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Light at the End of the Tunnel

There’s light at the end of the long, gloomy tunnel of the DT Administration. Unfortunately, it’s an oncoming train.

While we’re fussing over distractions like the Russia investigation or Stormy Daniels, the lives and careers of the nine Supreme Court Justices are inevitably approaching their ends. The replacement of Scalia with Gorsuch left the court in a precarious balance, with the swing vote often being cast by Anthony Kennedy. But this balance would skew drastically to the right if any of the four liberal justices, or Kennedy himself, should die or retire while Republicans control both the White House and the Senate. There is no credible scenario under which the Republicans could lose the White House before January, 2021, and little chance that even a massive Blue Wave could give Democrats control of the Senate before 2020. Even if DT dies or resigns or is otherwise removed this window of vulnerability will remain open under Pence or whoever.

It’s reasonable to suppose that no member of the liberal group will willingly retire in a period of Republican control. Anthony Kennedy, however, might be willing to turn his seat over to a right-wing successor, and he is rumored to be considering retirement (although he did hire clerks for next year). And nobody can foresee the date of their death. What then is the demographic risk that one of the liberals, or Kennedy, will die in the next two years?

Justice Age Probability

of Death (2 years)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 85  16%
Stephen Breyer 79  12%
Sonia Sotomayor 63  2%
Elena Kagan 57  1%
Anthony Kennedy 81  14.5%
One or More of Them 39%

Without even taking into account individual health histories, or the possibility of Kennedy’s voluntary retirement, there’s a substantial chance that the Republicans will be able to replace a liberal justice with a right-winger by 2020. If so, many 5-4 decisions in recent decades could be reversed, including same-sex marriage, although it’s also possible that Justice Roberts could refuse to overturn recent decisions based on the principle that cases should be decided on the basis of previously decided precedents (stare decisis).

Update April 29, 2018: Good News! Kennedy is staying on the court! How do I know? Because the New York Times Editorial Board asked him to.

Update June 27, 2018: Bad News! Kennedy is retiring after all. Because he says so.

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The Death of Democracy?

We have rightly focused on the threat that DT poses to America’s democracy. All his instincts and inclinations are autocratic. He has no respect for (and little knowledge of) the Constitutional and institutional principles which have served us so well for more than 200 years. He would indeed destroy America’s democracy if he could. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that DT’s incompetence is even greater than his malevolence. He can do enormous damage to the federal government, the country and the world, but he isn’t smart or competent enough to completely dismantle our democratic system, the way, for example, Adolph Hitler did in Weimar Germany, or Cesar Chavez did in contemporary Venezuela.

There is, however, an aspect of DT’s presidency that threatens the viability of the very idea of democracy, and it is this:

How could anyone have confidence in a system of government that could place the leadership of a country in the hands of someone like Donald J. Trump?

Great Britain’s vote for Brexit is Exhibit B, but can’t compete with the world-historical tragedy of handing leadership of the free world, and of its preeminent nuclear-armed military, to an impulsive, ignorant adult child.

All over the world there are citizens of non-democratic nations aspiring to greater freedom and control over their lives. How can their hopes not have been dashed by the spectacle of the world’s oldest democracy led by a democratically-elected idiot? Who, inside or outside America, would lay down their lives for a system that could produce such an absurdity?

The idea of democracy got an enormous boost from the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has been stumbling since 9/11. The neocon attempt to bring it to Iraq by force was a disaster, and the democracy we foisted on Afghanistan is little better. The Arab Spring ended tragically everywhere except Tunisia (where it began). Venezuela voted in an autocrat, and both Turkey and Hungary seem to be moving in the same direction. China has thrived under un-elected leaders. Now democratic America has elected a fool.

Then there’s Putin. Obviously, Russia helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, both by planting fake news and by giving Clinton’s hacked emails to Wikileaks. Obviously, the Trump campaign was delighted by this. DT publicly called on Russia to find and publish her “missing” emails. New York Times 7/27/16. DT Jr. met with a Russian agent about this in what Steve Bannon has called a “treasonous” meeting. Mueller’s investigation has led to several indictments, threatens DT Jr., and may even find grounds to indict DT himself. All this is very thrilling, although the normalization of DT, especially by the Republican Congress, makes me skeptical that it will actually afford us the dubious relief of a Pence presidency.

