How to Undermine Democracy--or Improve It
Keeping a giant representative democracy like the United States on the rails is a messy business in the best of times. In times like the present, threats to how we choose our representatives can turn messiness to grave injustice. Recent election cycles have revealed how the one-citizen-one-vote ideal undergirding our democracy is still thwarted. We've called that gerrymandering ever since Massachusetts' Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill in 1812 creating new congressional districts contorted--one was shaped like a salamander--to favor his party.
The latest census in 2010 led to particularly unrestrained gerrymandering in my own state of Pennsylvania. Here, the Republican majority in Harrisburg redrew the electoral map to so benefit their party that in the 2012 election, Republicans held 13 seats to 6 for Democrats, even though the popular vote was almost evenly divided between the two parties. That almost certainly would have brought a similar outcome in 2018 were it not for the fact that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in months earlier to strike down that congressional map on grounds that it violated the commonwealth's constitution. After the court then imposed a map that much more nearly conformed to actual municipal boundaries, the November election produced a 50-50 split between the two parties of those elected to the new Congress.
But that was a one-time solution. New legislation is required to prevent the majority party from again creating a gerrymandered map after the 2020 census. In the Pennsylvania House, two bills have been introduced to put a citizens redistricting commission in place in time for the 2021 redistricting. One would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to create an indepedent commission for determining the legislative districts for the Pennsylvania House and Senate. The second would amend the election code to create an independent commission for Congressional redistricting. That requires no change in the constitution, but only a change to the state's election code.
Party leaders of course cannot be counted on to lead this fight to end gerrymandering, since it is they--including those in the minority party who hope to become the majority--who relish the greater power they have when they are free to draw district lines to suit their partisan interests. Yet these House bills do have bipartisan support and are already co-sponsored by more than 40% of current legislators. True, the prospects for comparable bills passing the Senate are less promising today. Nonetheless, such public interest groups as Fair Districts PA are hard at work to push these reforms through in the current session. We now are closer to this good-government outcome than at any time in our history.
There's also the undemocratic matter of a provision written right into the U.S. Constitution: the Electoral College. Any student can see that in preventing the direct election of our president, it permits the candidate who has lost the popular vote nation-wide to win the presidency. That has happened five times in our history--most recently, with the election of Donald Trump--and could easily happen again. Amending the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College is probematic, because the rural interests and small states who benefit from that system naturally don't want to lose their greater voice than city folks get.
Yet, there's a simple way to solve the problem without a constitutional amendment. That is by getting state legislatures to pass statutes committing them to ensure that their electors vote with their state's popular majority regardless of the party affiliation of the electors. The movement pushing for this has succeeded in getting 12 states and the District of Columbia to join such a compact. They account for 181 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Electoral College. Once enough other states join to reach that magic number, we will, for the first time, be sure that whoever gets the most votes wins.
Making that happen, and ending gerrymandering, can go far to revitalize our messy democracy.
Our Post-Mueller Trumpian Future
I confess to being one of many on the left who imagined that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Donald Trump's connections to Russia during the 2016 election would prove him so egregious a law-breaker that his removal from office would swiftly follow. 'Twas not to be. As of now, only a handful of Justice Department officials have yet seen the report, although it presumably will be made public, with redactions, in another few weeks. What we've been told about its findings is, first, that neither Trump nor his minions colluded with Russians working to influence the election, but, second, that he was not exonerated from charges of obstructing justice even though Mueller chose not to rule on the evidence he obtained. Yet strangely, Attorney General William Barr immediately ruled in place of Mueller, declaring the evidence insufficient to charge the president with a crime.
That immediately launched a predictable firestorm. Trump and his allies falsely claimed complete exoneration, while his opponents insisted on seeing the complete report for themselves and castigated Barr for making a judgment call from his position outside the investigation that he was not charged to make.
That wrangle will get sorted out in due course; I won't pursue it here. I'll focus instead on the way forward for those millions of us who regard the Trump presidency as disastrous. We need to begin by acknowledging that to move quickly to articles of impeachment is not now in the cards. The Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress is correct not to encourage what could only become a strictly partisan procedure that therefore would fail, and which would push whatever Trump skeptics remain among Republicans into his defense.
Starting in 1984, when Newt Gingrich made it his party's holy grail, unyielding partisanship has increasingly threatened our political system. We must draw back from whatever encourages more of it. It means that Congressional Democrats are right to advance their own social and political agenda instead, just as the party's presidential candidates are doing. (All of them, by the way, were handed a gift last week when Trump again annnounced his goal of overturning Obamacare, whose popularity will continue to grow the more its life is threatened). By attending to their legislative priorities, Democrats can give the electorate far more positive alternatives for the nation's future than the hate-filled, us-against-them nostrums of the Trumpists.
Meanwhile, the essential Congressional investigations of Trump-related matters of course should go forward, but with as much calm and careful deliberation as it's possible to demonstrate. Yes, Republicans in the House will continue to lambaste Democratic committee chairs as unfit to lead, charging them, as they already have, with holding preconceived notions of the outcome. So, it won't be easy to navigate the shoals of partisanship in a way that will convince the world of the integrity of the process. But to the extent such hearings proceed in workmanlike fashion, they will also allow time for other legal proceedings against Trump to reach their conclusions. And there are several with the potential to reveal smoking guns, perhaps with the kind of clarity that could lead to Trump's demise.
Trump's character is such that impeachable offenses are almost certain to come to light on these other fronts in the months to come. His likely violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause is a case in point, though the possibilities are legion for exposing other high crimes and misdemeanors. In the final analysis, Trump's presidency poses an unprecedented threat to our political system, and only some of that threat relates to his violation (or not) of criminal law. It is in the political arena where his term of office should ultimately be judged.
Suspending--and Suspending--Republican Disbelief
One of the most surprising aspects of Trump's presidency after its two-year mark is his continuing support among Republicans. He is still viewed favorably by some 80% of Republican voters, in spite of behavior--which includes playing nice with autocrats, closing down the government, and lying several times daily--that we used to think would be political suicide. And what do they make of an outpouring of scandals that has led to the indictments of more than a dozen individuals with ties to team Trump, including the convictions of a number of them?
