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Don't Count on Institutions to Stop Trump

Our institutions are strong enough to restrain a president, but they're also strong enough to empower him.

Donald Trump is a Rorschach blot on the office of the presidency. Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart. And that's just the people who don't like the guy.

Still, pretty much everyone who isn't paid to pretend otherwise agrees that he's been hemmed in by Washington's permanent institutions. Trump has signed just one major piece of legislation, and his executive orders have frequently landed with a splat. From his stab at banning transgender soldiers to his efforts to defund sanctuary cities, Trump has hit one wall after another.

That has led some anti-Trump pundits to a quietly optimistic take on the state of the country. "America's core institutions may not be in perfect health," Zack Beauchamp summed it up in Vox, "but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who's gone after essential parts of its democratic system."

Yet if institutions have largely kept Trump from pushing presidential power in new directions, they have also let him intensify authoritarian policies that already exist. While some institutions have kept Trump in check, others have empowered him.

In some ways, immigration is the great success story for the institutions-will-save-us crowd. Thanks to the courts, Trump's travel ban has been both narrowed and delayed. State and local governments have refused to cooperate with some elements of Trump's deportation drive, and so far the Justice Department has been impotent in its efforts to bring them in line. Trump hasn't even had much luck yet in getting Congress to cough up funds for his border wall. But courts, federalism and an opposition party aren't the only institutions at work here.

Trump inherited a powerful raids-and-deportation apparatus, and he hasn't been shy about using it. And so while deportations themselves have receded somewhat in the last year, deportation arrests have surged—and they're much more likely to take place far from the border. The American Civil Liberties Union reports a "notable increase" in "arrests of people who don't have criminal records, those who show up to routine check-in meetings with agents, and even people previously offered humanitarian exceptions."

That apparatus is an institution. It was built up by prior presidents of both parties, along with Congress and the bureaucracy. They assembled a weapon, and then they left it on the Oval Office desk.

Speaking of weapons: Trump has escalated the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and his war with Islamic State killed more civilians in just over half a year than Barack Obama's did in three years. He's been able to do such things because he inherited a strong institution: an increasingly unaccountable system for raining death from the air. Obama got away with claiming that the authorization to use military force to fight the perpetrators of Sept. 11, 2001, covers all manner of battles around the world. Naturally, Trump's team has embraced the argument.

And if the president decides to launch nuclear missiles at North Korea this evening, it would take a full-fledged mutiny to stop him. Thank a decades-old policy of giving the president unilateral control of the nuclear arsenal.

Institutions haven't just empowered Trump; he's empowered institutions. He has allowed the military to make its own decisions on a host of war-making matters without White House input—including, in some theaters, whether to launch a raid or airstrike. He has also reportedly given the CIA the right to conduct its own covert drone strikes in Syria, and there has been talk of letting it exercise that authority elsewhere. Power isn't flowing to the executive so much as it's flowing to whole swaths of the executive branch. (That has been true in some ways of the immigration crackdown too. When the slipshod first version of the travel ban came down, Customs and Border Protection field agents were left to make their own choices about how to interpret and enforce it.)

As I write, Donald Trump is at war with elements of the national security and intelligence bureaucracies—or as they're better known these days, the deep state. Despite this, he hasn't done anything to roll back the powers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the National Security Agency. Indeed, he just signed a bill that amps up the very surveillance state that he bitterly claims his enemies have wielded against him.

That shouldn't surprise anyone. Trump's fear isn't that those institutions are too powerful; it's that they're disloyal. He doesn't want reform; he wants a purge. Hemmed in by institutions, he asks himself how he could make those institutions work for him instead of against him. And why wouldn't he? After all, several are already on the job.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    Donald Trump is a Rorschach blot on the office of the presidency. Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart. And that's just the people who don't like the guy.

