The Privilege of Being Ashamed of Charlottesville

I encountered a “racism scale” on social media:

Plenty of people on the far left and right would have plenty to say about what they think is wrong with it, but it made me examine myself for a moment. I understood everything up to “My experience as a white person is drastically different than that of a POC.”

Drastically? That’s a strong word. I could accept “noticeably.”

I chewed on it for a day. How drastic could it be?

Privilege as a Sum of Privileges

Some people talk about privilege as though it were a miasma in the air, creating problems. Sometimes these are people who want to argue it doesn’t even exist. But this is a strawman, because I don’t think people who claim privilege really mean it as a diffuse, vague force.

Consider a prison inmate who gets on the guards’ good side and receives privileges. We wouldn’t say that he has privileges because he’s “privileged.” Instead, we’d say that he’s privileged because he has a set of specific, identifiable privileges (maybe he gets cigarettes at a discount, maybe he gets extra yard time). It is merely a summary to say that he generally has “privilege.”

Consider the present-day race and gender relations the same way. When we identify a situation where being white/male/heterosexual/cisgendered (conservative readers: yes I use that word, because it’s useful) is more advantageous than the alternative, we have identified a specific, discrete privilege. Gather a small pile of these, and we begin to understand what the general “privilege” that people talk about. Gather a larger pile, and we begin to understand why they talk about it like a miasma.

Situations where specific privileges do not hold (“but what about affirmative action?” “A black man was president!”) do not invalidate the fact that at least sometimes it’s still materially and psychologically easier to be white. I’ve never noticed someone cross the street to avoid me. I’ve never had a problem with a police officer overstepping their authority (media sensationalism notwithstanding). I’ve never been chopped from an application process because my name was too “weird.” And if you recognize that at least sometimes it’s easier to be white, you recognize some aspect of white privilege.

Charlottesville and the Drastic Safety Gap

Bringing this back around: when I saw the pictures of the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, with the torches and the Confederate flags and the Nazi flags, my primary reaction was embarrassment. Embarrassed by them, because they would claim to represent me, and sort of embarrassed for them, too. It’s pathetic, among its many other aspects.

(Pictures not included, because that would run counter to what I say next).

But these guys aren’t lionizing a legacy of hatred towards me (sure, I have Jewish heritage, but they probably wouldn’t know just looking at me). My reaction was a privileged one, because I don’t have much to be afraid of. But people of color, viewing those same images, may feel genuine terror at these symbols of the not-so-distant past, and they are not wrong to feel that way. Their country has just become that much less welcoming.

And need I go on about the car attack? Their country has just become that much less safe, and not in a safe-space “snowflake” way, but in a you-could-get-rammed-by-a-car way.

So now I understand a bit more about the word “drastically.”

But seriously, go read something by a person of color about these recent events.

Arms Race: A Game Where Everyone’s Bluffing

But some are bluffing more than others.


This is a card game that models realist international relations theory in simple, easy-to-understand ways, teaching strategy involving:

-International Anarchy

-The Security Dilemma

-Balance of Power

-Escalation Dominance

-Zero-sum Conflict

-Non-zero-sum Conflict

-Mutual Assured Destruction

-Perverse Incentives from New Technology

The Goal

Win by being the last player with cards in your hand, or by having the most valuable cards in your hand when you’re all sick of playing.


Shuffle together as many ordinary decks of 52 playing cards as you want. Jokers are accommodated (see below). Ideally, you don’t want to run out of cards to draw. This will depend how cautiously a given group plays.

Each player draws a card and places it face up in front of them. They then draw a number of cards for their starting hand equal to the value of the card they placed. Face cards through Jokers are worth 10. They may add their face-up card to their hand.

A Round

There are no turns; everyone acts when they wish. Priority, when it matters, is up for negotiation within the context of game mechanics. Dealer rotates each round, unless you want to assign someone trustworthy to it. This can also be negotiated.

At the start of a round, each player is dealt one card from the deck, face-down, to add to their hand. If there are no more cards to draw, shuffle the discard pile. If there are still no cards, you just have to wait, or you can add another deck mid-game for all I care.