What alone explains his continuing support is the suspension of disbelief, in massive doses, on the part of the faithful. The now-familiar refrain of most of them is that, although they don't always approve of the way Trump behaves, they applaud his intentions. They view their man as relentlessly attacked by the press and the far left, who refuse to give him credit for any of the good things (huge tax cuts often head the list) he's accomplished. For the most extreme of his disciples, the pernicious power of the "deep state" is what accounts for the courts saying no to his early effort to halt the immigration of Muslims, opposition to his administration's separation of children from their parents at the border, and even the ongoing effort from many quarters to block building the wall from the Rio Grande to the Pacific.
The last has now created an ongoing dispute over a president's constitutional authority to claim that an emergency exists at the border so that he can take unauthorized funds from elsewhere to do what Congress has denied him. I write at a moment when it seems likely that the Senate may oppose Trump's action, as has the House, but two-thirds majorities will be lacking in both houses to overturn his expected veto. Whatever their misgiviings about the wall and the rationale Trump has used to try to build it, most Congressional Republicans will stick with their man. The courts once more may be the final arbiters while the political divisions, in Congress and the nation, will further harden.
Nonetheless, this is also the moment when the president's legal troubles are beginning to mount, and in ways that scarcely seem likely to make his base double down in support of his agenda. Here are the main arenas in which Trump activities are being probed: (1) Five standing committees in the House are starting to look at various aspects of Trump's business deals and finances. (2) The state of Maryland and the District of Columbia are both suing Trump for his alleged violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from accepting gifts from foreign governments. (3) The New York Attorney General has brought a lawsuit alleging that Trump misused his Trump Foundation in "a shocking pattern of illegality." (4) The Southern District of New York continues its investigation of Michael Cohen, Trump's former fixer, in a case that is virtually certain to bring charges against other members of the Trump team, no doubt implicating the president as well.
All of that is quite apart from whatever is produced in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.
If even some of these actions provide hard evidence of criminal conduct by the president, the cries of partisanship from the right surely must recede as the circle grows of Americans demanding justice. If this fraught presidency is to end with genuine political redemption for the nation, it will only come once the overwhelming majority of Americans becomes convinced of the need to correct its high crimes and misdemeanors. We are not there yet. But it at last begins to look as if the tools may be in place to move us toward such a redeeming ending.
The New Congress and Our Political Future
The recently installed 116th Congress gave Democrats the majority in the House of Representatives, where they gained 40 seats in the midterm elections. However, they lost two in the Senate, where they now number 47 to the Republicans' 53. Yet, the power of the House majority was instantly on display when Speaker Nancy Pelosi held her caucus intact to oppose President Trump's demands for a border wall while shutting down much of the federal government in December. But after 35 days, not only did Trump finally cave to the Democrats, he was even made to postpone his state of the union address when Pelosi refused to introduce a resolution inviting him to speak in the House chamber as long as the shutdown continued. All that was a dramatic reminder of the powers of just one half of the legislative branch.
Meanwhile, however, the shutdown so completely preoccupied Congress that there was no time for doing what newly empowered Democrats insisted was their goal: legislating on behalf of the American people. Then the shutdown's end bought only a three-week reprieve, so now all attention is focused on the work of a joint Congressional committee tasked with finding a formula for border security that the president might sign. A month into the lifetime of the new Congress, Trump is once again revealing his ability to control the narrative and create chaos in his wake.
If the border wall debate was a smokescreen shielding much else from view, you could still detect some hints that the 116th Congress may begin to rein in Donald Trump on a bipartisan basis. During the last days of the shutdown, the Democrats' bill that tried to end it drew substantial bipartisan support--although it did not attain the supermajority needed for passage in the Senate.
Then, a week later, the Senate passed an amendment to a Middle East policy bill that chastised the president for withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. That action, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, reasserted Republican orthodoxy on our military presence in the region, which is why a number of Democrats refused to support it. Still, it marked almost the first time that Senate Republicans broke from Trump. But we know they are increasingly unhappy at the prospect of a new shutdown or the possibility that the president might invoke emergency powers to fund his wall.
Something like normal will return to Washington (or will, at least, if impeachment isn't on the agenda). We should expect Congressional Democrats to advance proposals to assist the depleted and demoralized middle class through such means as Medicare for all, new taxes on the nation's richest, and support for education and the environment. Republicans will only begin to buy into such measures if and when they are persuaded of their appeal to the electorate. And the electorate will, after all, make its voice heard again in 2020.
That's where the growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls comes in. As their campaign themes emerge, supporting such measures as I've just indicated, they either will or won't gain traction. Underlying each of their themes, it's fair to assume, will be that of unity, of how we go about bridging the divides Trump has so exacerbated. But for such rhetoric to acquire legs, candidates will have to project policy that large swaths of the population regard as helpful, or better yet, essential, to their own and the nation's welfare. The not-Trump candidate who wins must also find support from within Trump's base. That has to be the real-world outcome of the call for greater unity.
These are tall orders, both for Democratic presidential hopefuls and for Congress. Yet, as the campaign season gets into gear, we may find a more positive and inspiring debate about what we can accomplish and where we ought to be going than has been the case for many years. Wouldn't that be a wonderful change?
Wishing for a Happier New Year
No doubt about it, the year just ended has not been one of the world's brightest. America's bargain with a charlatan as president increased the nation's downward spiral. In Europe, the trials of Brexit threatened terrible damage to both Britain and the European Union. Germany's political stability was shaken, while the realignment of French politics went from promising to fraught. From the Philippines to Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, autocratic governments strengthened their hold. And the planet warmed even more alarmingly than we had previously imagined.
Is it wishful thinking to look for signs that 2019 might turn us in a more positive direction? I look now only at the possibilities in my own country. Amidst the chaos and dysfunction that, among other things, produced a government shutdown in the year's last week--the second in 2018--here are hopeful signs: the Senate voted unanimously on a recent resolution that blamed Saudi Arabia's crown prince for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. That at least separated every Republican senator from the refusal of President Trump to cast similar blame. It was the first time in Trump's presidency when anything like that happened, and could foreshadow a time when members of his own party in Congress will finally distance themselves on truly substantive matters from the president who is creating such havoc for the nation.
That no doubt depends upon a brighter ray of hope, i.e., that the required two-thirds majority of senators may be moved to oppose Trump's continuation in office. That cannot happen until the Mueller probe ends in a report that shows incontestably how Trump and his minions have subverted the Constitution. Impeachment is a political act which won't succeed if it's only a Democratic majority in the House that demands it. Should this new majority take that step at the outset, the result will produce only more gridlocked refusal to act on the part of the Republican Senate, which alone tries impeachments. To succeed, a motion to impeach must follow persuasive findings by the independent counsel that Trump has violated the Constitution. That looks increasingly likely.