The question I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to is why Putin wanted Trump to win. There are several possible answers, not mutually exclusive:

  • Putin could have damaging information about DT — e.g. the scene of him urinating on prostitutes in the Steele Memorandum — that he is using to blackmail DT into serving Putin’s purposes. DT has certainly missed few opportunities to compliment Putin, although this could equally be explained by his general preference for autocrats over democrats, and is the last thing Putin would ask him to do if he were in fact a Russian puppet. My own view is that this is a fantasy, but stranger things have happened in the Trump Era so it’s on the list.
  • Putin might have been afraid of Hillary Clinton. Yes, she’s tough, smart and a bit of a hawk. But she would have continued the policies of her predecessors, which allowed Putin the leeway to get pretty much everything he wanted: Bush let him grab big chunks of Georgia in 2008 and Obama let him grab big chunks of the Ukraine in 2017. In both cases there was scolding and sanctions but nothing serious (like, say, military intervention). So long as Putin kept his hands off NATO members like the Baltic states Putin would have had little to fear from Clinton.
  • Putin might have liked the idea of his chief geopolitical rival being led by an idiot. I think this is almost certainly part of Putin’s motivation. China has gotten much of the respect and influence which America has forfeited, but there’s plenty to go around. Russia’s “soft power” has grown in proportion to the decline of America’s.
  • Putin might have wanted to discredit the very idea of democracy. Neither the U.S. nor anyone else poses a military threat to Putin’s Russia. Putin has destroyed or neutered all of the domestic institutions that could challenge his power. But the Color Revolution in Ukraine and the Arab Spring (despite their disappointing outcomes) showed that the idea of democracy can inspire an oppressed populace to depose an autocratic leader. Electing DT undermined confidence in the one idea that could eventually threaten his new Tsardom. I think tarnishing the idea of democracy was, and continues to be, one of Putin’s key strategic objectives.

Whatever his purposes, Putin has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams! His chief rival and critic is led by a buffoon, and the idea of democracy has been damaged, possibly beyond repair.

Update, Jan. 24, 2018: New York Times video essay, Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?

Update, Feb. 4, 2018: Economist, Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat

Update, April 10, 2018: Slate, Hungary’s Election Was a Milestone in the Decline of Democracy

Trump Truths

Everyone knows that DT lies constantly. It’s exhausting to track all his falsehoods, as the Washington Post is doing. But less well known, and more interesting, are the rare cases when he says something verifiably true. This page will be updated periodically to keep you posted on Trump Truths.

2005:

“… You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Billy Bush: “Whatever you want.”

Trump: “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

December 20, 2015:

American polling shows Russian President Vladimir Putin has “an 80 percent approval rating.”

July 21, 2016:

“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.” Comment: Fortunately, the enacted tax law left this in place, although enforcement will no doubt continue to be lax.

Sept. 29, 2017:

Puerto Rico, “is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.”

Dec. 22, 2017:

“At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion. Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start. After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!” Comment: This would be nice, but after the Republicans have just punched a $1.5 Trillion hole in the budget it’s hard to see where the money for this will come from.

Dec. 23, 2017:

“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told his wealthy friends at Mar-a-Lago, after he signed the tax bill.

Jan. 1, 2018:

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.” Comment: Basically true! Except there’s every reason to think that the same compelling circumstances will cause DT to back off his trenchant tweet: We need Pakistani ports and transport routes to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan. Foreign Policy, 1/3/18.

March 27, 2018:

Bonus Truth from Ann Coulter, author, in happier times, of In Trump We Trust:

“I knew he was a shallow, lazy ignoramus, and I didn’t care.”