Then deal a number of cards one less than the current number of players face up in the center of the table. There are no rules whatsoever governing their allocation. Players must negotiate, cajole and bluff over who should get which of them. Players may simply take them without asking if they wish, although the other players would be wise to employ attack mechanics (below) against such bad faith.

It may occur, due to a stalemate, that no one dares take the cards remaining in the center. In such a case, they will be placed in the discard pile at the end of the round.

A round ends when no players have any more actions they wish to take, and then a new round begins.

There are no limits to the number of times any actions may be taken each round, except for drawing.

Gains From Trade

Players may give or trade cards at will. A pair of players who are trading may choose one and only one of them to draw a bonus card from the deck, beyond their normal draw limit. If they cannot agree who, neither of them gets the bonus. A given player may only gain this bonus once per round, and may not gain this bonus from someone they helped get this bonus in the same round.


Use attacks to diminish one other player’s hand. A player may initiate an attack at any time.

Say whom you’re attacking, and choose as many cards from your hand as you wish to place face down in front of you. These are attack cards.

The defending player then may do the same with as many cards from their hand as they wish, or none if they choose. These are counter-attack cards.

Once placed down, cards cannot be taken back.

After both players are satisfied with the cards they’ve placed, the cards are revealed.

Both players must then discard from their hand cards equal to twice or more the total value of the cards used against them. This is their “damage” received. Face cards and Jokers are worth 10. The cards used for attacking and counter-attacking are then discarded.

If a player cannot meet their damage requirements with the cards in their hand, they lose and are out of the game. NOTE: It is entirely permissible to go out with a bang by using all your cards to counter-attack.

Other players may take a side in a fight in progress as long as the attack and counter-attack cards have not been revealed, after any first strikes (below) are resolved. Attacker and defender may assign additional attack and counter-attack cards as appropriate at this point, and the attack resolves normally from there.

You do not need to wait for someone else’s attack to resolve before initiating another, or even your own, if you’re crazy enough.

Attacking is not recommended without the aid of face card abilities (below).

Face Card Abilities

Face cards may be used in the following ways. If a player chooses to use one this way, it cannot be used as an attack or counter-attack card.

Jacks, Queens, and Kings: First Strike

These are placed on the table in front of you when not attacking or being attacked. You may place them face-up or -down. You may only use their abilities if they are face-up. You may flip them up or down at any time as long as you are not currently attacking or defending. They remain out until something requires them to be discarded.

Each allows for 1/3 of a first strike: 1/3 of your attack cards of your choice (not counter-attack), rounded up, must deal their damage before your opponent gets to select counter-attack cards.

This effect can stack up to 100%, but stacking must be from different types. For example, having a Jack and a King grants 2/3 first strike, but having two Jacks has the same effect as one Jack. Multiples may be placed on the table, though, as backups.

Jacks, Queens and Kings that have already been played on the table can be discarded in order to discard a like kind that an opponent has played. Two in any combination may be discarded to discard an opponent’s Ace.

Aces: Interception

Aces are placed out in the same way, can be flipped in the same way, and remain in play until something requires them to be discarded. Each Ace you have face-up allows you to discard 1/4, rounded up, of an opponent’s first strike attack cards before they are revealed, and 1/2, rounded up, of an opponent’s attack or counter-attack cards after all first-strike cards have been resolved. Aces that would stack beyond 100% may be placed on the table as backups.

Joker: Spy

Can be played at any time, and is discarded after use.


Another player of your choice must show you their hand, but they don’t need to be happy about it. You may steal one card from them.


Negates the effects of any single card of an opponent until the end of this round.


Negates an opponent’s Joker.

Threats and Bad Behavior

Threats are an important part of the game. Players may threaten to attack each other for any reason at all. There is no penalty for bluffing except for your credibility. Be creative!


“Don’t draw a card this turn… or else.”

“Don’t play that Ace you drew last turn… or else.”

“Give me that Ace you drew last turn… or else.”

“Show me your hand… or else.”

“Don’t attack him… or else.”

There are very few rules governing player behavior outside of the combat mechanics. Behavior that would be disallowed in many games is encouraged as a means to generate conflict.