Still, the whole impeachment process, should it come, is likely to be long and drawn out. Dare one hope that sometime in 2019, a Republican or two will challenge Trump's reelection in the primary? Neither of the obvious possibilities, retiring Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, will become candidates unless they perceive that Trump is beginning to lose his base. Should it come to such a challenge, Trump just might decide to bow out at the end of his term (no doubt with the claim that he's been the greatest president ever). The best outcome would be a thorough indictment from Mueller's evidence followed by the abandonment of Trump by enough disaffected Republicans--especially Republican senators--to see through a trial of impeachment. These aren't pipe dreams, but real-world possibilities.
In the meantime, my overwhelming hope is that, starting with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, Congressional leaders will learn to govern again. That means working with the opposition to pass legislation, rather than to behave, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has always behaved, as if their only purpose is to deny their opponents at all costs, including even the right of presidents to appoint judges. That has made our national politics a zero-sum contest, which is largely to blame for bringing us to our current state, and which may lead to the demise of our constitutional system. If Democrats, and other Republicans, can begin to push back on the McConnellization of our poliitical life, there is hope that non-zero-sum outcomes may regenerate our politics and improve all our lives.
Mother Nature's Dire Warning
We've all heard the parable about the frog sitting placidly in a cool pot of water, unaware that the pot is on a stove where the heat is rising. Poor frog! It'll be boiled alive before feeling the need to leap out of the pot while the water termperature is still tolerable.
We humans seem to be as dumb as frogs, since it's now abundantly clear that the environment we inhabit is heating up to intolerable limits and we've done nothing much to try to stave off the disaster to come. Worse than that, we are now chiefly responsible for raising the temperature. Long before the time when the consequences of too much heat may make the planet uninhabitable for Homo sapiens, the effects of climate change will eat away at our material comfort. Our economy will start to shrink and we'll have spent many billions just trying to stave off disaster.
That's one of the warnings in the federal scientific report recently released, which provided the starkest and most precise alarms yet about the consequences of our warming climate. Thirteen federal agencies produced the report, which is required by law every four years. The 2014 report helped inform President Obama's signature policy on climate change in 2015, which mainly aimed to slash emissions from coal-fired power plants. At the end of that year, Obama also took the lead in hammering out the Paris Agreement, the most ambitious world-wide effort yet to take significant action against global warming.
But today, our country is led by a frog-in-chief who's so much in denial about the real facts of planetary life that he's both rolled back the Obama emissions policy (along with whatever else had Obama's name on it) and taken the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. He's turning up the heat at the exact moment when his own government warns of the need to take all necessary measures to turn it down. So does the rest of the scientific community. Last spring the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that we can expect severe economic and humanitarian crises by 2040 as the result of rising temperatures. So, the hour is already very late to ward off catastrophe. And the climate deniers who rule us at the moment are only making our situation worse as fast as they can.
The federal report calls for a carbon tax putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions and for new regulations on how much of the stuff can be emitted, as well as spending public money on clean-energy research. None of that will be easy when too many deniers and the lobbyists who support them hold power in Washington. As Goethe put it, "nothing is more frightful than to see ignorance in action." It's essential that we overcome the ignorance, and educate the nation about the need to act, and act now. This agenda has to be at the heart of the public debate leading into the 2020 election.
It's never been easy before now to put environmental issues at the top of our political agenda since the catastrophes they involved seemed always to be off in some distant future. But as we can plainly see, with burned-out towns in California and flooded cities in the Southeast, the catastrophes are at our door. We must elect only those who will fight for the truth about how to stop and reverse the damage we're doing to our environment. To do otherwise is to concede defeat in our eternal struggle to improve our lives, and instead to leave future generations an uninhabitable planet.
That would be a terrible legacy for all of us alive today. Even worse than that, it would signal the beginning of the end of more than ten thousand years of the human experiment.
The Deranged World of Donald Trump
Just when you think you've seen and heard it all from the man in the White House, it gets still worse. In the last awful week of October, America witnessed a crazed Trump supporter try to assassinate leading Democrats by sending more than a dozen pipe bombs through the mail. That unprecedented act of terror targeted at people of a particular political persuasion was followed by an anti-Semite's murderous rampage in Pittsburgh that killed and wounded more Jews than had ever been targeted in any previous such action in our nation's history. Meanwhile, two black Americans were gunned down in Kentucky in a hate crime entirely overshadowed by the other two events.
The reaction of our hate-inspirer-in-chief? Before the bomber was caught, Trump suggested that the "bombs" (his quote marks) were a hoax--possibly dreamed up by Democrats so they could blame their opponents. He immediately cheered on his base in a campaign rally that was mostly about the coming "invasion" of our southern border by immigrants walking in a caravan that included, by his telling, among several thousand from Central America, "bad people" and Middle Eastern terrorists. He proudly called himself a nationalist in the kind of dog whistle that is catnip for the far right. Put it all together, and the unhinged anti-Semite in Pittsburgh had plenty of inspiration to unleash his rampage.
As if that weren't enough of blaming victims and fomenting hate, Trump then made the jaw-dropping proposal to abolish birthright citizenship for Americans through an executive order--never mind that the 14th Amendment established that right for all who are born in the US. That fantastic, Hail Mary play was no doubt prompted by fears in the White House that the news of mayhem just days before the November election might be bad for Republicans. Their playbook seems to be, when in doubt, double down on your appeal to the worst elements in our nature.
Through all of this, the repellent refrain of the theme song of Trump's presidency was his unending attack on the free press, the "enemy of the people" responsible for "fake news." A free press, we've always thought, was essential to the health of our republic; now our president attacks it unremittingly.
These events of just one week in October were simply a more stark revelation than usual of the damage Trump's presidency is doing to our nation and the world. He is either the deliberate spreader of false and malicious views as a way of rousing his base, or he actually lives in a fact-free world, one fabricated by his seriously deranged mind. Whichever the case, the result for the health of our democracy is disastrous. That's because, most obviously, he has followers, whose prejudices he stokes. But just as concerning is that he isn't opposed by those within his own party who once did not abide the politics he espouses. If and when Trump goes down, he may take the Republican Party with him.
Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have increased by 57% in 2018 over those a year ago. White nationalist extremism has shown its ugly face in Charlottesville and elsewhere and is increasingly seen as part of the mainstream of our politics. Sensible gun control measures have not been enacted in spite of the slaughter just this year of 17 students at a high school in Parkland, Florida, and 10 at a school in Santa Fe, Texas. (Oh, yes, our president also suggested this week that those slain in the Tree of Life synagogue might have been saved if an armed guard had been present. So every house of worship and every school should arm itself to survive?)
The kinds of pathologies these events demonstrate existed in America before Trump. But their increase in the current climate is clear. Cause and effect have just come into sharper focus.
Much hinges on the mid-term elections, which are days away when I write. We'll soon see if they will begin to correct our derangement.
The Blame Game in Fraught America
Recent days have brought searing images of anguish anger, tears and trauma to our TV screens as the nation has endured the worst no-holds-barred contest in its history over whether or not to confirm a nominee to the US Supreme Court. The spectacle underlined and deepened the polarization that now defines the Age of Trump. It's often argued that Trump didn't initiate these divisions, which is true, but he never fails to play on them and make them worse. He lives in a zero-sum world in which everyone and everything that doesn't fall fawningly into line with him is his enemy, whether his own Attorney General, the president of China, or the free press itself.
Trump's politics of grievance were fully on display in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 25. Following his ludicrous boast that his administration had accomplished more than perhaps any other in America's history--which brought a wave of laughter from the delegations of almost every other country in the world--he provided this credo: "We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism."
That is, or ought to be, an utterly false dichotomy. The only way that patriotism can act as a benign force is when it unites citizens in awareness of their shared heritage so that they may act confidently, openly, but also cooperatively, with the outside world. True patriots recognize that other societies hold comparable values, which leads them to find common ground in what unites them rather than adopt defiant, blinkered opposition to all others. When conflicts arise, real patriots resolve them through mutual acknowledgment of each other's central value spheres, followed by a search for accommodations which protect them both.
The same principles must apply to partisan divisions at home. Each side first must listen to the policy goals of the other. Only then can each party take steps to accommodate what the other regards as essential. Such listening was in very short supply during the all-day testimony of Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who accused him of sexual assault years ago. But then, once the Senate Judiciary Committee voted along straight party lines to recommend the nomination to the full Senate for a vote, one of the Republicans, Senator Jeff Flake, indicated that he would listen to the central Democratic grievance. That brought agreement to delay the Senate vote one week while the FBI investigated those charges.
I write before knowing the outcome of that delay. If the process works as I hope, it should help resolve the "he-said-she-said" state of the debate one way or the other. That, in turn, should allow whichever is the losing side to accept the legitimacy of the outcome. Absent that, our political life surely will conform even more than it has till now to the Trumpist vision of reality. That could be truly frightful. Whole swaths of the electorate might then refuse to acknowledge not just the policy outcomes, but the very legitimacy of America's governmental institutions.
President Trump has already taken America down that road with the outside world. He has removed us from the attempt to stem global warming and from the international effort to advance human rights, while also denying the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court. His disdain for friends and allies comes from a view of a world wherein shared experiences and common interests with the rest of humanity scarcely exist. Acting on that view creates the worst self-fulfilling prophecy one can imagine.
On the home front, I see a tiny ray of hope in the eleventh-hour effort to bring the Kavanaugh nomination to a close in a way that may not split the nation in two--no thanks to Donald Trump. I pray that America may learn a critical lesson here and begin to say good riddance to Trumpism before he returns us to the Hobbesian state of nature. Now would be a good, if very belated, time to start to move us toward more civilized behavior.
Have you heard this one? History doesn't repeat itself--but it does rhyme.
Like many others, I see a whole lot of rhyming going on between our political life today and that from the first half of the last century, when bellicose nationalism grew across the globe. That ended, as you know, in the 1940s with the worst death and destruction in human history. We don't yet know how the populist backlash of our own era will end, but the parallels to the 1930s are clear and frightening.
Start with "backlash." The rise of fascism in Europe was a reaction to the grievances of those who thought they'd been humiliated by the post-World War I settlements. That was most obviously an issue in Germany, which had entered the war as perhaps the most powerful great power of the time, but in defeat was stripped of its overseas possessions and forced to pay reparations to the same victors who were riding high bestride their empires. Though Italy had been on the winning side, it had not been rewarded with new colonies, and its governing elite resented being treated by the greater Allied powers as inferior. Hitler and Mussolini were the terrible result.
Meanwhile, after Wall Street's crash in 1929, the US choked off trade by enacting a highly protectionist wall of tarriffs. Eureopean powers then did the same, thereby ensuring that an economic downturn would become the Great Depression and last throughout the decade. The terrible motto of the time: Beggar your neighbor, grab what you want for yourself, and oppose everyone else. That turned global politics into a zero-sum game that ended in a second, even more destructive, world war than the first.
But at the close of that catastrophe, lessons were learned. A new effort at world order took the opposite approach, acknowledging that the only path to security and wealth for one nation was to provide it to others as well. Adversaries became partners in trade and mutual security. They succeeded to the point that, by the end of the 1980s, the USSR, the last great illiberal state, collapsed. For one brief moment, it looked as if zero-sum thinking about world politics had been relegated to history's dustbin.
Not so. Now the oppositional politics of the 1930s are being revived with a vengeance. Several European states are either led by anti-liberals, or find right-wing populists gaining strength. The UK has opted out of the most succssful effort at economic integration ever seen. Strong-man rule grips Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines while the USA is in the grip of a swaggering follower of yesteryear's autocrats. Trump began his presidency by insulting our nation's allies, then treating them like adversaries. New tariffs flow from his grudges. I write at a moment when he may have blown up the NAFTA agreement that boosted the economies of the US, Mexico, and Canada. Meanwhile, what once were his party's traditional conservatives have been cowed into submitting to his whims.
So, at the moment, it looks as if the troglodytes have a better than even chance of returning us to a time when conflict and the use of force were the norm in relations among nations. If they don't succeed, it will only be because what counts as progress will reassert itself in much the way progressive forces changed the world very much for the better in the afermath of World War II. Progressives no doubt became complacent in their assumption that global society was moving unswervingly toward a better future for all of God's children. Now that some of our fellows are reacting in anger against that vision, we should acknowledge that, and make sure they're included in the greater good in the future.