April 1, 2018 (but not, alas, an April Fool’s joke):

“Also, I want to thank the White House Historical Association and all of the people that work so hard with Melania, with everybody, to keep this incredible house or building, or whatever you want to call it — because there really is no name for it; it is special — and we keep it in tip-top shape.  We call it sometimes tippy-top shape.” Comment: So yes, this one is mixed. There is a name for the White House. But I’m awarding a Trump Truth for the claim that it is being kept in “tippy-top shape.” Pop Quiz: Is this a mentally well person?

May 23, 2018 (report of conversation “earlier in the year”):

[In response to Lesley Stahl’s question as to why he continually attacks the media.] “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

July 3, 2018:

I can’t find a true-ish quote, since his rhetoric is filled with misconceptions and bullying. But I’m scoring him a “Trump Truth” for pointing out (like the past few Presidents), that our NATO allies are not living up to their defense commitments, and in fact are taking a free ride on America’s military power. This was understandable back when the U.S. was a reliable ally, but under D.T. Europe could be left effectively defenseless against the next Russian land grab(s).

July 11, 2018:

U.S. President Donald Trump launched a sharp public attack on Germany on Wednesday for supporting a Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal with Russia, saying Berlin had become “a captive to Russia”… Comment: The actual quote is kind of a mess, munging together mercantilist ideas of trade with a ham-handed attempt to drive a wedge between Germany and other NATO members, but this particular point, that Russia is using gas pipelines to make Europe fatally dependent on it for energy, is, imho, basically true.

August 5, 2018:

“This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it.” Comment: Ok, the “totally legal” part is doubtful, since getting any help from foreigners with a U.S. election is illegal. Did it go anywhwere? Did DT know about it? Also remain to be seen. But the part about seeking information on an opponent ranks as a Trump Truth, even though it contradicts his son’s prior statements.

September 11, 2018:

Trump delivers Oval office update on Hurricane Florence: “It’s tremendously big and tremendously wet. Tremendous amounts of water.” A Trump Truth!

25th Amendment Scorecard

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes this provision:

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

There are several more paragraphs, allowing the President to dispute this designation. Final removal, if the President contests, requires a 2/3 vote by both the House and the Senate, determining that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” While this finding should be easier to sustain than a conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the 25th Amendment actually requires more votes in the House than for impeachment, 2/3 versus a bare majority. Both procedures require a 2/3 vote in the Senate, but impeachment calls for a full-fledged trial, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while the 25th Amendment procedure need not be so formal. On the other hand, there are several precedents for impeachment of a President, and none for invocation of the 25th Amendment procedure for involuntary removal. My own assessment is that the 25th Amendment is easier to invoke, but ultimately doesn’t offer a substantially easier path to removal than impeachment.

Despite these reservations I can’t help sharing the liberal dream that at some point DT’s obvious unfitness for office will lead to his removal under the 25th Amendment. How realistic is initial invocation of the 25th Amendment, setting aside the likelihood of the votes required in Congress if DT contested the determination? That depends on the officials who must act: the Vice President and a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments.” Let’s look at who they are and how likely they are to invoke the 25th Amendment.

First and foremost is the Vice President, who must be a party to invoking the 25th Amendment. So far Mike Pence has been a perfect DT sycophant. My guess is that he’s terrified of alienating DT’s base in case DT does leave office before the end of his term. If so there’s basically no way that Pence will take an active role in removing DT, as is required by the 25th Amendment. He’s much more likely to stand modestly aside and let DT be impeached or resign. The requirement that Pence sign on basically leaves the 25th Amendment dead in the water (unless DT goes stark raving mad).

The other requirement for invoking the 25th Amendment removal process is that a majority of the cabinet must join in the designation. Here’s the current roster of cabinet members:

Cabinet Position Cabinet Member Comments Likely Vote
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Adult. Allegedly called DT a “[expletive deleted] moron.” Yes
Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin Probable adult. Yes
Secretary of Defense James Mattis Adult, and best understands the tragic possible results of an unfit Commander in Chief. Yes
Attorney General Jeff Sessions Toxic. Has fought with DT but unlikely to help remove him. No
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke Former Navy SEAL and Representative from Montana. Possible adult. Maybe
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Former governor of Georgia. Possible adult. Maybe
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Former banker and investor. Possible adult. Maybe
Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta Dean of the Florida International University College of Law and former Justice Department attorney. Possible adult. Maybe
Secretary of Health and Human Services Don J. Wright Acting, after resignation of Don Price. Not sure whether he would qualify for participation in 25th Amendment removal. Maybe (if qualified)
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson Fruitcake. No
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao Former United States Secretary of Labor and wife of Senator Mitch McConnell. Probable adult. Yes
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry Zero. No
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Toxic witch. No
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health under President Barack Obama. Probable adult. Maybe
Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke Acting, after John Kelly resigned to become White House Chief of Staff. Maybe (if qualified)

I count 4 Yes and 4 No. The balance would be tipped by the Maybes (5 if acting heads don’t qualify and 7 if they do). But again, without Pence nothing can happen, and I don’t see him getting on board unless DT goes stark, raving insane.

There have been reports that Tillerson, Mnuchin and Mattis made a “suicide pact” before accepting their positions, providing that if one of them were removed by DT the others would resign. Such an agreement, if it existed, wouldn’t be enforceable. But it’s worth noting that if these three were to leave the cabinet it would become much more difficult to get a majority of cabinet members to support removal, even if Pence were willing to sign on.

Nausea

We’ve all had lots of emotional reactions to DT. Before the campaign I felt disinterest and disdain. I recognized the “You’re Fired!” meme but I had never watched his TV show and never intended to. I was incredulous and revolted by the stupidity and overt racism of his “birther” movement. During the primaries I mostly laughed. I started taking him seriously and getting afraid as he dispatched each of the other Republican candidates one by one. Once he got the nomination I was very afraid, and I worked more for Hillary than for any previous candidate (mostly in New Hampshire, which she won narrowly). After the election I suffered through the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, etc. His Presidency has elicited a mixture of incredulity, horror, disgust and terror. While all of those emotions are still in play my predominate feeling just now, as we contemplate the possibility of World War III and he wraps up his catastrophic (but utterly predictable) visit to Puerto Rico, is nausea. I want to vomit. I have ingested something utterly toxic and inedible. I need to throw it up and get it out of my system. Stat.

My emotions do not affect the course of history. But I offer this post because I hope and believe that I’m not alone. Specifically I think people who might well affect the course of history are feeling much as I do. Most pertinantly, the Republican leadership of the House and Senate and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are, I suggest, and hope, also nauseated. They also need to vomit. They have ingested something utterly toxic and inedible. They need to throw it up and get it out of their system. Stat.

I have no crystal ball to tell how exactly this will play out. I continue to imagine an off-the-record meeting between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leaders of Congress in which the Chiefs present DT as the most serious security threat to the United States of America in our lifetimes. I imagine Bob Mueller presenting DT with two alternatives: either he and his family will be indicted on multiple counts or he will resign “in order to spend more time with his family.” Or DT actually fires Mueller and actually gets impeached. Whatever the precise sequence of events, this needs to end.

I yield to noone, by the way, in my anxiety about the harm that could and probably would result from a Pence presidency. He is toxic on many levels, and extremely hostile to LGBT people in particular. He might even get re-elected and do further harm. But I need to vomit right now and I will deal with the consequences later.

Update, Dec. 14, 2017: Happy to welcome the Editorial Board of USA Today to the “literally vomiting” club: Will Trump’s lows ever hit rock bottom?

“A president who’d all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama’s presidential library or to shine George W. Bush’s shoes.”

That’s the most colorful quote but the entire article is worth reading since it’s very strong and chock full of strong

One Cheer: The North Korea Initiative

Mattis and Tillerson are flawed, but they are neither incompetent nor insane (unlike their President and the rest of the Cabinet). I consider “Mad Dog” Mattis too aggressive, but he is experienced, knowledgable and thoughtful. Tillerson is compromised by his Russian connection, and has no government experience, but he is a capable strategic thinker, with a broad understanding of world affairs, and lots of negotiating and relationship-building experience. Their decision to grasp the nettle of North Korea deserves fair consideration rather than knee-jerk “resistance.”