Examples include but are not limited to:

-Players may try to peek at each others’ hands or face-down cards. Victims are encouraged to employ attack mechanics against this.

-Players may show their hands, or only part, if they wish, to deter others from messing with them.

Basically, if there’s no rule explicitly against it, you can do it as far as the game is concerned. The only limit is what the victims and witnesses will tolerate.

Some things that are actually rules:

-Limits on drawing (above).

-You can’t just ignore cards that have been played.

-You can’t steal cards, aside from using a Joker.

-You can’t trade cards that have been played on the table.

-Dealer mustn’t abuse their position.

-Common-sense stuff about severely disrupting the game. If you need to ragequit, don’t flip the table.

All rights reserved by Jonathan McGeachen.

The Interactive Syria Choose-Your-Own Intervention

The Interactive Syria Choose-Your-Own Intervention

Found Here

I’ve long thought that we’ve been too hard on our leaders over the Syrian crisis. Yes, even Obama! He made some missteps, but it’s a uniquely difficult situation with too many moving parts, too many shifting alliances. And I think Trump will deserve a bit of latitude for his choices here as well. I decided to create this in order to point out the huge number of branching possibilities, the large number of dangers and the small number of relatively good outcomes.

(Edit: I also wanted to say that the first version of this was from Bashar al-Assad’s perspective, to give better insight into how his choices have shaped the conflict for the worst, and history should place responsibility upon him. I decided to ditch it because it was both uninteresting and in even worse taste than the final version.)

Unlike most choose-your-own-adventure type stories, this one includes a sort randomizing element here and there. This is because I am representing possibilities, not certainties. I cannot claim to know what “would” have happened if the US had taken down Assad’s government in 2011, or if ground operations had commenced against ISIS as early as 2014, or if Obama had decided to declare a no-fly zone against the Syrian and Russian aircraft in 2016. But I can give a pretty good guess at some potential outcomes, and I did, decided by such tools as coin flips, rock-paper-scissors, and dice rolls.

For now, it only extends from the Arab Spring up through the present. I may expand it to include the future, especially Kurdistan.

Does it cover every possibility up to the present? Of course not. I’d go insane trying; I nearly did. I had to scrap a great deal of ideas for the sake of parsimony. But I think it covers the most important decision nexus-points of the conflict so far.

The Top 4 Reasons I Think the North Korea “Standoff” is Being Overhyped.

The Top 4 Reasons I Think the North Korea “Standoff” is Being Overhyped.

While buying tires today, I had to sit in a waiting room with the news on TV, and it reminded me why I don’t watch TV news. Turns out the world is on the brink of thermonuclear war! I even had a brief discussion with the tire guy about it. Don’t head down to your bunkers just yet.

1.) The news is turning the rhetoric up to 11, but still talking about other things.

What would be more urgent: thermonuclear war, the Facebook killer guy, or the potential ramifications of the congressional special election in Georgia? Listening to CNN, you’d think they were roughly equal. If they actually thought something was going down, they wouldn’t be talking about anything else.

2.) They sent Pence to the DMZ.

Can you imagine if North Korea killed the Vice President of the US with its opening salvo? If that idea brings you joy, please set aside your feelings about this specific one. This is a huge calling-out of the Kim regime.

3.) North Korea is completely full of it.

I mean seriously, have you been paying attention for the past 20 years? Every week there’s a new, creatively-worded threat.

4.) They’re not ready to substantially hit the mainland U.S.

Foreign Policy had a handy infographic:


This was as of a month ago, but only so much can change in that time. The way a war would play out is: they hit a couple US targets, maybe, and then they get glassed (I love that verb).

When “They” Becomes “We:” A Crude Experiment

I got onto a very wide tangent from the post on health care I was working on, and started wondering about framing government as “us.” Why do people do it?


“We should raise/cut taxes.”

“We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.”

“We need to throw that person in prison.”

“We” aren’t really doing any of these things. They are the job of a very specific subset of “us.” To call the state “us” is only slightly more accurate than calling a favorite sports team “us.”  I do this sort of thing sometimes too, of course. Only the most dedicated Ron Swansons would not.

