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.
Trick or Treat in Trumpland
Hallowe'en came early for America and the world this year. Starting with the frightening picture the pumpkin-haired Trump painted in his inaugural address, his words and actions have just kept getting scarier. Banning Muslims, threatening North Korea with fire and fury, beating up on everything Obama--the tirades and the venom just keep coming. (Some of those around the president even look and act like they're made up for Hallowe'en; the fallen Sean Spicer's replacement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is Exhibit A. But I digress.)
On the eve of October 31, legal action from Robert Mueller showed that at least some of the spooks and goblins Trump had unleashed were in trouble. We learned that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates had received huge treats for the tricks they'd played on the U.S., raking in many millions over the years for playing footsy with Putin's pal, the now-deposed president of Ukraine. Their trick had been not to report that to the Feds. We also discovered that a one-time foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign had lied to the FBI about his communications with the Russian government, and that now he's "flipped," to ease his punishment by spilling the beans on others.
So, chapter one has come to a tantalizing close, one promising a gripping narrative to follow, with who-knows-what kind of ending. But even if the story ended right here, its moral would be sordid. It's already shown us the criminality of some of those Trump chose to help get him elected President of the United States. When Trump tapped Manafort to manage his campaign, he had to know of his long-time business relationships with a Russian oligarch, and the paid advice he'd provided to such strongmen as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire.
These indictments came just days after several leading Republican stalwarts criticized the president for behavior that each found unacceptable and dangerous. The critiques of Trump leveled by George W. Bush, John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake are unprecedented--for this or any previous president--coming from leading members of that president's own party. "It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end," said Flake on the Senate floor. Corker called the president "utterly untruthful."
For one brief moment, the excoriating candor from four icons of their party seemed certain to remind Republicans in office throughout the land of their party's and their nation's principles, prodding them to abandon Trump in droves. I held my breath. Could it be that, in a reversal of the Christian calendar, All Saints day might precede Hallowe'en this year?
The answer, sadly, is no. Trump's command of his base is still so great that any who wanted to keep the jobs to which they'd been elected held their tongues. The four horsemen of Trump's would-be apocalypse, after all, were men whose own political careers had either ended or soon would do so. The sainthood of the latter two--Flake and Corker--might have been greater if they had fought even suicidal races for reelection in order to live by the principles they espoused. As it was, their outspoken opposition to Trump and what he stands for only came after they'd recognized their vulnerability and announced their retirement.
Even so, if true decency and an effort to govern for the good of all the American people are ever again to become the guiding principles of Republicanism, then the warnings of these men will be remembered and heeded. Some day. Meanwhile, Mueller and his team have a helluva job to do to try to save the republic.
Moving Backwards: A Frightful Prospect
A reactionary nationalism now holds much of this nation in thrall. It's a know-nothing king of populism that put Donald Trump in the White House. From there he scarcely pretends to serve the interests of the whole society, unlike every previous president of the United States, but uses his bully pulpit to inflame his base with his--and their--vision of a zero-sum world in which everybody else is out to get them. They seem to want to return to a time when (their fantasy supposes) folks like themselves presumably got what they wanted while those appalling others--blacks, foreigners, and everyone else with different complexions--served submissively in the background. Putting such people in charge of the nation pretty much guarantees a dismal future in every aspect of our social and political well-being.
Today I'll focus on its impact on our foreign policy. Whether or not the president stirs the North Korea pot to the point that it boils over into war, his "policies," if one can dignify his incoherent assaults on the status quo with such a label, threaten to undo all the progress the world has made toward reining in large-scale conflict over the past seventy years.
That progress didn't come about accidentally. It grew from a carefully laid plan to create a rules-based international order after the overwhelming destruction of World War II. At its heart was agreement that wars of aggression could no longer be waged with impunity. The corresponding commitment was to strive for greater economic well-being by encouraging international trade, development and growth. The aspiration of societies to improve their lot would be met through peaceful change, not conquest. Encouraging self-government for those still ruled by imperial masters played a prominent part, as well.
We need to remind ourselves how well that liberal order has worked, as is still the case where it is not being undermined by the new nationalists. True, where its "liberal" premise has allowed unrestrained capitalism to result in ever-greater economic inequality, it has helped produce the populist reaction now so visible in the United States and elsewhere.
But a populist nationalism is not the answer. Are foreign officials to take literally Trump's declaration in his first address to the United Nations last month that he wants them to assert their nation's own sovereignty, just as the Trumpists are doing? That is a call for them to go their own way and oppose the US, rather than engage with us for our mutual benefit. It may fit a simplistic "America First" slogan, but completely contradicts the president's lament that others take advantage of us and don't contribute enough to our common welfare. His words at the UN suggest that he truly wants other nations to go it alone militarily and economically on the assumption that it's a dog-eat-dog world. Push that assumption along, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's not just Trump. Others in his administration also seem to want to lead us back to the kind of Hobbesian world we thought we'd left in the past many decades ago. Last spring, two of his presumably "sensible" advisers argued in the Wall Street Journal, "The world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. . . . Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it." That seems to align them with the most retrograde actors in today's world: Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Kim Jong-un, to name a few.
If it's the Hobbesian view that now drives this administration, it is a very frightening vision for our future and that of our planet. Make no mistake, as they strive to take us there, the world is headed for a new dark age.
