A response to “Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears”

Dear Mr. Edsall,

Please forgive me if the salutation is too formal. I was brought up in the South to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” and while I have modernized a bit depending on context, I felt it appropriate in this case to lead with traditional manners.

I’m writing in reference to your op-ed in The New York Timesthe latest in a series of pieces in the past 15 months or so alerting “liberals” to our alleged blind spots and biases.

I should say at the outset that I’ve never understood what a “liberal” is, particularly in U.S. politics in my lifetime. To paraphrase Rebecca West, I only know that people call me a “liberal” when I express sentiments that differentiate the less fortunate from doormats or women from prostitutes. I keep hearing that the Democratic Party is going farther and farther “left,” but surely that’s a function of the old conservative “Dixiecrats” finally abandoning a party label that hadn’t made sense since Reconstruction. Social programs that the “conservatives” readily accept in Europe would be considered “socialist” here.

Your piece is frankly a confusing read. At the outset, it appears that “liberals” fail to understand their own role in creating Trumpist populism. Then it veers into a Karen Stenner’s argument about tolerance and inevitable conflict, which frankly struck me as a bit nihilistic. Next up was Eric Schnurer suggesting the “left” is ravaging the manufacturing industry, which I’d think most relatively objective economists would point out is a by-product of a rapidly changing global economy in which technology has revved up productivity. See the frightening headline “Robots Could Steal 40% of U.S. Jobs by 2030.

The underlying assumption here is that “liberals” clustered in “blue” states lack the capacity or the will to understand Middle America’s concerns. You could probably come up with some evidence of that, sure. I’ve often joked that The Washington Post views everything south and west of the Potomac, even those of us just a few miles away, as a giant experiment in anthropology.

But these “liberals” have made a considerable effort to understand what’s going on, before and especially after last year’s election. Much of that effort has bordered on self-flagellation.

Why? Well, to paraphrase another Southern centrist now labeled “liberal”: “It’s the empathy, stupid.”

It’s also empathy based on a long-term view. You mention “Republican strengths” in your second paragraph, and you include: evisceration of key regulatory policies, economic growth, the Dow Jones, the unemployment rate and the new tax plan.

Unfortunately, “liberals” understand that any gain from all of these things is short-lived. Without those regulatory policies, climate change will continue unabated, eventually plunging coastlines underwater. The tax plan forces graduate students to include their tuition waivers as income, effectively reducing access to postgraduate education that would drive future economic growth as the world automates.

It’s too facile to dismiss these concerns as elitist East Coast-ism. If you’ve spent any time in the blue states and cities, you know that a lot of us are from somewhere else. I’m from the South, born and raised to be suspicious of “Yankees” and social programs. I went to summer camp and learned muscular Christianity, in which we would all grow to be good little Christians by beating each other up in preparation for the real world.

As I’ve grown older and moved northward, I’ve realized a few things. First of all, no matter how hard we work, we can’t predict the future and guarantee our financial success. I went into journalism, an industry that has sharply declined thanks to the Internet siphoning away readership and ad dollars. Others went into manufacturing, where their jobs have been lost to automation.

I’ve also realized that these “Yankees” ain’t such bad people. Living in a cold city fosters a mutually reliant community — in short, a sense that we all have to pull together to face whatever difficulty is in front of us. They’re also not ignorant about the rest of the country, in part because many of us are from the rest of the country. I’m not the only Southerner in Northern Virginia. Everybody here is from somewhere else.

And the most “elite” of these Yankees, you’ll note, are voting against their self-interests. Does a “limousine liberal” benefit from the GOP tax plan? Most definitely. And they’re not the ones who’ll lose access to health care. They’re not the ones whose water will be poisoned.

These elite blue-staters are in pain right now not because of what they will experience. They’re in pain because of what others will face.

And they grasp the problems in the red states with greater acuity and greater empathy than the populists.

The populists, you see, are lying. And the blue-states know that.