If history rhymes, let's make our current era chime with the best from the 20th century's second half, then make it better. Trying to rhyme with the ultra-nationalism of the 1930s makes for terrible discord.
I recently came across a historical factoid that surprised me: Francis Scott Key was the brother-in-law of Roger B. Taney. Of the two, I'm betting that most Americans today will recognize the first name as that of the man who wrote our (nearly unsingable) national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," while they'll scratch their heads to try to place the second. Yet Taney was the Chief Justice of the United States who succeeded John Marshall, serving for 28 years, from 1836 to 1864.
If you do remember Taney, it's almost surely because he wrote for the majority in what many regard as the worst decision ever handed down by the Supreme Court. That was in the Dred Scott case of 1857, determining that African Americans are not citizens. Taney said that black people had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." For good measure, he declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise, which had tried to maintain balance between free and slave states as more were admitted to the union. Dred Scott greatly increased the prospects for civil war, which came three years later.
The marriage that linked Key and Taney made me reflect on their very different post-mortem reputations. Key wrote the verse that every American salutes, and he has two big bridges named for him in Maryland. Taney wrote the most reviled court decision in our history. Now they're taking down his monuments.
Both lives of course encompassed a great deal more than two well-known actions, some of it contradicting what they're remembered for today. Like Taney, Key was a successful lawyer. He was a U.S. attorney while Taney served as Chief Justice. Both men began as slave-owners; both actually freed their slaves before they rose to prominence. But Taney grew increasingly pro-slavery while his brother-in-law represented both slave owners and runaways. No abolitionist, Key became a founding member of the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to repatriate freed slaves to Africa. We'll never know what he might have thought of Taney's most infamous decision since Key died more than a decade before that decision was handed down.
Unlike these two men, most of us will die without being remembered for one particular action, whether acclaimed or reviled. Maybe we should take some comfort in that. But the Taney case reminds me of the legacy of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who just announced his retirement after 20 years on the Supreme Court. Long regarded as the court's swing voter, he may well come to be most remembered for his opinion for the majority in a 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case of 2010. He said in effect that it was unconstitutional to limit a corporation's ability to spend whatever amount of money it wished to spend on political issues, since such spending was free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Citizens United may not quite rise to the level of Dred Scott as a shameful court decision. But by equating the speech rights of corporations with those of you and me, it has allowed corporations and the interests they promote no-holds-barred spending on our political campaigns. That spending was already obscenely great, far and away the most excessive of any nation's. Now it is limitless for corporate "persons," who have lots more to spend on politics than you and I do.
I know, Kennedy was on the right side on other important decisions, such as the Obergefell case. But Citizens United will haunt our politics for generations to come, threatening, I fear, to undermine whatever respect Americans may still have for the electoral process. Shakespeare put it this way: "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."
Pennsylvania, Birthplace of Democracy?
We Americans are about to celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place right in my home town. How ironic that our Pennsylvania legislature has just decamped for the season without advancing a single measure for the much-needed reform of this Commonwealth's political system. Until pretty much day before yesterday, reform efforts were growing and attracting much attention state-wide, so this was a year in which my hopes were actually mounting. They all came crashing down last week.
What's wrong in Pennsylvania? Start with the overweening size of the General Assembly itself. With 50 senators and 203 representatives, it's the largest full-time legislative body for any state, doing its supposed work in a capitol building that, when completed in 1906, cost three times what had been allocated for construction, thanks to wholesale graft. The effort to reduce the legislature's size through constitutional amendment looked like it would go to voters at last for approval this November, but, no, the legislators failed to agree on a measure for voters to enact. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania taxpayers continue to subsidize the legislature's operations, which are the most expensive in the nation.
A second crack at a constitutional amendment this year would have replaced our state's long practice of partisan gerrymandering with a citizens' commission to undertake the redistricting required every decade as the result of the census mandated in the U.S. Constitution. Pennsylvania is notorious for being among the worst gerrymandered states in the nation. This year, a major grassroots effort looked like it might succeed in getting legislation passed that would go to the electorate for another amendment to our state constitution. But at the eleventh hour, the hoped-for bills in both chambers got hopelessly bogged down with poison pill amendments. So, again, no action, and no hope of approving the needed changes before the 2020 census and new--and no doubt more gerryandered--redistricting.
Finally, reformers were hopeful that this year the General Assembly might agree to move the ball toward the merit-based selection of our judges, a common-sense measure that's been kicked around for years. But again, no dice. Our legislators decided to take summer vacation instead.
Add it all up, and we're a far cry today from good government in Pennsylvania. Nor are these failures to act the result of partisan gridlock, since Republicans control both chambers. It's good government itself that worries these politicians who, far more than wanting to do what's right and democratic, are more intent on keeping their jobs.
Last month, a poll of Pennsylvania voters revealed that nearly three-quarters think reforms like these are overdue. Now that the General Assembly has failed them (again), will they vote to remove their representatives in November? Or will they sit out the next election as many of them have sat out others, their cynicicsm reflecting that of their current elected leaders?
If there's any hope for shaking things up in Pennsylvania, it probably lies in the prospect for shaking things up nation-wide in the November elections. That's by no means a sure bet, since our crazed politics in the age of Trump may be making many citizens drop out even while those determined for course corrections are working for change. If Pennsylvania can't stay the course for reform, I fear for the future of our democracy.
Sour Notes, Chords and Discords
What, if any, areas are ever off-limits to political discourse? It's not hard in the abstract to argue that some of our experiences are, or ought to be, so rarified and sacred that they should never be sullied by the kinds of disagreements about social issues that are at the heart of the political realm. That is essentially the argument currently being made by those speaking for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is now touring Europe, then Israel, where it is scheduled to give concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the coming days. But the political overtones look clear to some who read the Israeli stops as a tacit endorsement of the policies of the Netanyahu government toward Palestinians.
Before the Philadelphians left home, their tour faced opposition from demonstrators outside the Kimmel Center. A pre-tour concert was disrupted, as was another days later in Brussels. The music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, tried to wave away any hint of moral culpability in the tour plans when he explained to the audience that "musicians deal in notes, not words." True enough, but context is everything--for notes as well as words. His comment left unanswered why no city in Palestine was part of the tour. That omission was rationalized by a staff member as off-limits because of the State Department's travel ban which prohibits Americans from crossing the "Green Line" into the West Bank.