Racism and the Yahoo Factor
Last month in this space, I noted a huge and whopping irony in what's happened to America's racial stereotypes, which is that the personalities and character displayed by the current and immediate past president of the United States turn those images upside down. The black man is the very model of what it means to be a gentleman, the white man's behavior that of white trash. Ten days after that post, the latter underlined the aptness of my description when he found himself unable to condemn the neo-Nazis whose march in Charlottesville led to violence and death. Insisting that there were good people on both sides of the confrontation, Trump's words gave comfort to Ku Klux Klanners and other gun-toting white supremacists, who were quick to congratulate themselves on how the president had smiled on them.
So, no, Trump's comments were not out of character, but merely clarified the actual views on race and political extremism of the man who is supposed to lead and represent all America. That, of course, is the problem. While our nation should eventually recover from Donald Trump, for now he commands the bully pulpit of the presidency, where he's using a bullhorn to encourage negative forces of the kind that other presidents have long repulsed.
Before Trump, and over the past half century, racism truly had come to be opposed by solid citizens of every stripe, its overt practitioners having slunk into ever more remote corners of our collective minds. Not so long ago, I was growing confident that the dominant ethic of our society, for the first time ever over our long and sobering history of unequal relations between whites and blacks, had come to reject racism and its evils. Now the president of the United States is encouraging Americans to relapse back into the false and harmful fears and stereotypes that have so long been the nation's curse.
In this as in much else, Trump's words and actions prompt what might be called the Yahoo factor to mold America's social norms, bringing know-nothingism, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred front and center as acceptably mainstream behaviors. From that favored position, those malign attitudes and the actions they spawn will wreak havoc on the better angels of all our natures. Thanks to our history, if not our very nature as human beings, we are all capable of showing prejudice in our relations with those who don't look like us. We massage our egos by believing they are our inferiors. It takes shining examples from those who presumably lead us--whether parents, teachers, or presidents--to keep those worse demons at bay.
We must oppose the cross-burners and other hate-filled extremists when our president can't bring himself to do so. Perhaps today's greatest danger is that Trump will lead the nation back to accepting once again the most repugnant views and attitudes of our past. God knows, those views once produced terrible behavior, the worst of it ending in lynchings. Tolerating, let alone encouraging, race prejudice is a dangerous thing, the start down a slippery slope that can propel the society very quickly to the acceptance of major abuses of the rights of fellow citizens and others.
Unless our president's Yahooism generates serious opposition and serious action for the common good, we'll likely not avoid that slippery slope. Then we'll be in for a truly ghastly ride. As we have been warned repeatedly since Hitler's rise, societies descend into horror only when good and decent people remain silent while evil-doers work their will.
Exploding Racial Stereotypes: Obama and Trump
Racial stereotypes have been the bane of American society since Europeans first landed here, African slaves in tow. Their bondage was justified on grounds, not simply of the inequality of whites and blacks, but the inferiority of the latter, which evidently meant that in God's eyes, the Negro race was meant to serve Caucasians. Our otherwise enlightened founder, Thomas Jefferson, supposed that blacks and whites were actually different species, so attributed to nature the domination of one over the other, which explained why equal rights did not extend to the inferior race. Dolley Madison was among the mistresses of large plantations who imagined that their slaves didn't feel the ordinary emotions of grief when their children died.
We now know that such views are quite literally unnatural, so we deride them as we should. Our nation's history can largely be told as the ongoing struggle first to emancipate blacks, and then to assure their equality under the law and in the minds of all Americans. Yet, in spite of all we know and the effort we've made as a nation to overcome it, racial prejudice remains a still-living canker on our collective soul. Racial stereotypes persist, lurking beneath the consciousness of the well-intentioned, but ready to break through even civilized behavior in moments of stress or discord.
I sometimes wonder if the examples of our two most recent presidents shouldn't shatter those gallingly persistent stereotypes, once and for all. Think about it. The eight years our first African-American president--whose moniker, No Drama Obama, says much about his character--spent in the White House gave the lie to every crude joke ever uttered about the inferiority of members of his race. Smart as a whip and highly educated, he also displayed the most exemplary family life throughout his years in the spotlight. His wife is both an attractive, supportive helpmate and a model of accomplishment for women and girls throughout the world. No hint of scandal ever touched his administration. He greeted opposition and setbacks with dignity and good humor. He was classy.
Obama was and is, to reach for an old-fashioned concept, the very model of what it used to mean to be a gentleman. Such individuals were, if you need to be reminded, almost invariably white men.
His successor? Change the color of his skin, and Trump is the repugnant lower-class black of the racist stereotype, blissful in his ignorance and bereft of a moral compass. His vulgarity and lack of discipline reveal a personalilty so obsessed with his own self-importance as to make ordinary narcissits look like wall-flowers. His several marriages would have disqualified him for high office in any era before the presidency of the once-divorced Reagan. His lack of respect for women is matched only by his disdain for those who serve him. He hired a goon straight from The Godfather to double down on the humiliations heaped on his own people. (It may be that some hint of dignity remained in the office of the presidency itself when this consigliere was made to leave--though doubtfully at Trump's initiative--within days of his appointment, soon after his obscene rants went public.)