The blue-staters know that the promises of manufacturing jobs are hollow. They know that today’s young people are emerging into a “gig economy” that leaves them without employer-sponsored health insurance, which means they’re one bad diagnosis away from bankruptcy. They know the populists’ weeping for the decline of traditional moral values is a bunch of poppycock — for goodness’ sake, the Democrats just tossed Al Franken, and Alabama is about to elect Roy Moore.

So while I appreciate your concern for liberals misunderstanding America, may I humbly suggest that what we need instead is better communication so that we Americans are less susceptible to demagogues? The Democrats, quite frankly, need a lot of help doing that.

You see — the problem isn’t with liberals’ ears. It’s with their mouths.

I wouldn’t be a good Southern gentleman (albeit a modernized one) if I didn’t thank you for your time. Thank you for reading.

Best wishes,

Beau Dure

 

 

 

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Europe vs. America

I spent the first 27 years of my life in the United States, most of it on the East Coast.

I had never been across the Atlantic. I’d never been farther west than Texas.

The East Coast, I’d covered. I knew everything from Florida to Maryland pretty well. I’d been farther north a few times. But aside from that, just one trip to Texas and one to Chicago.

Now I’ve been to England multiple times. Italy for two weeks. Germany for two weeks. Ireland for a week. France for a day. (And in the other direction — China for three weeks, plus several trips to previously unseen parts of the USA and Canada.) And over Thanksgiving, either Spain or Catalonia, depending on how (or if) they vote.

barca

That’s probably not enough to qualify as an expert on Europe as a whole. Of course, there’s some diversity here — Frankfurt and Barcelona are as different as Boston and Atlanta. But it’s enough to have a few observations, and it’s enough to respond to this Irish traveler who’s been in the USA for a year and notes 17 cultural differences.

I’ll start with his list (not all of it):

1. Americans are way too sensitive
2. Everything is “awesome” 

He mentions “political correctness” here, but he’s not really talking about Woke America. He praises our efforts to respond to hate speech — and yes, for all our anti-immigration bluster, you can make the case that we’re actually far more welcoming and far more of a melting pot than most European countries.

What he’s saying is that friends don’t give each other constructive criticism. We’re not straight with each other. That’s hard for me to judge because Europeans generally aren’t going to issue blunt corrections to tourists. You’d have to work someplace to see the difference.

3. Smiles mean nothing
6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing

Let me put it this way: I’ve never going to tell a random woman to smile more, because that’s patronizing and sexist and everything else that’s wrong, but I will tell my sons.

There’s nothing wrong with spreading good cheer. England, frankly, makes the effort. Even their advertising has a friendly tone, while ours usually makes us think about death or illness.

So we smile and exchange pleasantries. Then our ads and our media make us think we’re going to die if we don’t purchase whatever’s for sale. Surely there’s a better balance here.

4. Tipping
14. Always in a hurry
7. Wasteful consumerism
15. Obsession with money

I’m glad European food-service folks are paid well enough that they’re not relying on us for tip money. We’re jerks. On more than one occasion in the USA, I’ve left a tip on another table, knowing that the dirtbags who dined there didn’t leave anything.

And sure, we don’t need to be rushing around as much as we do. Europeans are more patient than we are, and that might explain why they’re not rushing out to buy more crap that ends up in a landfill or in the ocean. (Also noteworthy: Fresh fruit is cheaper in Barcelona than it is here. Legos and other plastic toys are more expensive. That seems like a good thing. Fruit fuels healthy bodies. Legos are great, but when you have a gazillion of them, maybe it’s time not to buy more.)

But I’m still perplexed by the European habit of not bringing the check when diners are obviously finished dining. What exactly is the point of that? You can leave it and say “no rush,” as a lot of Americans do.

5. False prices on everything

Yep. Europe is way ahead of us in terms of getting rid of pennies. Don’t tell me something $9.99 when it’s actually $10.49 with tax. Charge me $10 or $10.50 with tax included. My wallet thanks you.

8. American stereotypes of other countries
16. Thinking America is the best

Yeah, this times 1,000. Granted, we stereotype within our own country. I’ve seen Northerners who think gay people are in imminent physical danger at a women’s soccer game in North Carolina. I’ve spent the last 20 years realizing everything my fellow Southerners told me about the North is wrong. (Except about the cold.)