    And some see one of the better presidents in decades making a bunch of good decisions and some bad decisions.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's kind of a reverse of what got his predecessor elected. By 2008 Obama had no legislative accomplishments and had not governed a day in his life. He was the perfect blank slate upon which voters could write their hopes and dreams. Trump is similarly the incompetent evil that each of us can see as his own perfect boogeyman.

  • silver.||

    TBF I also thought Obama was a weak leader with an authoritarian heart. I saw somebody with no experience but an eager willingness to grow the federal government, which means he's a friend of everyone in DC.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You cynical fuck.

  • MoreFreedom||

    I saw Obama as far more authoritarian than Trump; with his IRS abuse, Title IX forcing schools to kick out accused sexual abusers without due process, his corruption of the CIA, NSA and FBI, his using the EPA to shut down coal mining and use, etc.

    "He [Trump] doesn't want reform; he wants a purge."

    Seems to me a purge of government employees who kowtow to their boss above the citizens, is exactly what we need. Heck, the way I see it, it's just getting started as more and more evidence of government officials (typically high up) violated the constitution and have tried to undermine and remove Trump, and ensure Hillary won.

    Trump allied with the military against the people in government who are mostly fighting him, rather than doing their jobs. I don't see Trump as authoritarian, he just verbally attacks the press by pointing out their lies. He's made threats such as changing the law to allow one to sue the media, but he's done nothing to do that - I see it as trying to make the lying media think twice before they start repeating made up stories from anonymous sources, and then when found out to be untrue, don't expose the sources that lied to them. That's the media encouraging people to make up stuff for stories to push their political agenda, like claiming Trump is authoritarian.

    Yes Trump is fighting government institutions; corrupt ones. The RINOs control the GOP and the Democrats are no defenders of our liberty either.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    "He's made threats such as changing the law to allow one to sue the media"

    I have considered if it is possible to start a class action suit against a newspaper like The WaPo. The class would be paid subscribers, and the cause of action would be fraud, based on the dozens of fraudulent articles against Trump, the GOP and related topics. Even if damages were limited to subscriber costs, some kind Pinterest, and penalties, it would hurt them substantially.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Yeah I don't really get this whole "Trump is the worst authoritarian president in history" narrative. What he's actually done, good and bad, is pretty ordinary stuff. As you point out, "I've got a phone and a pen" Obama was as much an authoritarian or worse. If our beloved, and demonstrably corrupt, institutions have successfully thwarted Trump we're left to wonder why they largely failed to do so with Obama. If you compare Trump to guys like Lincoln and FDR he's not even in the competition. I guess there's good authoritarians and bad ones.

  • Dan S.||

    Seems to me a purge of government employees who kowtow to their boss above the citizens, is exactly what we need.

    Yeah, but Trump is more likely to do the reverse, to purge employees who don't kowtow to the boss (him).

  • KevinP||

    Yep. Obama was an empty vessel into which people poured their hopes and dreams.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    That and a symbol for ending decades of Democrat white guilt.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    "By 2008 Obama had no legislative accomplishments and had not governed a day in his life"

    Indeed. Democrats do fail upwards though.

  • Harvard||

    Careful dude. Gillespie could pull your membership.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Never been a fan of the cosmo parties anyway.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart.

    There is a bear in the woods...

  • Bacon-Magic glib reasonoid||

    Jesse...yuck. You can do better.

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

    [citation needed]

  • Bacon-Magic glib reasonoid||

    Jesse is a good writer. He can do it.

  • Kivlor||

    There's been a lot of "you can do better" going around at Reason since Trump won the Republican nomination. I suppose in 3-7 years, when Trump is gone, maybe we'll get to see if that is true.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Everyone lost his mind when Trump was elected. You. Me. Everyone.

    (Except not me.)

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Yep. This is a shitty article with a flawed premise.

    "and his war with Islamic State killed more civilians in just over half a year than Barack Obama's did in three years"

    Bullshit statements like this are incredibly annoying. Even if this is factual, what would the alternative have looked like? ISIS isn't exactly a benevolent organization. Their brutality is epic. Unchecked, how many people does Jesse think ISIS would kill? Zero?