I began wondering if this phenomenon factored at all into consent for government action. Can people be substantially manipulated by in-group framing? I started writing “if I could perform a study on this…” but then I realized I kinda could, thanks to Al Gore’s Information Superhighway.


If I frame a government policy proposal along the lines of “we must do xyz,” then it will have higher approval than the exact same proposal framed along the lines of “the government must do xyz.” This may vary by respondents’ ideology.


I constructed an 8-question Google Forms survey. The first question asked if the respondent identified as liberal, conservative, or moderate/in between/neither. The second question asked the first letter of their last name, the answer to which directed the participant to one of two versions of the next 6 questions. Both versions asked, in one way or another, whether government should intervene to address a given problem, and presented two answer options, constructed from common talking points. One answer advocated government action, the other government inaction.

Version 1, given to last names A-M, in-grouped the state for purposes of action. I asked whether “we” should carry out the proposed policy, and retained the “we” phrasing on the action response, while framing the inaction response as “they.”

Version 2, given to last names N-Z, out-grouped the state for purposes of action. I kept the exact same wording, except replacing “we” with “the government,” and “they.” I moved the “we” wording to the government inaction response. So survey was as follows:

Version 1 Q1: Should we raise taxes to pay for healthcare for everyone who needs it?

A1: We have a responsibility to provide for those in need.

A2: They need to let people be responsible for themselves

Version 2 Q1: Should the government raise taxes to pay for healthcare for everyone who needs it?

A1: They have a responsibility to provide for those in need.

A2: We need to let people be responsible for themselves.

V1 Q2: Should we expand electronic surveillance to fight terrorism and crime?

A1: They need to respect people’s privacy.

A2: We need to do what it takes to keep people safe

V2 Q2: Should the government expand electronic surveillance to fight terrorism and crime?

A1: We need to respect people’s privacy.

A2: They need to do what it takes to keep people safe.

V1 Q3: Should we intervene militarily to defend innocent civilians around the world (example: Syria)?

A1: We need to use America’s power for good.

A2: They need to stop wasting tax dollars fighting wars that don’t concern us.

V2 Q3: Should the government intervene militarily to defend innocent civilians around the world (example: Syria)?

A1: They need to use America’s power for good.

A2: We need to stop wasting tax dollars fighting wars that don’t concern us.

V1 Q4: Should we keep marijuana illegal at the national level?

A1: We need to protect people from this dangerous drug.

A2: They need to stop putting people in jail for something so harmless.

V2 Q4: Should the government keep marijuana illegal at the national level?

A1: They need to protect people from this dangerous drug.

A2: We need to stop putting people in jail for something so harmless.

V1 Q5: Should we punish businesses for discriminating against customers?

A1: We need to make this a country where people feel included and have access to goods and services.

A2: They have no right to order businesses to serve anyone.

V2 Q5: Should the government punish businesses for discriminating against customers?

A1: They need to make this a country where people feel included have access to goods and services.

A2: We have no right to order businesses to serve anyone.

V1 Q6: Should we expand gun control laws?

A1: They need to respect people’s right to defend themselves as they see fit.

A2: We need to keep people safe from dangerous weapons.

V2 Q6: Should the government expand gun control laws?

A1: We need to respect people’s right to defend themselves as they see fit.

A2: They need to keep people safe from dangerous weapons.

I presented this survey to my immediate social network on Facebook and Twitter. I also placed it in a few places on Reddit in order to draw as large a sample size as I could. I didn’t expect ideological sample bias to matter, because I wasn’t looking at the actual results, but the differences in results between the two surveys.

There were two “rounds” of gathering participants from these sites. For the second round, it occurred to me to include a “where did you hear about this survey?” question, so I did. Glancing at the results, I also realized that many weren’t answering all questions, so I marked them “required” for the second round (give me a break, I’m not getting published in a journal, I’m just some dude with a computer).

I will discuss limitations of this method later.

Results and Analysis

Data is here. Additional sheets along the bottom are separated into categories for convenience.