11. Religious Americans

Americans are more in-your-face about religion, even compared with heavily Catholic areas in Ireland (or Spain, I’d say), our correspondent says. Yes, they are, but what bothers me more is the ignorance. In the USA, the louder someone is about religion, the more likely it is they have the zeal of someone who knows nothing beyond a few feel-good slogans (many of which make them feel good because they can look down on others). I doubt you’ll see a creationist billboard in Germany.

12. Corporations win all the time, not small businesses
13. A country designed for cars, not human

His point here is that in any European town, you can walk around and find a nice place to eat or get coffee. I suppose that’s true for the most part, though it’s tough to generalize. If you walk in New York or Boston, you’ll find places — and frankly, I don’t care if it’s Starbucks. Maybe I’m risk-averse, but sometimes, I like knowing what I’m going to get. And there are subtle variations — I was thrilled to go to a Dunkin’ Donuts in Barcelona because I knew from experience elsewhere that European Dunkin’ Donuts offer far better variety than what we have here. (Also — have you ever had Fanta orange in Europe? It’s simply wonderful. In the USA, it’s just generic syrup.)

Outside big cities, do we have any idea? When I went to Ireland, there was no way I could’ve walked from one of our B&Bs to the town center. Where I live in Northern Virginia, I can easily walk to a strip with banks, restaurants (local and corporate), shops (again, local and corporate), etc.

But I’d have to agree that Europe generally makes it easier to walk to a grocery store. Our grocery stores are the size of aircraft carriers, surrounded by parking lots the size of San Marino. In Barcelona, they had plenty of smaller stores (some local, some corporate) with all the variety you could really need.

That said, I’ve never been in a part of Europe that has single-family homes. I’d have to assume they exist. In Barcelona, I didn’t even see townhouses — everyone lived in an apartment. That was convenient, but I also didn’t get much sleep Saturday night thanks to the neighbors and people out in the street.

And, quite obviously, mass transit is better elsewhere. Maybe New York can compare with what you have in London or Barcelona, but Washington’s way behind. English soccer fans can usually hop on a train, go to their team’s away game, then return that day.

16. Unhealthy portions

No kidding.

Stuff he didn’t cover

We need universal health care. I’d love to have more train travel, but I understand how that can be difficult without overuse of eminent domain.

We don’t need Europe’s provincialism. Ours is bad enough.

Last but not least — we need English toffee. And American dentists to clean up the mess.

 

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Holiday giving idea: Support journalism

News organizations generally aren’t nonprofits. Their owners have ranged from somewhat benevolent people with a genuine interest in journalism to your basic everyday robber barons. So, under ordinary circumstances, none of us would suggest adding a news organization to your list if you, like me, do most of your charitable giving in December.

These are not ordinary circumstances. These days, it’s no exaggeration to say facts are under attack from politicians and from nihilistic groups like Project Veritas. That assault is coming when journalism is reeling from the loss of its primary business models. USA TODAY made a lot of its money distributing news to hotel doorsteps, a service that’s not quite as necessary when we can all call up any news site we want on our phones. Local newspapers weathered recessions with classified advertising that has drifted to free platforms. (Or, in the case of the weird personals that used to subsidize alt-weeklies, Tindr or Grindr or Bumpr or whatever the latest app is.)

Times are just getting rougher for journalists. I have two primary freelance clients, and they both slashed their budgets this year.

But I’m not going to ask for money for myself. I thought about setting up a Patreon page or something to support my work as a U.S. Soccer watchdog, but I can’t do it in good conscience. There are too many better ways to spend your money. I may offer some products soon, and feel free to buy as many of those as you wish. Buy early, buy often.

We have larger issues at stake …

Last year, after the election, it became an act of resistance to subscribe to the New York Times or the Washington Post. If you did that, please don’t forget to renew. (And yes, subscribing to the Wall Street Journal is fine, too — most of that money doesn’t go to their lunatic-fringe editorial page.)