The Korean war never formally ended: hostilities were suspended in 1953 by an armistice, but there was no peace treaty. For sixty years North Korea has been a client state of China, and South Korea has been protected by U.S. treaties and troops. As we all know, North Korea has become increasingly isolated, impoverished and bellicose while South Korea has flourished. Apart from minor skirmishes there has been little loss of life, and there have even been periods of rapprochement between the two Koreas. In recent decades, however, North Korea has persistently developed nuclear weapons and missles, which are now capable of reaching Tokyo and U.S. bases in Japan as well as South Korea. Economic sanctions have hobbled North Korea’s economy but have failed to deter its nuclearization. The U.S. has periodically sabre-rattled but in essence has continued, decade after decade, to “kick the can” of this “frozen conflict” down the road, in the hope that North Korea will eventually see reason or collapse due to economic failure and/or political unrest. Meanwhile, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilites have continued to grow the crisis has gone from bad to worse.

There are several reasons why this conflict has remained unresolved.

  • First and foremost is the fact that a shooting war could easily cost millions of lives. North Korea has massive conventional artillery formations that could obliterate Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the border, even without going nuclear. And its nuclear weapons could reach Tokyo as well as anywhere in South Korea. This is spelled out in detail in a recent New York Times article, The Risks of Pre-emptive Strikes Against North Korea.
  • The other big reason is the fact that China, despite grave concerns, has continued to support the North Korean regime, as for example by providing them with essential food, fuel and weapons. China has grave reservations about the North Korean regime, but so far it has been more worried about losing its strategic buffer with the American troops in South Korea and about dealing with hoards of refugees when North Korea does collapse. A treaty requires China to come to the defense of North Korea in the case of an unprovoked attack; which could obviously precipitate World War III. This Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder gives more details.
  • South Korea wants reunification, on its terms, but is also anxious about the cost and difficulty of integrating millions of desperately poor and badly educated northerners into its first world society. This would be much more difficult, in every respect, than the reunification of Germany, which was itself quite challenging.
  • North Korea says that it will never give up its nuclear capability, which it sees as giving it respect and attention as well as protection from attack.

The risks of doing nothing, however, continue to grow. From Trump’s “America First” perspective the lives currently at risk — unless China is drawn in — are mostly those of South Koreans and Japanese. If North Korea is given time to develop longer range missles this will include Hawaii, and eventually the U.S. West Coast. Trump’s team may have calculated that now is the time to precipitate a crisis, before the U.S. itself is held hostage. If this is their thinking they get no cheers from me!

But there’s also a legitimate up-side to grappling with the situation now. If a “deal” can be struck with China on how to handle North Korea it may be possible to manage North Korea onto a less dangerous path and de-fuse the conflict. I’m not particularly optimistic, mind you! But the “new broom” status of the Trump administration gives it a unique opportunity to break the log jam that has frozen the Korean conflict into an increasingly toxic spiral. Thus my single cheer: for having the nerve to come to grips with the single most dangerous situation on the planet. 

I still doubt that China will come on board; that Japan and South Korea will allow enough freedom of action; and especially whether North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. I’m terrified of the nightmarish risks. And I have grave doubts about whether Mattis and Tillerson will be able to manage their erratic and impulsive boss. But I’m prepared to give them credit for trying.

Update April 3, 2017:  Good overview from Al Jazeera. Trump blustering that if China doesn’t do something about North Korea “we will.”

Update April 4, 2017CNN reports that a White House source says that “the clock has run out” on the North Korean nuclear program, just before Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi, while General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command says that, “Any solution to the North Korean problem has to involve China.” Mixed messages, but the ball is still in play.

Update Sept. 1, 2017: Good article in National Review, starting with the important idea that a problem without a solution isn’t a problem at all, it’s a fact. Unfortunately, however, the “solution” proposed in the last paragraph is nonsense.