No gentleman, the current occupant of the White House is the epitome of rich white trash. Once he has passed from the scene, his presidency will surely be remembered as the most sordid in our history, and Trump himself as our most repugnant president. When it comes time to juxtapose his occupation of the highest office in the land against Obama's, the contrast will be ironic in the extreme. Can the comparison at last sweep into history's dustbin the ugliest of America's enduring racial stereotypes?
How to Pursue Happiness
I recently watched a TV interview of eighty-six-year-old Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest individuals. What struck me most about the man was his evident happiness; he chuckled all the way through his remarks, the twinkle of a smile always flickering across his face. Of course he's happy, you might say, when you consider how rich he is. But we all know that great wealth is not a coefficient of sanguinity. Neither flinty old John D. Rockefeller nor miserly J. Paul Getty struck most who knew them as happy men, in spite of their vast fortunes.
Buffett's good cheer clearly stems from his having acknowledged the social value of capital accumulation, then living in accordance with knowing it. That means acting on the principle that, once one's own familial needs are covered, your excess wealth should have a social purpose. Buffett has given away billions during his lifetime, and will leave most of his estate to programs benefitting the society at large. He's still living in the house he's lived in for years "because of the memories it holds." He owns no yachts or other such baubles of the rich. With regard to his immediate family, he is leaving them enough, he said, so that they can work at what they wish to do, but not so much that they need do nothing.
His comments brought to mind my younthful epiphany after reading George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism for an undergraduate course on political theory. (Shaw's tongue-in-cheek purpose, he said, at the moment when women were winning the right to vote, was to educate wives in the blessings of socialism so that they could educate their husbands.) His central argument was that, under capitalism, the only point to accumulating great wealth was to give much of it away, since piling up multiple houses, boats, and motor cars becomes a burden, not a pleasure. Because there is a finite limit to how much pleasure one can get from one's possessions, having more of them is not the answer. That being so, Shaw asked, why not transfer the excess to the state to be redistributed for the benefit of all?
No, Shaw's brand of socialism has never caught on in America. In spite of the fact that our economic inequality today is greater than at any time since the gilded age of the rober barons, our bizarre political discussion is about bigger tax cuts for the super rich. Buffett and George Soros--also one of the richest men around--find that objectionable on moral grounds; both advocate higher taxes on people like themselves. There's much in their kind of capitalism that Shaw would have approved of.
One way to think about the morality of this debate is to turn to Jefferson's great contribution to the list of humanity's unalienable rights: the pursuit of happiness. That is the ideal directive for humanity, the right from which all others flow. You can't very well look for happiness if the wolf is lurking at your door and your basic needs aren't met. But past that threshold--and moving beyond it requires society's support--you're on your own to reach for it. You find, when you do, that your path to that end is diminishingly material. The real rewards are not in baubles, pleasing as they may briefly be, but in serving others.
Our nation's historic charge is that every generation should do what it can to expand the field of those who might pursue happiness on equal terms with their fellow-citizens. Warren Buffett has answered that charge on a scale that most of us can't emulate. But the scale is not the point. Getting your values straight so they guide your life as one who gives back is the road to happiness.
Trump and the Cult of Personality
It's a well-known feature of authoritarian regimes: the leader makes himself (they are almost always males) indispensable to righting the wrongs that have oppressed "the people," i.e., that portion of the population that feels disaffected and aggrieved. He assures them that it is he and only he who can correct the institutional and social factors that have caused them to be left behind. Thus the cult of personality begins.
All the world can see that Donald Trump has the makings of just such an authoritarian leader. His narcissism may not be essential to the cult of personality, but, God knows, it helps nurture it. He personalizes everything he touches. (Speaking of touching, what could be a more telling image of a narcissist at work than the photo of him roughly pushing aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro at the recent NATO summit so that he, the Donald, could claim the middle of the front row for the group picture?) Egypt's authoritarian President al-Sisi knew how to fawn when he gushed at Trump, "You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible." "I agree," was our president's modest response.
I admit that I often find hilarious this child-like preening and the wild claims made daily by our Egotist-in-Chief. I do, that is, until reason returns and I remember that it's not a playpen wherein he dwells but the most powerful office in the world. What's more, even after twenty weeks of nearly nonstop scandals and his own outrageous behavior, the loyalty of Trump's base has scarcely eroded at all. That's also a common feature of leaders like Trump; they appeal to emotions, not reason, and so maintain the support of their loyalists even while they fail to fulfill the promises made to them.
They do, that is, unless and until the gulf between what's promised and the ground of continued disappointment grows so wide that even loyalists discover that they've fallen into the chasm. That's when the cult of personality may be shaped into a deliberate tool of authoritarianism to keep opposition at bay. Look beyond Trump as buffoon and the ingredients are in place. First are the presidential tweets. Because they're unfiltered, they are Trump's means of revealing to his millions of followers on a daily basis his outrage and anger, his passion and his preferences, which is to say, his dangerously adolescent personality.