I’d also suggest a couple of organizations worth supporting:

  1. ProPublica is doing the most difficult task in journalism — investigative reporting. It’s time-consuming. People often throw up roadblocks to stop this work from being done. And their business model is based on public support.
  2. The Guardian is trying some interesting partnerships, and instead of having the obnoxious auto-play videos that pop up (looking your way, Sports Illustrated — and I’m a subscriber), they have a polite banner asking if you’d like to support them. Please do. Yes, I write for The Guardian, but it’s safe to say that if you donate $20, that adds less than 1 cent to my bank account. I would be telling you to donate even if they completely shut down their U.S. operations and quit taking my pitches entirely.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my great student paper, which has brought me back to serve on the board and help some amazing student journalists — all much brighter than I was back in my day. Student papers don’t make the money they used to make, for all the same reasons your local newspaper no longer has a profit margin that other business with envy. So consider donating to The Chronicle.

Asking for money doesn’t come easily to journalists. I’m not sure I could ever work for a nonprofit for that reason — it’s simply a skill I don’t have. But I feel strongly about this.

So please give it some thought. Maybe we can keep vital, informative and occasionally entertaining journalism afloat a while longer. Or at least get rid of some pop-up videos.

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To interview or not to interview a Nazi

You probably know this by now: The New York Times ran a story on a … white nationalist? Nazi? They were accused of “normalizing” Nazis, prompting a thoughtful response from the editor and a strange, defensive response from the reporter, who seemed to be defending himself against the charge of not calling the guy another couple of times.

My journalism default is to publish rather than withhold, to investigate rather than steer clear. It gets me (and most other journalists) in a lot of trouble at times, sure. But if the information in question isn’t blatantly sensationalized (“IS YOUR NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR A NAZI? FIND OUT AT 11”) or otherwise irresponsibly presented, you have to have a compelling reason not to publish it.

The year after I left Duke, The Chronicle received an ad submission from a Holocaust denier. After much discussion, they published it, along with a letter from the editor explaining why they had made that decision. The pitchforks outside Flowers Building were flaming for a while, of course. But there was a memorable quote from a trustee with a background in journalism:

You’ve gotta flush a snake out of the grass in order to kill it.”

That quote sticks in my head when I think about how we as an intelligent species get into tragic conflicts. Historians are still grappling with some of the flashpoints that tipped Germany into signing its future over to Adolf Hitler. (Perhaps more analogous to our current situation, and something I understand far less — why did Italy back Mussolini?)

We need to understand why seemingly rational people give tacit or explicit support to all forms of hatred. Why did a bunch of apparently assimilated English Muslims carry out a series of bombings that killed 52 people on the London Underground? Why did a guy assemble an arsenal in a hotel room in Mandalay Bay and shoot hundreds of people? Why do substantial numbers (a minority, but still tens of millions of people) express support for terrorist groups? Why are white supremacists gaining ground in Europe?

All that said, some of the criticism against the NYT is valid.

I’m not sure the story itself “normalized” a white nationalist. The guy lives a normal life. That’s the point. These guys aren’t just militias hiding in Montana with a bunch of survival gear.

But …

A. Perhaps the story could’ve fact-checked itself. If someone’s going to claim the Holocaust is overblown, counter it with the historical record. We journalists don’t do enough of that. (See climate change.)

B. Where are the stories about other points of view?

Like this …

Or maybe we could talk about politicians beyond a simple identity label? For example, the first transgender state representative has a lot to say about the current political climate, all worth reading …

Click to keep reading the thread.

I’m normally not a fan of the “can’t walk and chew gum” argument against the media (or politicians, for that matter). One story on your friendly neighborhood Nazi out of the hundreds of stories the NYT produces each week does not reflect the full scope of reporting.

But …

Yeah. Let’s diversify a bit here.

 

 

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Unraveling the Confederate flag

Our town has a pretty big Halloween parade, and it’s an annual tradition to toss blankets and chairs along the parade route to stake a good viewing spot.

Yesterday, I saw this:

stars-barsYes, that’s a Confederate flag blanket on the main street in my town, which is not exactly a Trump hotbed. (It is, though, quite white, and Asian and Hispanic residents far outnumber African-American residents.)

