was interested in when Libertarians — who tend to be more conservative — owned it). I am pretty “liberal” on immigration. I am left-of-center on health care (sort of an Obama-type Democrat).

I’m not sure these views make me “liberal” so much as they make me moderate and centrist, though. I share majority views on those issues: I believe police need more accountability, I believe DACA recipients should have a pathway to citizenship and I generally approve of the Affordable Care Act. Though these are issues Democrats tend to prioritize and champion, they’re also positions many Republicans and conservatives agree with.

That being said, it’s also true that the last few weeks have been dominated by conversations around police reform, DACA and some of the Republicans who are winning primary races across the country right now. All of that has led to me taking (and writing) some positions that I think are generally more supported by the left than the right. Today’s “My take” is a good example, too: I’m quite critical of the president. But I’m not playing politics, I just honestly believe he earned that criticism. What’s interesting about Tangle is that I am often accused of being too conservative or too liberal, almost exclusively based on when people sign up for the newsletter.

When the dominant talk was about Trump’s impeachment or the Russia investigation, I wrote critically about both and was hammered by liberal readers for it. Since the dominant talk has been about police reform and Trump’s embrace of fringe Republicans, I’ve been writing critically about the right and have gotten hammered by conservative readers for it. My feeling has long been that if I’m ticking folks off on both sides I must be doing something right. This is the beauty of Tangle!

Though “My take” is often the longest section of the newsletter, and many readers have expressed to me it’s the part they enjoy reading the most, my personal opinion is not the point of Tangle. Of course, I’d love to compel my readers to certain positions: I hope my writing can inspire politics that has empathy, reforms to our criminal justice system and a more measured and kind view of Americans you disagree with. Really, though, I hope Tangle challenges readers’ priors, inspires skepticism of the most popular and widely shared arguments (which, in my experience, are usually the worst) and forces introspection about all of our biases. I also hope it generally informs people about current events.

That’s the goal. And the reason I describe Tangle as “non-partisan” is not because it is completely dry and absent of opinion. On the contrary, Tangle is largely a collection of opinions, viewpoints and arguments from across the spectrum that I think are worth reading. The only real “straight news” sections are typically the Quick hits, What D.C. is talking about, A story that matters and the Numbers section. Tangle is “non-partisan” because I have no loyalty to Democrats, Republicans, Independents or any other party — and unlike many news outlets out there today I’m not afraid to criticize either side roundly, or share arguments that blow up the political positions politicians and pundits have staked out for themselves.

Tangle is non-partisan because it’s balanced and transparent: offering equal space to competing arguments alongside “My take,” which is transparently mine, and not meant to be taken as gospel. So that’s the point for me. I think the newsletter may feel a “little left” in the last few weeks because I think President Trump and Republicans have been losing the arguments on the issues that have dominated the news for the last few weeks — and, as a result, that has come through in the newsletter.

I’m not sure it’ll stay that way for long but it is what I suspect is happening now. The pendulum is always swinging — and I hope you keep reading!


A story that matters.

The conversation about getting students back to school mostly revolves around students and teachers. But an entire sector of America’s education workforce faces paycheck jeopardy in the coming weeks if schools go remote, and half of them aren’t teachers. They’re the people responsible for counseling, feeding students, transportation, mental health services and custodial positions. This isn’t just an issue for K-12 schools either, it also matters for college campuses. “Some school districts are going to have to get creative to keep staff employed,” Axios reported. The American Federation of Teachers released guidance Wednesday on how to help employees: “Train staff to equip and use buses as hot spots for students in nearby neighborhoods that need internet access. Bus drivers can distribute food and school supplies for families in need. Keep employees for building cleaning and maintenance.”


Numbers.

  • 790. The number of QAnon groups that Facebook removed from its website on Wednesday.
  • 70%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say it’s likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable.
  • 90%. The percentage of Republicans who say it’s likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable.
  • 59%. The percentage of Democrats who say it’s likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable.
  • 55%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say that blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites in situations “dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents.”
  • 79%. The percentage of black adults who say that blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites in situations “dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents.”
  • 48%. The percentage of white adults who say that blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites in situations “dealing with the police, such as traffic incidents.”

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Have a nice day.

The state of Michigan will pay $600 million to residents to resolve claims from the city of Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water crisis. The settlement is a major win for residents, especially in low-income communities, who have been fighting the state over its cost-saving measures that led to the water being contaminated. “Under the terms of the settlement, nearly 80% of the settlement fund will go to residents who were under 18 during a period between April 25, 2014, and July 31, 2016, according to a person familiar with the settlement,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The number of those claims could be between 7,500 and 20,000 people… Tens of thousands of other Flint residents are also expected to be eligible to receive money from the settlement, according to the person familiar with the plan.”

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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