    This article is nothing more than an exercise in progressive soft headed thinking.

  • Jesse Walker||

    ISIS isn't exactly a benevolent organization. Their brutality is epic.

    Well, yes. Duh. How does that address the question of civilian deaths? Who exactly is being soft-headed here?

  • Robert||

    Aren't they all civilians? There's no formal war, no uniforms, so everyone's a civilian AFAICT. Is there some other criterion they use?

  • Elias Fakaname||

    There is no way to stop ISIS without significant collateral damage. You're painting Trump as some kind of murder machine for stopping ISIS without acknowledging that. Which is soft headed thinking at best. Would you prefer ISIS function unchecked? How many will die then? Or survive, but face a life of slavery and misery at the hands of those monsters?

    It really just looks like you're looking for any justification, no matter how flimsy, to beat up on Trump. You should be better than that.

  • Frank White||

    Donald Trump is a Rorschach blot on the office of the presidency. Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart. And that's just the people who don't like the guy.

    That's how you know Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) is a real mental disease.

  • Hugh Akston||

    How is that, doctor?

  • Frank White||

    He's literally Hitler! But he hasn't done any Hitler-like stuff? He's incompetent! But ISIS is all but destroyed. He got a tax cut passed. He's deported millions of illegals, and made a huge hit on MS-13. And... Well, he's not Hitler, and he's not incompetent, but I just don't like him. Congratulations. You're mostly cured.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Sorry Dr. White. I should have been more clear in phrasing my question. What are the specific symptoms/pathologies that define TDS as a mental disorder according to the accepted definition in the DSM-V?

  • silver.||

    • Markedly disturbed sense of identity
    • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and extreme reactions to such
    • Splitting ("black-and-white" thinking)
    • Impulsivity and impulsive or dangerous behaviours
    • Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation
    • Unstable and chaotic interpersonal relationships
    • Self-damaging behavior
    • Distorted self-image
    • Dissociation
    • Frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, or rage

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "Don't count on institutions to stop Trump"

    Lord knows the FBI tried and failed.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Trump's administration has exposed an active conspiracy in the FBI and former administration to prevent a duly elected candidate from assuming office.

    All this while the Mueller "investigation" is practically calling Trump a traitor.

    Trump was the right person at the right time to be president.

  • Kivlor||

    We're not done yet.

    Sincerely,

    The Mueller Investigatory Team

  • DajjaI||

    Trump is discrediting and diminishing the office of the presidency. However all branches of government are despotic by nature, and so must be reduced proportionately. At this point the Congress is the greatest threat to the country. It is buying power by mortgaging the country's future with unsustainable debt.

  • Kivlor||

    Trump is discrediting and diminishing the office of the presidency.

    God, if this is true Trump is the best thing to happen to the Presidency in 150 years.

  • Rebel Scum||

    "God, if this is true Trump is the best thing to happen to the Presidency in 150 years."

    Seconded.

  • BYODB||

    Yes, although the bit that says if true is important since I'm not so sure that's happening.

    Kind of like what the author says in the piece above, it's not so much that people think that Trump is too powerful they're just afraid he's disloyal.

  • Mickey Rat||

    The lower courts have been bending over vackwards to come up with bizarre extralegal rationalizations to deny Trump the ability to exercise the presidency's constitutuonally granted authority over immigration and naturalization policy.

    When desling with his predecessor's unconstitional authoritarian power plays the courts tied themselves in knots justifying them.

    This behavior us ultimately destructive to these institutions

  • KevinP||

    Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian. Some see a leader too weak to be authoritarian. Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart. And that's just the people who don't like the guy.

    And some see a flawed human being as President who has managed to accomplish more of the Libertarian agenda, particularly in taxation and deregulation than most Libertarians.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I think Trump has seen the dark side of the Democrats for years and experienced the dark side of Republicans during the primaries.

    It almost works out perfectly that he didn't need special interest money to get elected, toys with lefties, and often say FU to establishment politicians.