There were 278 responses. 150 respondents (52.4%) identified as Liberal, 95 (34.3%) as Moderate/In Between/Neither, and 32 (11.6%) as Conservative. 1 respondent failed to identify, prior to my making it a required question.

There were 174 (62.6%) A-M names sent to Version 1, and 104 (37.4%) N-Z names sent to Version 2.

I’m not going to parse out every last detail, but I’ll point out what I found most interesting, both for and against my hypothesis.

The first thing I should say is that overall, there was a slight increase in approval for state action among Version 2 respondents:

Overall Percent
If my hypothesis were correct, then the bars would be going down, not up.

The Conservative sample was especially small, so it should be taken with a larger grain of salt. I won’t dwell on it too long for this reason, but there were substantial differences between how people reacted to re-framing each question.

Conservative Change

Here were the results for moderates:

image (3)

And here were liberals:

image (4)

There is something of a pattern here: approval increases for public healthcare, surveillance, and military intervention, when it’s “the government” doing it vs. “us.” It decreases or stays the same for marijuana prohibition (can’t decrease below 0: see below), and consistently decreases for gun control. Discrimination is the only area where there was a qualitative inconsistency, and this may have been an artifact of the small conservative sample size.

Not related to anything I was looking for, but only 10 total respondents across all versions and ideologies, or 3.6%, opposed marijuana legalization: 3 Conservatives, 7 Moderates and 0 liberals.

Methodological Flaws

I threw the survey together in half an hour. I tried to keep it simple to make it easy to answer. What could go wrong?

1.) It would have been good to include “where did you find this survey?” from the very beginning. I would have been able to divide up responses by audience type.

2.) Sample size (and sample biases?). I have no means to randomize participants, so I can only try to artificially “balance” demographics. Even though apparently I live in a social media environment where conservative voices disproportionately dominate, the actual population I have access to is mostly liberal.

3.) Perhaps some question about how informed they consider themselves or how much political news they consume. I’d expect low-information participants to be more easily swayed by question framing than participants with clear and consistently-reinforced ideas.

4.) It wouldn’t have hurt to randomize question order, but I didn’t know how that worked.


My hypothesis, at least as it was stated, is clearly not supported. Perhaps there is no relationship between in-group framing and approval, perhaps it is more nuanced. The consistency by question across demographics is interesting. That big change for moderates on the intervention question is also interesting. I don’t see any solid conclusions I can draw from it, though.

But if I hadn’t done this, I probably would have just assumed most people are tribal atavists at heart. Having done this gives me pause. Thanks, Science!

Due to focus group responses, a gif of Bill Nye the Science Guy has been replaced by this gif of Bill Nighy, not-a-science-guyghy

I’m Sure It’s Fun to Throw Around the Word “Impeach,” but Where Does it Lead Us?

I’m Sure It’s Fun to Throw Around the Word “Impeach,” but Where Does it Lead Us?

by Jonathan McGeachen

I hear the word “impeach” getting thrown around by my liberal friends, but I don’t see it happening. I would be a little surprised if Donald Trump were impeached by this Congress, and very surprised if that impeachment led to a conviction.

The Meaning of the Word

First, let’s be clear about the term “impeach.” Impeachment does not mean removal from office. It refers, specifically, to the initiation of the process in the House of Representatives, requiring only a simple majority. A conviction by 2/3 of the Senate is necessary to remove a President from office.


Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868, but not convicted by the Senate, so he remained President. Same way with Bill Clinton. They were preparing to impeach Nixon before he resigned. And that’s about it. No president has ever been impeached and then convicted.

Current Makeup of The House

There are 435 voting members of the House. A simple majority therefore requires 218 votes. 241 representatives are Republican and 194 are Democrat. Assuming every Democrat voted to impeach, they would still need to flip 24 Republicans in order to achieve their majority.

Current Makeup of the Senate

There are 100 Senators. 67 would make a 2/3 majority, required to convict. 52 Senators are Republican and 48 are Democrat or Democrat-leaning independent. Assuming every Democrat votes to convict, they would need to flip 19 Republicans.

