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 the decision 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 for the majority 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.
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.