The policy agenda merges with the personal. Major public appearances are indistinguishable from campaign rallies. Not one appearance outside the White House has yet attempted to do more than gin up the base. Even on his first foreign trip, which passed without a press conference, his speech to U.S. troops at a base in Sicily was remarkable for its insistence that maintaining a strong military was only possible because he, Donald Trump, won the election. Two weeks earlier, the original, phony justification for his firing of the FBI director at least camouflaged as a policy concern; the president's own explanation--that Comey was a "nut job"--revealed the much more personal truth.
That the press is the "enemy of the people" producing "fake news" may be a ludicrous if unsurprising charge coming from the mouth of such a person. But it's far more sinister if that person succeeds in convincing millions of Americans that it's true. It may have seemed laughable when the president dismissed an early court ruling against his Muslim travel ban as coming from "a so-called judge." But it sets the stage for dismissing the legitimacy of the judiciary when the opposition to his actions grows. We have yet to see whether his and Steve Bannon's dark imprecations against the "deep state" will produce serious attacks on other institutions of the federal government, but the path is being laid. Lest we forget, such institutions are what maintain us as a democracy.
The good news is that the Trump administration is already in enough trouble on a number of fronts that it may not have the resources to create the kind of cult of peronality that could undermine our Constitution. I continue to have considerable faith in the resilience of our democratic system. But the ominous threats to it are all about us.
I had a wild and crazy dream last night. I saw the President of the United States addressing the nation to mark his first hundred days. He announced that his brief time in office had led to a complete turn-around in his views. His words amounted to an amazing mea culpa. No longer did he hold the dystopian vision of the nation's future that marked his inaugural address. He had come to see that he should represent all Americans and not just the base whose anger he'd ginned up to vote for him last November. Now, his only goal was to persuade both houses of Congress to enact legislation that would benefit the vast majority of Americans and thereby start to heal our deep divisions.
The president said that he had learned a lesson from the complete failure of the Republicans in the House to repeal Obamacare. He understood today that their wild attempt had clarified for millions of Americans how his predecessor had taken an important and valuable initiative to provide affordable health care. Now it was this president's duty to reach across the aisle to develop legislation that would improve and not repeal what was helping so many. He even added that it's time to recognize that effective health care is a citizen's right and not a luxury available only to those who can afford it. Think of that!
He then admitted that his idea of building a zillion-dollar wall along the Mexican border was completely wrong-headed. Instead, we should try to live in harmony with our neighbors. So, he would ask Congress for an appropriation to rationalize and improve our immigration system. He agreed that immigrants strengthen the nation's fabric. Therefore, new legislation should legalize the status of all illegal aliens who were putting down roots here and contributing to the nation's economic growth. A first priority would be the Dreamers, those brought here as children who know no other home than the U.S.A.
The president reminded us in his remarkable speech that a major overhaul of our tax structure should make it not just simpler, but fairer. In reducing the number of tax brackets, the guiding principle should be to strengthen the progressivity of our tax system. He then said that the richest one percent should of course return a higher percentage of their income in taxes than those toward the bottom--just imagine! Loopholes of all kinds should be closed. The end result of a reformed tax code would guarantee the government sufficient revenues to begin to draw down the national debt, as well.
When it came to job-creation, the president was clear: the nation's infrastructure badly needs a boost. Calling for new legislation for spending on such programs, he insisted his goal was also to encourage public-private partnerships that would create millions of new jobs. Those would bring many of the unskilled workers laid off from mining and heavy industry back into the workforce. He said he understood now not to pretend that jobs would return in dying economic sectors. There would be many more new jobs in renewable energy and other emerging technologies. Retraining programs are needed to prepare the workforce for the future. He sees that it's the future, not the past, where we should be heading.
It was wonderful to hear the president say he is now on board with the Paris climate accord, and is committing the U.S. to achieve all its goals. He even thinks that saving the planet is a good thing!
There was more, but you get some idea of why this was such a marvelous dream. I almost forgot to say that in my reverie, I saw both Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell beaming behind the president's lectern. More than once, I saw tears of happiness roll down their cheeks. McConnell had to blow his nose. Schumer and Pelosi looked transfixed.
Then I woke up.
But what a vision!
The Ungreening of America
One of the catastrophes Trumpists are now visiting on America is to turn back the effort to clean up our skies and waterways. Climate change deniers are now in charge of Washington agencies meant to protect our environment and direct greener policies for all the nation's business. As in much else about the reactionary politics ascendant in our nation's capital, they reverse the nonpartisan consensus we reached years ago on the need to protect our environment. The Environmental Protection Agency, after all, was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon and has come through every presidency since.
Trump's recent Executive Order essentially takes the United States out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose overall goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 26-28% by the second half of this century. He'll abandon our Clean Power Plan regulating carbon pollution from power plants, which are responsible for 40% of the nation's greenhouse gases, and permit new coal mining on public lands.
The coal lobby has enthusiastically praised Trump's rollback of what they call "job-killing" regulations, arguing, as does the president, that his action will "level the playing field" and create many new jobs in a now-decimated coal industry.
That's a wild fantasy in all respects. It's not federal regulations that have hurt the coal industry, but the competition from cleaner energy sources. New technologies for exploiting shale gas, while far from cost-free for the environment, produce a cheap fuel more benign in its impact on our air and water than dirty coal. Renewable fuels--air, water, and solar power--are coming down in cost and reliability, so constitute an ever greater share of the energy consumed in America. One recent study shows renewables are nearly tripling the megawatts produced in the Middle Atlantic region from 2008 to 2020.