The Risks for Republicans

There’s always a new headline about Trump’s overall poll numbers, but consider: Gallup polls show Donald Trump having a whopping 86% approval rating among Republicans.


These are the voters that Republican Representatives and Senators have to answer to in primaries, and no one else. These voters live in a media environment where any charge against Trump is Fake News, or answerable with a tu quoque, or both. The risk of being branded a traitor, a RINO, and losing one’s seat is tremendous.

The Risks for Democrats

President Mike Pence.

What Would the Substantive, Provable Charges Be?

Not just circumstantial evidence or poor “optics.” I put this last because it matters least; we live in an era when perception is everything. But it’s something to chew on.

Russia’s Never Giving Back Crimea, So Why Did Trump Say He Expected Them To?

Intro: A Bit About Why I Choose Certain Topics

I’ve had at least three different people I know in real life (outside of my family!) mention that they liked something they saw in my blog. I had no idea people actual read this, so I’m going to try to post a bit more. Thank you for reading!

I have this problem where all the things in the news that I find most interesting, and therefore want to write about, are the things no one really talks about or cares about, and I know it. Sometimes it’s because political writing (and news consumerism!) is slowly devolving into a tabloid enterprise, but sometimes it’s because I just nerd out too much about geopolitics, beyond its actual importance to everyday life. This is why I unduly focus on the Middle East, East Asia, and Russia.

Even so, the things I find interesting in the news are the things that are truly unexpected, things that actually bend or reshape existing trends. Domestic politics offers almost none of this, except for the occasional electoral college upset. Once in office, Donald Trump has spoken worse than I had hoped, but almost all the ink spilled these days is about that. His actual domestic policy initiatives have been unsurprising, and therefore rather uninteresting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I do pay attention to them, but I only have so many hours in a day.

Donald Trump saying something undiplomatic is very expected. That “something” getting blown out of proportion is also expected. The specific content might be unexpected, but these general trends are well established, so I don’t pay much attention to the parry-and-thrust of the narrative wars on this subject, and I have little memory for it, which makes it hard to participate even when I want to. Some of his calls and tweets to foreign leaders have been a bit interesting, but it’s hard to assess what’s real policy and what’s bluster, whether there actually are “head fakes” or “4D chess” occurring (I still don’t think so, but I sure do hope so, because that is preferable to flailing chaos).

Donald Trump exempting Russia from even mild attack is very par-for-the-course, also, so it was interesting to see in this Reuters article last week that he expected Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. He even Tweeted on the subject, reinforcing my impression that American politics, from top to bottom, has become less about solving problems and more about who can most convincingly blame the other party:

Why Is This Interesting?

the Implication

Assertion: Donald Trump has made an unrealistic demand.
Questions: Does he know it or not? Why did he do this?

My Attempt at Brief, Unbiased Background, If You’re Unfamiliar With the Crimea Situation

What is Crimea?

Crimea is a peninsula off of the southern part of the nation of Ukraine, jutting out into the Black Sea:

Image courtesy of Google Maps

It’s a little more than 3 times the area of New Jersey, with about a quarter as many people.

What’s going on with Crimea?

Crimea is not independent: ownership rights are currently disputed between Ukraine and Russia. Actual control is currently exercised by Russia, following a military invasion, and a vote by Crimeans to join Russia in 2014 (Edit: added link. Warning: coarse language) (more on that in a bit). It was a big story/crisis in early 2014, until ISIS got big in the summer and then people forgot about it.

How did Crimea become disputed?

Crimea has some history as part of both countries. Crimea had bouts of its own independence and dominion by various empires until it became part of Russia in 1783.

This lasted with only small interruptions until 1954, when the Soviet Union, which ruled over both Russia and Ukraine as subject republics, transferred Crimea to Ukrainian ownership. This was no big deal, because the Soviet Union would last forever.

But it didn’t, of course. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine and Russia became separate sovereign nations again, Crimea remained part of Ukraine, and remained that way with little argument until 2014.