I was shocked, to say the least. I posted it to Facebook and instantly had several volunteers to go toss that thing in the trash.

But I did have to go back and question myself …

I watched The Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, like many kids of the 70s did. I played Dixie on the clarinet — the melody is a pretty good exercise for beginners. In college, my roommate one summer actually had a Confederate flag — he was in a fraternity that occupied part of my dorm building and had “Old South” events. At some point, I wrote a Chronicle column that was essentially a “live and let live” plea that included a paragraph about letting people show the flag for “Southern pride” if they wanted.

So am I being hypocritical?

I’d like to think people can make progress. Exhibit A: Tom Petty, who used to show the Confederate flag at his shows and later renounced it, quite eloquently:

The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida. I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its logo. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant.

Some of us on Facebook said the same thing. More Petty:

To this day, I have good feelings for the South in many ways. There’s some wonderful people down there. There are people still affected by what their relatives taught them. It isn’t necessarily racism. They just don’t like Yankees. They don’t like the North. But when they wave that flag, they aren’t stopping to think how it looks to a black person. I blame myself for not doing that. I should have gone around the fence and taken a good look at it. But honestly, it all stemmed from my trying to illustrate a character. I then just let it get out of control as a marketing device for the record. It was dumb and it shouldn’t have happened.

My dad actually had a good way of looking at it. He was an old-school Southern gentleman, also influenced by a life of traveling the world as a prominent biochemist. He believed the flag was not offensive but, if others found it offensive, a gentleman’s good manners would dictate that we shouldn’t fly it. I agreed with that at the time, but I think the next step was to recognize parts of the history that had been, to put it mildly, de-emphasized.

Only as an adult did I learn that a lot of Confederate flag-waving and monument-building took place in the 20th century, not the 19th. And it was done for specific reasons — basically, whenever black people made noise about injustice. Even if you can somehow rationalize the flag as some sort of historical affectation for a “states’ rights” cause without that knowledge, I can’t imagine a decent human being who’d rationalize the flag with that knowledge.

Today, there should be no excuse not to have that knowledge. Tom Petty and I grew up in the South before people talked about such things in public forums. In the Internet age, how can anyone not understand what the Confederate flag means today? Again — even if you can somehow rationalize that it’s OK to fly it given what it meant in the 19th century, how can you rationalize it when it is quite clearly a symbol of hate?

(I wonder how many people who objected to a mosque in New York because it was some sort of “triumphalism” see no problem with the dirtbag who flies a giant Confederate flag on I-95 knowing full well it’s going to be seen by thousands of slaves’ descendants every day.)

I did have a quick conversation with my walking companion. See the man in the picture? I have no idea whether the flag blanket was his. But someone walking with me figured it was, based on his pronounced Southern drawl.

And so I had to explain that we shouldn’t stereotype — at all. I’ve known thousands of people with Southern drawls — some of them fulfilling every stereotype Family Guy can toss out, some of them brilliant and progressive.

So we all have a lot of progress to make. I’m not done just because I’m less ignorant about this ugly collection of stars on a cross than I was when I was 14 or 19. And I’m not sure of the best way to encourage whoever laid this hideous blanket on the main street of my town to start making some progress, too.

 

 

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Anarchist/antifa philosophy and tactics just a wee bit counterproductive

Attention conservative or “yes, Trump is evil, but when will the Left address the other side” people: Most people I know on the “Left” (whatever that means) want nothing to do with these idiots and have done a far better job disassociating themselves from then than Trump has from — you know, actual white supremacists and Nazis.

In case you don’t believe me, or in case you think the media are giving these people a free pass, check out two stories today.

Washington Post:

Carrefour said he knows that some people who are sympathetic to the anarchists’ general beliefs would not approve of the tactics used at the inauguration. But, he said, recruiting more anarchists is never the goal.

“The notion of convincing people is a liberal idea,” Carrefour said. “I also think it’s important to attack the symbols of capitalism. It’s just property at the end of the day.

The rioting brought swift rebukes.