  • Rebel Scum||

    Some people look at him and see a dangerous authoritarian...Some see a weak leader who nonetheless has an authoritarian heart.

    Enough about Barry.

    But speaking to Trump, the people that think that are irrational. There is nothing about deregulating and deferring to the legislature to legislate that is "authoritarian".

    banning transgender soldiers

    The military can (should) have high standards for soldiers, up to and including that they should be mentally fit. And taxpayers should not incur the cost of elective surgeries and the like that trannies seek.

    defund sanctuary cities,

    Federal money is federal and local law enforcement does not have to enforce federal law. But I'm inclined to think it illegal to actively harbor criminals.

    "but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who's gone after essential parts of its democratic system."

    Again, enough about Barry.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Nice piece, Jesse. So much better than the "other presidents were bad too" meme that some reasonettes are pushing (though Reason does do a good job pushing back on immigration, free trade, drug policy, and general war mongering). Too bad so many "libertarians" admire a guy who thinks it's "unAmerican" not to applaud him. In my own blog I noted how Charlie Koch is delighted at the way things are going. Yeah, the deficit may hit $1 trillion this year, but at least Charlie got his tax cut, which is the main thing.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Luckily the tax reform that gave the businesses and individuals more of their money back was not tied to a federal budget.

    I am sure since lefties are so worried about a supposed $1 Trillion deficit they will give their support for federal budgets cuts of 20%+.

  • BYODB||

    On the other hand, unfortunately even while they 'allow' us to keep more of our own money they are also busy devaluing the shit out of it.

    That's not an argument for them to stop letting us keep more of our own money, but it should be an argument to actually do something about spending. Especially entitlement spending since it's the lions share of overall spending. Defense should also be cut but if you cut defense to the bone you're no closer to open borders...so why go after it first?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    My retired father loves politics and we often discuss the nature of things.

    I cannot get him to openly discuss social security and medicare reform with cuts. He is just hoping to check out before our debt crushes the USA. Its selfish as shit.

  • Mark22||

    Alt-Right TROLL says more crushing debt is okay .. if lines HIS pocket!

    Given that Social Security constitutes almost all your income, Hihn, you better hope that we don't cut it further to balance the budget. Otherwise, you'd have to downgrade from a cheap one bedroom to living under a highway overpass somewhere.

  • Bacon-Magic glib reasonoid||

    Your blog is as popular as Hihn's blog...cat turd eaters and crayon nose stuffer's unite!

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Well, now we know that Vanneman is spoofing Hihn.

  • MD CORY||

    The drug war is stupid but your magazine's position is to give Democrats the vote forever. "The data say very strongly that labor force growth has a very small, empirically insignificant association with the growth of output per worker." (Harvard Study) "Using figures from the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, José Lobo of Arizona State University and my colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute examined the trends in population growth and productivity growth (measured as economic output per capita) for all 350-plus U.S. metros over the decade spanning 2001 to 2011. Their main conclusion: There is little, if any connection, between the two." "In all eight of the NAS's scenarios, immigrants without a high school degree have a negative long-term impact. Immigrants with only a high school degree have a negative impact in seven out of eight scenarios." (National Review) "In 2012, 51 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) reported that they used at least one welfare program during the year, compared to 30 percent of native households." (CIS) Latin America: "Area accounts for nearly one in three global homicides, U.N. study shows." (WSJ) The idea that immigrants commit less crime is a complete fabrication because the government DOESN'T COUNT THEM: "About one in five inmates in federal prison are foreign-born, and more than 90 percent of those are in the United States illegally" (NYT)

  • ||

    "...but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who's gone after essential parts of its democratic system."

    You mean like, a lot of what Obama did starting with weaponizing the IRS and FBI? You mean like that?

    Didn't they just discover the man who found out all in the papers wanted to know everything just like Stalin?

    Seriously. Go fuck yourself.

  • ||

    President Trump is a REAL LEADER.
    and we HAVEN'T HAD THAT IN MANY MANY YEARS.