The conversation we should be having is not about returning us to a time when coal was king (and an American river actually burned as the result of the pollutants dumped in it), but about how to help train out-of-work miners to acquire decent jobs in the world we've already entered. It's crazy--no, it's darkly perverse--sentimentality to encourage the view that a surge in the numbers of those who mine coal could be either their or our salvation.
This must be an era in which the effort to stop and, if possible, reverse global warming is a categorical imperative. Having just lived through the hottest three years ever recorded, we should all regard it as a matter of life or death for those who suceed us that we reverse course before we kill the only planet we call home.
Fortunately, as the true reasons for the decline in the coal industry make clear, we need to look past the willful blindness of this administration's anti-environmental actions. When we do, we see room for hope. Both here and elsewhere, the world is moving away from the most polluting forms of energy. Those moves will continue, if with more obstacles and detours than ought to be the case, right through the reverse course Trump is trying to impose.
This is a bit like what's already coming into focus as the result of the debacle last month of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare: Whatever its problems, Americans have come to view their health care as an entitlement, and they expect help from their government in attaining it. In much the same way ensuring a sustainable planet looks like a necessity we now recognize for a civilized future. It's what both we and our children require if we're to live and thrive. Establishing norms such as these is what I call progress.
Going High or Low
It was one of Michelle Obama's signature phrases toward the end of her husband's presidency: When they go low, we go high. President Obama largely lived by that dictum while he was in the White House. Far more often than not, he took the high road when his opponents went low. In contrast, going low was already the standard behavior of the man who would succeed him as president.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Trump's electoral success has given the low road new prominence in American political life. This president demeans his opponents and maligns whole classes of people as rapists, criminals, or bad hombres. He condemns the press as enemies of the people. Although many oppose his divisive rhetoric and behavior, calling on him to be more "presidential," Trump has set the tone so that going low begins to look like the only road to travel in today's political arena.
But that way leads only to negativity and mutual hostility. Such behavior feeds on itself, creating a downward spiral of distsrust and animosity that pits some groups against others in ways that make accommodation impossible. Make no mistake, accommodating the interests of all who make up our diverse society is essential to our well-being, even to our survival as a democracy. So far, the words and actions of the Trump White House point almost entirely away from, not toward, such an understanding.
Imagine, if you can, what a different place we'd be in today if Trump had chosen to go high from the day of his inauguration (starting, of course, with a very different inaugural address from the dark, conflict-filled view of the world he painted). Here are some of the possibilities: He begins by appointing two or three leading Democrats to his cabinet. He releases his income tax returns. He proposes legislation to improve the Affordable Care Act, specifically, in ways that should bring its costs down. He announces that he will work with the president of Mexico to find ways to reduce still further the flow of refugees from Central America into the US, and that meanwhile, he will propose legislation to reform our immigration laws. He will ask Mexico and Canada to begin negotiations to improve NAFTA in ways that will bring jobs to workers in all three countries. Etc., etc. Use your imagination for more moves like these.
This brings me to Trump's opponents. The most tempting path is to join him on the low road, to oppose every one of his initiatives and those of his allies in Congress. No question, such behavior can be justified by noting how Congressional Republicans treated Obama throughout his two terms, to the point that the Senate refused even to consider his last nominee to the Supreme Court. Their hostility paved the way for Trump. Now Senate Democrats seem determined to give tit for tat and refuse to support Trump's nominee to the Court. They can claim that it was Republicans who established the precedent, and they will be correct--except that no action is truly a precedent until it's repeated.
This one shouldn't be. If Senate Democrats remain united and vote no, the Republican majority will almost certainly just change the rules so that a simple majority, rather than the sixty votes now called for, will decide the vote. They'll get their man anyway, and the Senate--no doubt Congress and the nation, too--will be as bitterly divided as ever.
It's incredibly hard to behave nobly in the face of ignoble behavior from those you oppose. But in this case, it's what ought to happen since all the evidence to date suggests that Judge Gorsuch is qualified to serve. Maybe, just maybe, there'll be other opportunities for members of the opposition party to find accommodation with the majority. I doubt that there'll be many, nor do I advocate for a moment NOT opposing the White House and the Republicans on the divisive and wrong-headed policies they put forth. But here's a chance, for the good of our republic, to point the way back to higher ground.
Elections, as they say, have consequences. Here's a partial list of the consequences within a dozen days after Donald Trump became president of the USA.
Minutes after taking the oath, he ranted about imaginary carnage across America (was he signaling the havoc he was about to wreak upon the nation?). Afterward, he claimed the press lied about the size of the crowd that witnessed his ascension, and charged that either three or five million--take your pick--Americans voted illegally in November, though none of them for him. So much for his sanity.
His worldview established, he quickly pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a long-negotiated trade deal among a dozen nations surrounding the Pacific. He authorized building a wall all along the Mexican border, and proclaimed a ban prohibiting Muslims (denying that's what it amounted to) from entering the country if they came from any of seven Muslim-majority nations. Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely. Turning to the National Security Council, he made his alt-right henchman, Steve Bannon, a member while demoting both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of intelligence, no doubt because, as Trump said earlier, "I know more about ISIS than the generals do." So, I guess, does Bannon.