We should not read anything political, then, into an act of supine compliance with a policy that discriminates against the only community that is still denied statehood in the region? Should we not notice that the Orchestra has deep-pocketed friends both in Israel and America whose wallets may open when they perform in Israel? Or that such folks are far harder to find among residents of Gaza and the occupied West Bank?
Fifty years ago, those who demonstrated against ROTC programs on college campuses did so on grounds that they made the sacred mission of institutions of higher education complicit in perpetuating a militarized society. The military establishment of course insisted that the training they provided was not political. It was sacrosanct. Today, players who take a knee at NFL football games are penalized for engaging in politics when playing the national anthem is also sacrosanct, to game sponsors, anyway.
I take no pleasure in arguing against the Orchestra's justification for its current tour. Performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra have been among the greatest joys of my life. It has never occurred to me in all my years of hearing them that my experience was anything lesss than sacred. I've been blessed that I could make their music-making so integral a part of my life.
Of course, I've understood that their existence isn't spun from the ether, and that these players have bills to pay and lives to live like the rest of us. But it's precisely because they are like the rest of us, in everything except their incredible ability to produce a bit of heaven on earth, that they, as individuals and an institution, have moral capacity like the rest of us. They need to speak out against policies that maintain real injustice and refuse to become complicit in them. To quote a professional musician with life-long ties to the Philadelphia Orchestra, also a critic of the Orchestra's performances in Israel, "Musicians and artists of all stripes--who make it their business to act as persuasive humanists--can play a small but admirable role . . . against positions that perpetuate great injustices."
Not to do so only makes for discord, not music.
Macron: France's Anti-Trump--and Trump's Best Friend
In April, French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife visited the White House for a two-day state visit. Plenty of hoopla resulted, along with visuals of the two presidents clasping arms, holding hands, testing each other's strength with their handshakes, and grinning broadly--though what passes for a grin from Trump is his odd variation of a grimace. To Martians without knowledge of these two, the picture was that of an obvious bromance, one in keeping with the myth of Franco-American friendships from the time the French helped us throw off the yoke of the British more than a few years ago.
But to any who know the histories of Trump and Macron, this display looked passing strange. Macron is the man who single-handedly stopped Marine Le Pen and her right-wing National Front in their tracks when he was elected France's president a year ago. Trump embodies America's version of the National Front, since both feed on nativism, exclusionary nationalism, and zero-sum politics. While Trump works night and day to undermine America's leadership of the liberal international order created at the end of World War II, Macron has emerged as its most articulate and ardent champion. Macron's view of the world is all-encompassing and inclusive; Trump trumpets what he thinks best for himself and his followers while excluding all the rest of the population.
Those stark differences were in fact on display when Macron addressed a joint session of Congress after his one-on-one with the president. There he made clear his determination to stick with the Iranian nuclear deal, explained why he opposed the tariffs Trump has called for on aluminum and steel imports, and urged the lawmakers to return to the Paris Agreement on environmental protections that Trump pulled America out of soon after taking the oath of office. In a sly play on Trump's campaign slogan, he urged his listeners to "make the planet great again," and warned of the dangers of environmental collapse. "There is no Planet B," he reminded us.
So, why his great show of friendship and affection for our president when Macron is clearly poles apart from him in matters of policy? I think Macron knows exactly what he's doing. He's acting on his understanding of The Donald as the self-centered egoist he clearly is. The only path to persuading Trump to do something he's not already decided to do is to fawn and flatter him, thereby showing your personal "loyalty." That won't guarantee you'll succeed in moving him, but without giving him such evidence, you're dead meat. Just ask James Comey, H. R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, and a host of others who've come and gone from his administration for not behaving sufficiently like lapdogs.
The trick now for Macron is to persuade Trump to give him at least some of what he needs to convince his own constituents that he's their successful leader while not becoming, as was said of Tony Blair when he supported George W. Bush over his Iraq invasion, the president's poodle. The first test will come as early as May 12 when Trump is likely to renounce the Iranian nuclear agreement. If he doesn't, the French president will deserve much credit. But if Trump pulls out of the accord, will Macron be able to point to anything he's helped to salvage from the wreckage? Similar questions will follow in the other areas where Macron is trying mightily to influence Trump's actions.
So, as I see it, President Macron is being dumb as a fox. That doesn't mean he might not still be destroyed by placing too much stock in his own guile. But sometimes, when the bigger and more powerful hound is convinced of his own superiority, the wily little creature can outwit him. As Trump likes to say, we'll see what happens.
Vive la France!
Facing Off with Facebook
Recent weeks have brought a flood of revelations about how a dodgy marketing outfit gained access to 50 million Facebook profiles to help the Trump campaign target and arouse would-be supporters in the 2016 presidential election. Cambridge Analytica worked to stoke racist fears and prejudices among the mostly white males its profiling targeted.
Racebook was ruinously lax in protecting the privacy of its users, so that a presidential campaign was able to make unacknowledged use of Facebook customers' data to influence the election. It's plausible to suppose that in rust belt states that Trump narrowly won, it was just this negative marketing that made the difference. I write when it's far from clear that Facebook--or Congress--will take the kinds of measures needed to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
Apart from Facebook's culpability, these revelations should be a wake-up call about the insidious impact social media are having on our lives. Facebook and its counterparts are disrupting social mores and the way many hundreds of millions of people perceive the world. The hours they spend there make a radical departure from traditional social interaction. Those who glue themselves to Facebook for many hours a day are acutely focused on promoting their own views. If I share an opinion that is liked and responded to by many others, I may quickly find myself in a community of the like-minded, wherein we reinforce each other to the point that I may feel even more intensely about the view I started with. That also means even more intense rejection of views opposing mine. Outrage feeds upon outrage, firing up boatloads of strangers. If you want to sample really polarized opinions, just slip into a wormhole on social media and see how quickly you get to an extreme position.
This may help explain the rise of an aggrieved populism across much of the Western world. It goes far, I believe, to explain two earth-shaking events that at first blush don't seem much connected. I speak of the election of Donald Trump and the vote in the U.K. months earlier to leave the Eureopean Union. Both Trumpists in the USA and Brexiteers in Britain felt more aggrieved and passionate than those on the other side, and so were more determined to go to the polls. Remain voters in Britain, like Hillary supporters in the US, weren't nearly as energized as were their opponents.