  • vek||

    Except many of histories greatest leaders WERE authoritarian. Incompetent authoritarians fall flat on their face, competent ones become Alexander The Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, etc.

  • vek||

    Well, I was just sayin' man. You said "Great leaders have never been authoritarian." which is a completely inaccurate statement.

    I'm more of a George Washington/Thomas Jefferson man myself, but all those other guys were very impressive as well in different ways. Not all dictators are even especially bad people. Julius and Augustus Caesar did a lot of good things for Roman citizens, especially the poor and working classes. That was half the reason the Roman aristocracy hated them! Frederick The Great was also a very enlightened despot who did good things for his people. There's a long list really... Not as long as the list of shitty dictators mind you, but there were lots of good ones too.

  • vek||

    Ugh. And who tops them in the history books that wasn't authoritarian? George Washington was authoritarian in his own ways! He raised an army, against the will of a lot of other colonists, in order to fight a war and kill his fellow British citizens. He executed traitors, and deserters too IIRC, after the war led troops against colonists who were angry about taxes on booze, etc.

    Even if you limit yourself to democratically elected leaders, most all of the important ones were hard asses, not limp wristed pussies. Churchill? Military man and imperialist through and through. He wanted to keep the western allies armies marching through Germany into communist Russia, as did Patton. Lincoln? Dick on a million levels.

    Jefferson is the single best example I can think of, but he was dicking Indians and doing other naughty things as well.

    The fact is in the real world you have to be a bit tough to survive. You can be far better than many of our leaders have been, but not a total push over.

  • zombietimeshare||

    These same institutions ran amock under Barry. Why the sudden concern for a conscience now?

    "He has allowed the military to make its own decisions on a host of war-making matters without White House input..."

    And? It is his job to set a realistic goal, it is their job to achieve the goal. I have no problem with how Trump is doing this. This goes for the military as well as every other department of government. Under Barry and previous presidents, there was the desire to micromanage policies to death—and point fingers when policies failed.

    "Trump is dying at this because he treats his cabinet, and Congress, like children ... of an authoritarian parent."

    Really? He is giving his cabinet a goal and letting them achieve the goals their way. Pretty adult. As to Congress, for decades they have been lazy and more than willing to abdicate their responsibilities to the Executive and Judicial branches. He has basically told them to get in gear and do their job and accept their Constitutional responsibilities. Again, pretty adult.

  • Jesse Walker||

    These same institutions ran amock under Barry. Why the sudden concern for a conscience now?

    From the article: "That apparatus is an institution. It was built up by prior presidents of both parties, along with Congress and the bureaucracy. They assembled a weapon, and then they left it on the Oval Office desk."

    Also from the article: "He's been able to do such things because he inherited a strong institution: an increasingly unaccountable system for raining death from the air. Obama got away with claiming that the authorization to use military force to fight the perpetrators of Sept. 11, 2001, covers all manner of battles around the world. Naturally, Trump's team has embraced the argument."

    It's almost as if the idea that Trump is building on the efforts of Obama and other leaders is one of the central points of the article.

  • Rigelsen||

    "It's almost as if..."

    Perhaps you wrote a different article but posted the wrong one? The one posted above only mention any prior president in passing to further discredit Trump personally. No "one of the central points" about it.

  • Rockabilly||

    The Night America Let Me Down

    Chords are D - A7

    On election night I left the bar when it twas over
    Not feeling any pain at closing time
    But tonight your defeat found me much too sober
    Couldn't drink enough to keep Trump off my mind

    Tonight America let me down
    And let your election defeat come around
    The one true politician I thought I'd found
    Tonight America let me down

    I've always had a bottle I could turn to
    And lately I've been turnin' every day
    But the wine don't take effect the way it used to
    And I'm hurtin' in new ways

    Tonight American let Hillary and me down
    and let your election defeat come around
    The one true politician I thought I'd found
    Tonight America let Hillary and me down

  • vek||

    Yeah, Trump is doing shitty shit... And awesome shit. I still have more faith in him at least trying to do the right things more often than not versus any other president of my lifetime. If I'd been older when Reagan was in maybe I would have trusted him more, but in hindsight, looking at actual policies and not rhetoric, he was not nearly as impressive as Republicans make him out to be.