1. By bowing out of the TPP, which Trump asserted was "a rape of our country," he ceded leadership in the region to China, both in trade and, quite possibly, in security matters as well. Check off our effort to prevent China from claiming most of the South China Sea.
2. Mexico, one of our most important trading partners, recoiled at Trump's show of hostility such as they hadn't experienced from their northern neighbor for at least a century. Their president instantly canceled his planned trip to visit our president and insisted that of course his country would not pay for the wall. (And, be sure, if the wall does get built, Americans will get stuck with the bill, either through taxes or tariffs on Mexican imports.) Meanwhile, check off Mexico as a friend.
3. At airports across America, would-be refugees and green card-holders were turned back from entering the country. Angry citizens came out in the tens of thousands to oppose the travel ban. Judges in a number of courts declared the ban unlawful or unconstitutional. The acting Attorney General of the US refused to carry out the president's order, so Trump peremptorily fired her. And, oh, yes, the Iraqi parliament quickly passed a law banning visas for Americans who want to visit their country while the leaders of virtually every Western government criticized Trump's action. Check off--I dunno--most of the nations with which the US has had friendly relations as uncertain allies in the future.
All this in just a dozen days!
Yet this barely scratches the surface of consequences likely to come. In world trade, Trump has proved himself a mercantilist. His policies will shrink trade in the misguided effort to protect American business and damage the liberal economic order that has increased global wealth for nearly three-quarters of a century. Not only has he turned partners into adversaries, he threatens to abandon others whose friendship has bolstered our security as well as theirs. Shutting out refugees and many others because of where they come from is more likely to spawn the growth of terrorism than cut it off. He has put the lives of American troops in Iraq at greater risk with the stroke of a pen.
So, his Manichean, zero-sum view of the world may soon create a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving us, once Trump is removed from the scene, with the kind of carnage-filled world he--not I--envisioned in his inaugural address.
Let the Majority Rule
Imagine, if you can, an election between two candidates, one of whom has the most experience in government service of anyone in the nation's history, while the other has never held any kind of office but is a very public narcissist who is famous for being famous. If you predicted that the first candidate would win any democratic election, you'd be right. If the loser was proclaimed the winner, you'd say that the result wasn't democratic at all, but the very perversion of democracy.
But here we are, a mere sixteen years since the last time we saw such an outcome in a presidential election in the United States, again perverting in our unique way bedrock democratic principles thanks to the peculiar institution of our Electoral College. Since it's mandated by our Constitution, the most obvious way to make our elections truly democratic would be a constitutional amendment abolishing this 18th-century anachronism. But that requires assenting votes by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, plus approval by three-fourths of all fifty state legislatures. That might happen before hell freezes over--though, for the health of our republic, we probably shouldn't wait that long.
Actually, the problem is less with the Electoral College than with how state laws force it to distort the outcome of the popular vote. The electors really are pretty much rubber stamps. The problem is that all but two of our states require their electors to award the winner all of their state's votes. One vote more than fifty percent in a two-person race gives that person one hundred percent of the electoral vote. If there are more than two candidates, all the electoral vote may go to one who may have won only a plurality of the popular vote. That's what produces outcomes like those in 2000 and 2016, which were also skewed toward more rural states with disproportionate numbers of electors, diluting the actual votes of those living in the most highly populated states.
Because these are state, not federal, laws, they can be changed by the states without a constitutional amendment. Starting in 2006, something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has started to address just this issue. So far, ten states plus the District of Columbia have pledged to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popoular vote if the states making that pledge produce at least 270 electoral votes, the minimum required to elect a president. To date, signatory states hold a collective 165 such votes and--no surprise--there's not a red state among them. It will be interesting to see if this movement makes headway in the next several years. But if it succeeds by signing up only reliably blue states, we'll only have made our political polarization even plainer and deeper; nonetheless, the national outcome would be more democratic.
Here's another, maybe simpler, way to make our presidential elections more likely to reflect the popular will: If the officials of the two major parties were to amend their rules for primary elections to require proportional outcomes for all their candidates, then it would be nearly impossible for an outlier such as Trump to pile up, thanks to winner-take-all rules, enough votes to enter the party's convention as the all-but-certain nominee. Trump won his party's nomination because votes were split amont his opponents in the primary. More middling or establishment candidates knocked each other off, so Trump could win only a plurality of votes (as was the case in the first seventeen of his wins) and grab all the delegates.
If you really want to make the next election for president more democratic, then lobby the party organizations to change their rules for selecting delegates through the primaries. Such changes really could go a long way to making the Electoral College truly irrelevant.
This Nasty Era of Zero-Sum Politics
America has just elected a president who seems bent on reversing every progressive trend of the past eighty years. The angry rhetoric he spewed throughout the campaign roused the discontent of many ordinary citizens and seduced millions more into concluding that the way to fix the deadlock in Washington was to smash the system rather than repair it.
The anger reflects the minds of those who see only a zero-sum world, where the gains that have come to some members of society must have brought comparable losses to the rest. If I can't get a good-paying job, it's because some unworthy immigrant--likely Hispanic or Muslim--has it instead. To save my way of life means denying it to you, because I belong here and you don't. That's nationalism at its ugliest.