In that year, there was a successful revolution in Ukraine to overthrow president Yanukovich, a president whom the Russians liked and supported. Russia expressed concern about the tide of Ukrainian nationalism, anti-Russian sentiment and the safety of the overall Russian minority in Ukraine. Crimea, along with some of the eastern parts of Ukraine, has a majority of Russian-speakers, with 65% Russian, 16% Ukrainian, and 12% Tatar

Boil ’em mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew

Thanks for asking, Gollum. They were at one time a dominant native ethnic group. Anyway, these current demographics owe to Crimea’s prior history as a Russian province, and, depending whom you ask, historical ethnic cleansing. Putin, with a veneer of deniability, directed his military forces to take control of the peninsula, and, following a propaganda blitz, a vote was taken to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

There are plenty of precedents for territories voting for their own independence, but less so for directly joining a neighboring nation. Combine this with the dubious information tactics, the use of force, and the potential for vote-rigging, and the legitimacy of this secession becomes questionable.

Why does it matter to an American?

Mainly because of the potential for conflict with a major power. We do not have any specific commitment to defend Ukraine, although Russia did agree in the 90’s to respect Ukraine’s territory. Do we allow Russia to violate agreements and take territory from neighbors? If we allow it, where will it stop? If we don’t allow it, how do we approach it without accidentally ending the world?

Could we even return Crimea back into Ukrainian control, if we tried?

I don’t think so at this point. The military option contains too much risk (nuclear escalation) for too little gain (returning a small chunk of land to a non-ally). embargo

Maybe if the West had imposed a total embargo on Russia back in 2014, Putin would have caved, but the E.U. couldn’t stomach that because they need oil and natural gas imports from Russia. The world has pretty much moved on by now, and by the end of the Trump presidency, Crimea will be firmly established as a status quo Russian province, and Russia is pretty unequivocal that they consider it theirs now.

Finally Enter Trump: What’s going on in that big ol’ melon of his?

So why the extreme shift in Trumps’s rhetoric on this issue, from no demands to implausible demands? Whether or not you believe any conspiracy theories about him, Donald Trump has, objectively, the most Russia-friendly policies of any president in generations. He questions the importance of NATO and the value of its defense commitments, he lets Russia mostly have their way in Syria, he has barely talked about the Ukraine conflict except to criticize Obama, and expressed little desire to expand or maintain sanctions on Russia. Really the only thing on his plate that is inconvenient for Russia is expanding the US energy sector, which would hold down global energy prices a bit and bite into Russian revenues.

But then consider the conspiracy theories: whether or not some hold water, their very existence is a threat to Trump. It would be wise to undermine their credibility by at least appearing to push back against Putin. But rather than hash this all out in paragraph form, I made a table of different possibilities, treating Trump’s mindset as a black box. These possibilities are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. I do not consider these possibilities equally likely.

Trump is not a Russian puppet. He’s a red-blooded, pure-hearted American patriot. Trump is under Russian influence, because he finds common cause with Putin the autocrat and/or Putin can help him with information warfare. Trump is under Russian influence because they have dirt on him and/or he relies on business connections in Russia.
Trump has a firm grasp of geopolitics. He’s a brilliant dealmaker with real convictions who can think circles around opponents. Trump perceives that the narrative could slip away from him, and even though he genuinely believes rapprochement with Russia is in the best long-term interest of the U.S. vis-a-vis terrorism and China, he can’t pursue it if he gets impeached. He adopts tougher rhetoric against Russia, knowing it won’t change the situation on the ground, to undermine the Russian-connection narrative. It was all a negotiating tactic! Having gained Trump the election, Putin has outlived his usefulness, and Trump is now pursuing his real plan to stare down Russia and cement American hegemony in Eastern Europe. Take the red pill and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes! The Kremlin may have told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, with a tacit threat to spill the beans. Trump sees an opportunity to brace for the storm by trying to undermine the Russian-connection narrative.
Trump does not know what’s going on, because he’s an ignorant, impulsive reality show narcissist. Trump wants to sound tough and get a shot in at Obama, whether or not it’s consistent with anything he’s said before. Maybe he believes that good ol’-fashioned American gumption and derring-do will always win the day. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that, with a tacit threat to spill the beans.

Believe what you will.