Democratic societies are grounded in the idea that adults should express their political views through elections in which all have an equal voice. But political scientists have long understood that premise doesn't account for the differences in intensity of the values voters hold. Some support candidates because of their stand on a single issue--often gun rights or opposition to abortion today--where their feelings are intense. Voters who assess candidates on a range of stances may end with less intense support for a particular outcome precisely because they want to advance or oppose a variety of policies. In contrast, the politics of grievance, wherein voters are aroused by their distrust or hatred of what they view as privileged groups, is almost guaranteed to create passionately intense voters, for whom the strong emotions they feel displace the reasoned political discourse which appeals to others. Guess which type of citizen is more motivated to go to the polls!
What social media too often promote is the antithesis of civil discourse. Sometimes, it's true, they may arouse citizens to support a cause I favor--as was the case with the response to students calling for a March to Save Lives following the shooting rampage at a school in Florida--so there's nothing inherently wrong in intensely wanting to achieve a political goal. But the dynamics of social media are arrayed to push actions that divide rather than unite us. That should worry anyone concerned about the future of democratic government.
Trump, Russia, and Defense of the Constitution
We've seen the smoking gun.
Russian interference in America's elections is provably clear, alarming, and ongoing, according to Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate those claims. Last month he issued sixteen indictments against Russian individuals and groups, charging them with serious and sophisticated efforts to disrupt our democracy by sowing distrust and otherwise making mischief in our electoral process. The indictments confirmed and added detail to findings already reported by chiefs of the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency, men at the top of the entire security apparatus of the executive branch of government. Together, they provided evidence of a serious security threat to the United States.
Such findings should naturally trigger an instant reaction from the commander-in-chief. We'd expect him to assure the nation that he took those charges seriously and demonstrate how he would combat and work to end them. But not this president. Trump was silent about all that, perhaps still believing Vladimir Putin when he told him that he and his minions were innocent of such dirty work. Or perhaps, as many have long suspected, the Russian government truly is holding our president hostage, whether because of shady business deals he's hiding with Russian oligarchs, or because of the possibility of a steamy sexual expose from visits the Donald made to Moscow. In the words of one of our leading columnists, "Trump is either totally compromised by the Russians or is a towering fool, or both."*
At least as ominous as Trump's silent unwillingness to oppose Russian meddling was the silence that followed on the part of leading Republicans. They must know that Trump's refusal to take action looks like dereliction of his duty to uphold the Constitution, something he promised under oath when he was sworn in as president more than a year ago. To counter Russian meddling in our democracy is surely the very definition of what it means to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States. Have we come to the point when one of our two major political parties will pretend nothing is out of the ordinary when a hostile foreign power tries to subvert us? I fear I know the answer.
For the first few months of Trump's lunatic presidency, many critics supposed that the growing parallel to Nixon's nefarious practices would serve as precedent. Once knowledge of the Watergate break-in was traced to Nixon himself, his fellow Republicans in Congress turned away from him in droves. So, we supposed, would today's Republicans divorce themselves from Trump once his refusal to carry out the duties of his office became clear even to them. Now the world is disabused of that prospect, and never more clearly than in this president's spurning of his constitutional responsibility in light of the Mueller indictments. Trump and his loyalists have so taken over the G.O.P that the party has abandoned its responsibility to assure that the president upholds our basic law.
At the moment, I must agree with the conclusion another observer just came to: Trump is now both unrestrainable and unimpeachable.**
*Thomas L. Friedman, "Whatever Trump is hiding is hurting all of us now," New York Times, February 18, 2018.
**Lexington, "The new normal," The Economist, February 24, 2018.
Fixing Some of What Ails Us:
Stop Goofy from Kicking Donald Duck
Pennsylvania voters got a huge victory a couple of weeks ago when the state's Supreme Court ruled that the way its congressional districts were drawn "clearly, plainly, and palpably" violated the state constitution. That's because, following the 2010 elecction, the Republican majority in the legislature redrew the map in such a way that in every election since, Republicans have won 13 out of 18 House seats even though Pennsylvania voters have been pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. One of the districts with the craziest shape in the nation, Pennsylvania's Seventh, looks, as one wag put it, like Goofy kicking Donald Duck. In the some places, the district's diverse parcels are connected by little more than a single building while it meanders over bits and pieces of five suburban counties outside Philadelphia in order to capture as many Republican voters as possible and weed out Democrats.
Nor is the Goofy district an anomaly nationwide. The U.S. Constitution provides for the redrawing of Congressional districts after every ten-year census, when seats are reapportioned in keeping with shifting populations from state to state. Clearly, the framers intended both that rough parity in the number of people within each district should be maintained and that district boundaries enclose, to the extent possible, unified and contiguous communities. On that basis, voters could select their representatives by choosing a candidate drawn from their neighborhood. But two-plus centuries later, the gerrymandering of districts in much of the country means that representatives effectively choose their voters, rather than the other way around.
The Pennsylvania court's decision called for the legislature to redraw the map by February 9 with sufficient objectivity that Governor Wolf, a Democrat, would approve it. Failing that, the court itself will draw a new map. I write before the deadline, so don't yet know how the court's order is being met.
The interesting feature of this case is that the majority ruled that the map was in violation of Pennsylvania's constitution, leaving entirely aside its constitutionality at the federal level. That argument seems to be unique to the Pennsylvania case. Gerrymandering cases from Maryland and Wisconsin are currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has historically been unwilling to insert itself into gerrmandering issues on grounds they are a "political" matter. (The Congressional map of Maryland favors Democrats, reminding us that partisan districting makes for equal opportunity biases, depending upon who's in charge.) Whatever the outcome of the other two cases in that forum, the Pennsylvania decision seems nearly certain to produce a dramatically new map in my state, and very soon.
Ending the most egregious kinds of gerrymandering may be the most important step the nation can take to begin to move away from the hyper-partisanship that now characterizes our politics. When majority parties can create districts favorable to themselves, they encourage their own stalwarts to command the outcomes of primaries. The most intense--and extreme--partisans are those most committed to vote in primaries, thereby nominating like-minded candidates and crowding out those who might seek to work across the aisle. That's how extreme partisanship now perpetuates itself and worsens our political divisions.