  • Robert||

    That's because Reagan sucked up to the GOP establishment. He wasn't the establishment's 1st choice—that was Bush—but he worked his way thru them. Trump didn't come from that direction.

    The deregul'n that Carter & Reagan get credit for, I found out later was just the rolling of a ball that Nixon started. Meanwhile Reagan was lucky enough to have been in position to undo the regulatory follies of Nixonomics, & benefit from a good Fed chair. Reagan (& Bush!) get undeserved credit for the collapse of the house of cards that was the USSR.

    Trump didn't have as easy targets to shoot at as Reagan. His accomplishments in favor of freedom are outstanding given the constraints he's been under. So I rank him above Reagan. Above Clinton. He may be better than Eisenhower too. It's been a long time since we've had it this good.

  • vek||

    Yeah, I know Reagan wasn't the establishments choice. CIA man poppy Bush was supposed to be in charge! After he got in office he definitely cooled his jets on all the fiery campaign talk (getting rid of department of education, REALLY rolling stuff back, etc), as you say probably to suck up/gain cooperation. Didn't know some of the specifics (just carrying through Nixon policies for instance), but agree with the general thoughts. I do wonder myself if Trump is going to end up being almost exactly like Reagan in that he'll do some really good stuff domestically, bungle other stuff, but end up being hailed as a pretty damn decent president overall. If he doesn't screw up anything major TOO bad I can totally see this happening.

  • cja||

    It has long been said that laws are the foundation of a civilized society.
    It would appear that Jesse Walker prefers a more chaotic society of people who do not bond together under the pretense of one country.

    How tedious.

    This is yet another essay void of substance that fails to reflect the many complexities of reality. Trump was elected president under the laws of this country, has had the media, and various institutions attempt one coup after the other, and the only thing Jesse Walker can do is complain we beat ISIS and call for mutiny?

  • Mark22||

    Don't Count on Institutions to Stop Trump

    In fact, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they won't.

  • Mark22||

    Speaking of weapons: Trump has escalated the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and his war with Islamic State killed more civilians in just over half a year than Barack Obama's did in three years. He's been able to do such things

    You're grasping at straws here, using selective statistics to bolster the faulty narrative that somehow Trump is more authoritarian than Obama.

  • Jesse Walker||

    You're grasping at straws here, using selective statistics to bolster the faulty narrative that somehow Trump is more authoritarian than Obama.

    This comment is even stranger than the sort of pompously phrased one upthread that says I "complain we beat ISIS and call for mutiny."

    This article has nothing to do with whether Trump or Obama is more authoritarian. Seriously. It doesn't answer the question. It doesn't even raise the question. It never swings through the vicinity of the question. And while I'm certainly capable of writing unclearly, I don't think there's a line anywhere in the article that can be easily misconstrued as discussing the question. Wherever you're getting this idea from, it's not anywhere in the text.

  • Rigelsen||

    No, the article just does a lot of suggesting that Trump is somohow special and thus needs to be specially stopped. This is one of your stupider points. Indeed, from the comments it looks like this article seems to be collecting all the stupidity Reason ecosystem. If that was your intention, congrats.

  • Jesse Walker||

    the article just does a lot of suggesting that Trump is somohow special

    The article argues that it is permanent, pre-Trump institutions that allow Trump to do damage; that he is most able to exert power in places where he's building on his predecessors' efforts. That is literally the opposite of arguing that he is "somehow special." There are plenty of things about Trump that are distinctive, but I don't discuss them here and they play no role in the argument.

    from the comments it looks like this article seems to be collecting all the stupidity Reason ecosystem

    I do get that impression, yes.

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