It's frighteningly clear that we've entered a global era of zero-sum politics. Last summer's Brexit vote in Britain was an early indicator. So is the ever-harsher crackdown over many months in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey, both before and especially after a failed coup attempt. In France, the far-right nationalist party of Marine Le Pen may have a better-than-even chance at winning next year's presidential election. Italy's hard right remains a threat to the EU. Meanwhile, Victor Orban is hard at work turning Hungary into his vision of an "illiberal democracy," never mind that's a contradiction in terms. Poland's leadership is firmly in the same Eurosceptic camp.
These are only the reactions to date against democratic norms in our own front yard, countries allied with the U.S. in NATO, which our incoming president may want to scuttle. Two other big players in the world, China and Russia, are also governed by those with zero-sum views of politics. It's hard not to see parallels with the rise of fascism in the 1920s and its terrible consequences for the planet. Then, like now, good people thought authoritarian leaders might cure what ailed their societies. Now, like then, they may be in for some nasty shocks.
These developments have made me reflect on what shaped my own political values many decades ago. I came of age in a more progressive era, when the world seemed fully engaged in applying the lessons learned from the tragedies of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust. Economic safety nets were put in place in all the advanced democracies, and workers' rights were protected. The great experiment in European integration unfolded to ensure that the nations of that continent would never again engage in war with each other. Human rights were advanced there and elsewhere through a stengthened rule of law. We actually seemed to be moving toward a higher level of civilization.
Liberal democracy did advance, through setbacks, to become the dominant model of the most highly developed societies. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, some wildly proclaimed the end of history based upon their reading of the apparent success of that liberal paradigm. Human progress seemed assured, a thing only possible, after all, where a better life for some leads to a better life for all--a non-zero-sum outcome, to be sure.
Are progressive norms now being relegated to the dustbin of history? Not on your life! Even if they're in retreat, they're bound to rise to the fore again if humanity has a future worth reaching for. Anger and combativeness are destructive, even of the lives of those who now are falling into line behind dangerous leaders whose dark views they embrace. It's a tragic irony that the kind of dystopia such "leaders" warn against are exactly what their combat-ridden policies will actually lead us to, if we let them.
So, we must not let them. Not if we truly believe, as I do, that our species still has the wisdom, imagination, love, and courage to create a world where fewer suffer and future generations can live in peace and dignity. Do all you can to keep that vision alive through dark days to come.
This Degraded Election
I write a week before the November election--you know, the one that's stressed out fifty-two percent of voters, according to a recent poll.
Why only fifty-two percent? Most of the rest of the other forty-eight percent must account for the nation's recent opiod epidemic, as well. With only days to go, it looks like the whole nation is going to need pain-killers and tranquilizers for a long time to come.
To say the presidential campaign has been ugly is putting it mildly. Yes, we've had vicious campaigns almost from the start. In the 1790s, Benjamin Franklin's grandson described the then-president as "blind, bald, crippled, toothless, querulous Adams." In his day, Lincoln was likened to a monkey. Whether these epithets were or were not as extreme as those we're bombarded with today, they didn't typically come out of the mouths of the candidates themselves. Here's what's especially troubling now: because both candidates say so, each is widely regarded by his/her opponent's followers as unfit to govern. How does that bode for coming together and healing the nation, starting next week?
I happen to think that the likely winner is correct in holding that view of her opponent as unfit, and that it's an unhinged and crazy charge for him to try to make the same case about her. But the natural tit-for-tat of a two-person contest probably made it inevitable that the candidate without the experience or temperament to become president of the nation would tar his opponent with the same brush that painted him acurately as a fraud and a demagogue.
But here's the problem: if some large percentage of those who support Trump think they're on the side of justice when they yell "lock her up!" they can't in good conscience submit to her authority once she's in the White House. Understanding that, some of them already insist that, if she wins, there'll be a revolution to "take back the country"--though from what or whom they merely imply, since to be clear about that might give pause even to some in their own camp. Those of us in the center or left of the political spectrum understand full well that the consequences of a Trump victory would likely be catastrophic for America's policies, both at home and abroad. Trumpists, on the other hand, would make the mere election of Mrs. Clinton illegitimate. She should never have been allowed to run, some now charge, echoing their leader.
In the past, our political discourse has proceeded, as it must, on an underlying culture of civility. That is all that allows a democratic republic like our own to survive, let alone thrive. I'd like to believe that the foulness of this year's election rhetoric is a one-off both for what it is and for the nasty (sorry, Hillary!) behavior it has fostered.
But I fear that we may be in for an indefinite period of vitriol and degradation. That may do more than soil our political life for months or years to come. It has the far graver potential to wreck everything that produced a republic which has given pride to generations of Americans and served as a model for the world.
The Presidential Election, Nonsensically Speaking
I was brought up to believe that clear speech is both the product of and what defines clear thought. Without clear thinking, there can be no clarity, no coherence, in what a person believes or does, no guide to rational action. Speech is the window on the soul.
Which brings me to the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Yes, he's a fraud, a con artist, a charlatan, and a sociopath. All those nasty descriptions of his character flow directly from his verbal incoherence, which reflects the inner man. He cannot complete a grammatical sentence--unless he's reading from a teleprompter-- because the thoughts that trigger speech for him are jumbled, flashes of this or that, half-formed concepts that were embedded in his brain without any serious examination by whatever analytical capacities he failed to nurture.