On Inauguration Day, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser — a Democrat who has criticized many of Trump’s policies — condemned the rioting, tweeting that while the city welcomes protesters, officials “cannot allow you to destroy our neighborhoods.”

Muhammad Ashraf, whose 2015 Lincoln super-stretch limousine was burned by rioters while parked downtown, wondered whether the protesters understood the effect the rioting had on him.

Ashraf, 52, owner of Virginia-based Nationwide Chauffeured Services, watched on television as his limo was engulfed in flames. The vehicle was a total loss. After insurance payments, it cost him $60,000 out of pocket to replace, he said.

“When that car becomes a source of your livelihood, it becomes a part of your life. I don’t know if the protesters understand that when they destroy something — the way I felt when I saw my car burning, it really hurt me deeply even though it’s just a car,” he said. “Six months later, I still want to know, did that accomplish anything?”

The Guardian:

Still, having heard Antifa’s elevator pitch in person, I must acknowledge that their analysis of ingrained injustice gets more than a little bit right.

Corporate power ought to be challenged. Racial hierarchies are deep and powerful and must be uprooted. The criminal justice system perpetuates mass incarceration while doing little – or nothing – to address police violence.

States captured by corporate interests routinely run roughshod over democratic, Indigenous and local control of land, water and resources, as witnessed at Standing Rock. Ours has become a land of inequity and injustice aplenty.

But in their flirtation with political violence, Antifa ends up hurting the progressive groups it stands with and claims to protect.

They play into the cartoon-image of the left sketched by Fox News and Breitbart. Though violence may not be their dominant tactic, it is inevitably their hallmark. And though the group may not always incite violence, their presence invites it, putting others in danger.

So thanks, guys, but we in the media are aware of these people. Here are the differences between them and the white supremacists …

  1. They do not speak for all people who are against fascism, racial prejudice or other assorted forms of hate.
  2. They don’t have representatives in the White House.

To sum up: Antifa bad. Anti-racism/fascism/discrimination good. Now what are we going to do about racism, fascism and discrimination?

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What about whataboutism?

Like a lot of bullying tools, “whataboutism” is powerful because there’s a bit of logic to it, however twisted it may be.

In fact, on the meta level, it’s easy to use whataboutism to fight complaints about whataboutism. Most people use it in some form at some point.

The key difference to me is this: Are you using bringing up an opposing side because you’re making a decision between two things (say, candidates) or because you’re trying to deflect criticism instead of dealing with it?

In other words, if we’re talking about an election with only two viable candidates, and you tell me Candidate X embezzled money but I know Candidate Y murdered somebody, I’ll have to point that out. (I hope it never gets to that point!)

And in some cases, what appears to be “whataboutism” is actually making a case to give one entity the higher ground. For example — if a Trump voter criticizes the Clinton Foundation, it seems fair to point to the Trump Foundation, especially if you go on to note that the Clinton Foundation actually does some good.

Let’s say the Charlottesville situation had been reversed, and an “antifa” demonstrator had killed someone. Surely someone would use that incident to claim there’s no difference between the “left” and “right” in this situation. (Aside to media: Can you quit using “left” and “right” in describing this sort of thing? CBS did it for Boston, which was ridiculous — I’m sure a lot of registered Republicans were among the “left” crowd in this case and were quite offended by the assumption that the supremacists were the “right.”)

But the counterargument would be this:

  1. The majority of the counterprotesters were not violent.
  2. Most likely, the bulk of the nation’s lawmakers and thought leaders would denounce the killer without the equivocation Trump used in his half-hearted denunciation of a considerable chunk of the people who still support him.
  3. What’s the overall intent of the counterprotest? It’s to stand up against racism. What’s the overall intent of the original protest? To promote it. Not equivalent.

A Facebook friend made this sort of point in answering Trump’s “whatabout” on Washington and Jefferson owning slaves. Washington and Jefferson don’t have monuments because they supported racism. They have monuments for their actual accomplishments. Monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are for their service to an abhorrent cause.

QED.

Historical footnote — I did not know this:

In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.

Source: Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump – The Washington Post

 

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