It needn't be this way. One solution is to take redistricting out of the hands of the majority party in the legislature and give the task to a non-partisan citizens' commission. That works successfully for a number of states that have moved to such a system. It should become the standard in every state. The other solution is to permit open primaries, so that all voters, regardless of party affiliation, can vote to nominate candidates. That's a position I once opposed, since I thought party identification bolstered responsible parties and required closed primaries. But no more. Once our primary elections are structured to encourage more moderate voices to prevail, we'll have gone a long way to restoring greater sanity to our political life.
Can the G.O.P. Survive Trump?
Ever since Trump moved into the White House nearly a year ago, his behavior has challenged our constitutional system like never before. Whether or not his presidency ends in his impeachment, Trump's impact on the Republican Party now looks catastrophic for the future of the party of Lincoln.
Can that be? I write only days after Republican majorities in both houses of Congress have stood hand in hand with him to pass a bill masquerading as tax reform that will further enrich the richest. Even his staunchest G.O.P. critics in the Senate fell into line. But the fact that they did so and included those who'd once been deficit hawks, such as Bob Corker, is an ominous sign of how Trump is reordering Republican orthodoxy. It's precisely such establishment Republicans, which includes most Republican senators, who now dance to Trump's tune. But it's Trump's tune that is blasting the party apart, never mind the uneasy intra-party peace over the tax bill.
As recently as a few months ago, Congress failed to abolish the Affordable Care Act because Republican critics of Trump in the Senate refused to go along. Debate at the time showed how the party was split between Trump's nativist base and the more traditionally mainstream Republicans who still had prominent roles in Washington. John McCain was emblematic of the latter when he said, in accepting the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia last October, "We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil." Days later, George W. Bush took aim at "nationalism distorted into nativism." Their unmistakable references to both Trump and the roots of fascism were meant as a rallying cry to fellow Republicans to rise up against Trump's predations on their party's heritage.
Except that no rallying has followed, but onlyl G.O.P. acquiescence in Trumpian priorities. the McCain-Bush cri du coeur rose out of their commitment to the party's lang-standing principles. Ever since World War II, Republicans have been internationalists. They've stood for free markets at home and abroad, promoting a global system of trade and economic exchange and American leadership to make that effort a success. They have actively supported Cold War and post-Cold War alliances as a way of advancing peace, both to foster trade and extend democratic values around the world. Trump has rejected most if not all of that, starting with his dystopian inaugural address. He never tires of pounding the drum of "America First" and restricting immigration, even though his party's traditionalists hold the view that immigrants are an important component of our prosperity. So, the ideological split in the party is a growing chasm.
Here's why that's so: the most revealing--and astonishing--feature of Trump's presidency is his unprecedented determination to play only to his base. Unlike every other president before him, he has made no effort to broaden his appeal to the wider electorate. That strategy has worked for him in the short run, but will eventually be suicidal for the party he heads, if not for him personally. His roughly 35% support today is made up almost exclusivelly of older white men who, in the long run, will all be dead. Nor are all their descendants likely to be the political clones of their fathers. So how can Republican majorities be cobbled together post-Trump?
The prospect I see is for the Republican Party to divide. The moderate or establishment camp may align itself with independents or moderate Democrats (Ohio's John Kasich is their possible leader), while the Trumpians will go native, more or less the way the Know Nothing Party in the mid-19th century opposed Catholics and other immigrant groups they feared, killing off the Whig Party in the process. Back then, the more mainstream moderates joined forces to give birth to the Republicans.
That's a cautionary reminder to Democrats that they shouldn't become too gleeful over the growing civil war in the Republican Party today. The Democrats could become ancillary casualties, too. What can be predicted is that we're in for turmoil in the years ahead like we haven't seen in our party politics for more than a century.
America's Abdication in Syria
If the fratricidal war in Syria is winding down at last, its aftermath will leave the United States almost entirely on the sidelines, perhaps unable ever again to influence events in the troubled Middle East very meaningfully. Before I consider that, here's a reminder of the war's seven-year horror for Syria.
The nation is in ruins. Hundreds of thousands have died, nearly half the population has been displaced, and the tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, targeted in the initial uprising, still presides over what remains of the country. A year ago, his days seemed numbered. Since then, thanks to new and effective Russian assistance in the air plus fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, his government has fought its way back, and now controls the largest cities, most provincial capitals, and more than half the nation's territory.
The turnabout has been aided, if not caused, by the refusal of the United States and its allies to get deeply involved with those opposing Assad. Early in the war, the Obama administration called for Assad's removal. But in spite of giving some assistance to rebels deemed "moderate," the U.S. was unwilling to send troops or air power into the fray.
The reluctance stemmed partly from the disorder and rivalry among opposition groups, and fear that some aligned with ISIS might benefit. Obama was also reacting to our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he and much of the world determined had gone sour. More fundamentally, he was repudiating the Bush/neo-con doctrine that championed using our military power to shape distant societies. He did draw a so-called "red line," threatening Assad if he were to use chemical weapons against his own people. But when proof came that the Syrian leader had done just that, Obama did not respond. That pretty much ended whatever credibility he still had as an effective player in the conflict.
Enter the Russians. They became key players in propping up Assad while the West largely left the field. In recent weeks, President Putin convened a conference that included Assad along with Iranian and Turkish leaders--but not the U.S.--to plot what comes next. A new round of UN-sponsored peace talks are now in the offing, with at least one major Syrian opposition leader refusing to participate on grounds that outside powers already are carving up his nation while leaving Assad in charge.
President Trump, meanwhile, ended an Obama-era program run by the CIA to train anti-Assad forces in Syria. His oft-stated admiration of Putin likely means that he's leaving Syria's future largely in Russian hands. In this, he, too, walked away from neo-con interventionism. But here, his "America First" nationalism looks like a return to the isolationism that marked U.S. foreign policy until World War II.
That will have a far more unsettling impact on the world than was the case during the first 150 years of our history. America is vastly more powerful, with much greater responsibility, today. For the U.S. to return to Fortress America means there's no one big and powerful enough among democratic states to lead the way in promoting a rules-based world order. The lessons we should have learned from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam are those Obama seemed to be applying in Syria--no boots on the ground but vigorous support of reformist actors--until he shied away from any real police action against Assad's unacceptable conduct of the war. That set the stage for Trump's fuller withdrawal.
To cede American leadership of a liberal world order is to invite replacing it with a more mischievous and strife-filled era in which democratic norms may no longer be advanced and secured. The death of liberal internationalism could be the most enduring and troubling legacy of the current, most troubling presidency in America's history.