I emphasize what underlies all those less-than-flattering labels for Donald Trump for this reason: These pejoratives, which may look like the usual partisan mud-throwing, are accurate characterizations of a personality so badly developed that most of us find such a man unattractive, if not repugnant, when we encounter him in our daily rounds. Imagine meeting an individual like Trump who's your car salesman or neighborhood pharmacist! Once you've had enough of the guy's bluster, egomania, and false statements, you can simply take your business elsewhere.
The trouble for us and the world with Donald Trump is that we may be about to elect this creature our next president. Should that happen, there'll be no way to take our business elsewhere. There are more than three hundred million Americans and six-plus billion others on the planet. All of us would then be subject to whatever madness spills out of this man's brain. Optimist that I am, I thought until recently there was no way we would ever elevate to this nation's highest office another sociopath of the kind who brought wrack and ruin to Europe as well as death and hardship for millions more around the globe when I was a child. Silly me!
How have we come to this? The answer must be hidden there in Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables." Yes, I know, it was a foolish remark for her to make, politically speaking. It also reminded Trump's most fervent and deplorable supporters why they were for him in the first place since they shared much of the vitriol he expresses for "the other," whether Muslims, blacks, or an educated elite. Their resentment of these groups reflects their own disappointments. They've rallied around a man who seems to have similar grievances of his own, given his rants, and who has given them the shared sense that racism, intolerance, and ignorance are perfectly acceptable ways to behave in today's America.
Sure enough, the perception that racism is growing, not diminishing, in America turns out to be fact. Data produced by the American National Election Studies shows a big recent increase in negative perceptions of black people by whites. Some 62 percent of whites now say that blacks are either less intelligent or lazier than white folks That means they think that's so, however incoherent the "reasons" they might give to support that perception--like their "reasons" for voting for Trump and his incoherent, half-baked and dangerous "ideas" for making America great (again).
So, the deeply damaged personality now contending for the office of president just might win, if he can continue to stir up and appeal to the worse devils in all our natures.
Friends Again: Adams and Jefferson
I decided I needed a break from the nastiness and venom of the current presidential campaign to try to create a little healthy distance between it and my sanity--maybe, dear reader, you could use a little of that, too. I found relief in the late-life correspondence between two of our founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their letter-writing started with a new year greeting from Adams, home in Quincy, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1812, when the old man was 77, to the 69-year-old Jefferson at Monticello. Jefferson wrote a warm response and they continued to exchange letters until almost the time both men died.
Their correspondence is remarkable for what it reveals about the character and personality of each of these men, and for their perspectives on the young nation. But what intrigued me is how it reunited as friends two men who had long been bitter political antagonists. They had first met to make common cause in Philadelphia in 1775. They became friends in Paris and London nine years later, when both men were serving the newly independent United States as diplomats. But after the Constitution came into force, John Adams became the nation's Vice President when Washington was elected President, and Jefferson was appointed the first Secretary of State.
Before long, they were political adversaries, with Adams one of the leaders of the emerging Federalist Party and Jefferson heading the opposition Democratic-Republicans. In 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams for a second term as President. By that time, Jefferson viewed Adams as a would-be monarchist without sufficient regard for the individual rights of citizens, while Adams thought Jefferson a dangerous radical too sympathetic to the most extreme French revolutionaries. The election was bitterly contested; name-calling and nastiness poured from the supporters of both men. After he lost, a disillusioned Adams retreated to Quincy; Jefferson successfully completed his two terms as president, then retired to Monticello. Throughout all those years and beyond, cold silence reigned between them.
Then, a mutual friend persuaded Adams of Jefferson's continued regard for him. Adams took the bait and in their early exchange of letters, there's a sense of happy relief as each sees the other as not lost to friendship, in spite of all they'd been through. For a time, Adams voiced his (predictable) political opinions to Jefferson, but the Virginian side-stepped whatever challenges Adams threw at him. They did discuss matters political, but always in the most philosophical terms, acknowledging what they shared intellectually, gracefully skirting unpleasant arguments where these might have erupted. And they were unfailingly civil and affectionate. The timing of their deaths, by the way, seemed a kind of benediction to the nation they had done so much to create. They slipped away within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. Adams was 90, Jefferson 83.
It strikes me that this is the way mature individuals always try to behave to show their respect for those they know they'll never win over to their point of view. But it's been pretty much absent from our national politics for too long. Is it far-fetched to wish our politicians today might try to overcome old enmities by recognizing the common decency and goodwill of their opponents? It's not that our battles are fiercer than they used to be, but that we seem to have given up on accommodating our rivals for the whole nation's good. Try that today, and your sin's so great it can get you defeated in your own party's primary. Lack of respect for the other--not just your opponent, but whole classes of citizens--now makes for a plausible path to the White House. The language of the gutter passes for political discourse.
I can't believe our divisions are as great as they've been made to appear for years now. But until we get back to a place where our political exchanges are once more reasoned on all sides, I'll think with nostalgia and envy of how each of these old men two centuries ago was able to find renewed respect for what the other did for the nation.