Update April 20, 2018: So yes, DT will meet Kim Jong-un. This is better than starting a nuclear war with him. But there’s every reason to think that DT is being played for a fool (like every previous U.S. administration, it must be acknowledged), after which the danger will be redoubled. Kim Jong-un will not give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, by Evans J.R. Revere, Brookings Institution. “North Korea wants to resuscitate the approach it pursued in every previous nuclear negotiation: Launch a lengthy, complicated negotiation to get agreement on actions each party must take, and use this process to buy time for the development of the North’s nuclear weapons program.”

Update April 29, 2018: I’m not quite ready to add a second cheer, but I have to admit that the meeting of the Korean leaders was historic. The Washington Post reminds us that North Korea signed denuclearization agreements in 1992, 1994, 2005 and 2012, received substantial benefits, then reneged. But that article also acknowledges that, “this time may be different.” It would be too ironic to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a leader who accomplished a peaceful result by threatening nuclear war, but if DT comes away with an effective and enforceable agreement I will begrudgingly give him three full-throated cheers.

Update May 3, 2018: This essay isn’t from an authoritative news source but the facts are known and I find the argument persuasive: that Kim’s charm offensive probably reflects an ultimatum from China. There’s every reason to believe that China doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, and the essay presents evidence that the pressure of sanctions is finally biting. If so, this could be the real deal!

The Anger of Trump’s Base

Trump’s ascent has mystified liberals because he is so obviously unsuitable to be President. His voter base for the most part recognized  this, but voted for him anyway. The reason is more emotional than rational, which is why intellectuals find it so mystifying.

Trump voters, by and large, share two strong feelings:

  • They are mad as hell at “the system,” and want to blow it up.
  • They are thrilled that Trump is not afraid to express the anger that they feel.

Even though most Trump supporters recognized that his temperament was flawed, they voted for him in much the same way that one would throw a hand grenade into an enemy position. These voters wanted to destroy “Washington”, not just make specific policy changes. They are by and large happy with Trump’s performance, despite its many deficiencies, because he is doing just that. 

Why exactly are these voters so angry? The genius of the Trump movement is that it has drawn on so many people’s anger despite the fact that the causes of the anger are manifold, various and sometimes mutually inconsistent. Trump’s base is unified by feeling, not by policy. Among the things that have enraged his voters are:

  • Foreigners
  • Non-whites
  • Non-Christians
  • Lazy, Greedy Poor People
  • Obamacare
  • Bi-Coastal Liberal Elites
  • Immorality
  • Economic decline
  • Free trade agreements
  • Corruption
  • Taxes and Deficits
  • Military failures
  • Terrorism
  • Political gridlock
  • Excessive regulation
  • Crumbling Infrastructure

Not every Trump voter is angry about all of these things; it’s reductionist, for example, to call them all racist, even though some certainly are. But I would venture to say that nearly all of his voters are angry about several of these things, and many of them are angry about most of them. 

This anger has fueled a remarkable political movement, but emotion alone is no substitute for a coherent political program: Anger at Obamacare doesn’t necessarily point the way to a better solution (apart from single payer!)  Crumbling infrastructure can only be fixed through taxes or deficits. Abandoning free trade could easily exacerbate economic decline. Demonizing religious groups could worsen the danger of terrorism. Etcetera.

Even if it were possible to devise a political program that would address many or most of these issues, Trump shows no prospect of developing or pursuing such a program. Apart from specific follies such as The Wall, the Muslim Ban and Trumpcare, his cabinet choices suggest (and Steve Bannon has said in so many words) that Trump plans to “deconstruct” the federal government, with the exception of the military, which he proposes to greatly strengthen. If he isn’t stopped, it’s easy to envision America becoming a militarized police state, ruled with an iron hand by a tiny coterie of billionaires, walled off from the horrors of the “inner cities” where impoverished, unhealthy masses suffer amid squalor and violence. Many of those who are hurt most will have been those who elected Trump in the first place. Which is why his vision can only be fully realized if democracy is undermined and eventually replaced by some amalgam of autocracy, plutocracy and theocracy. 

What can be done at this point? The Democrats have very little political power at the moment, except the filibuster (which may well be lost in 2018). But we can and should speak out, most particularly in defense of democratic institutions and Constitutional rights and freedoms. If democracy is preserved, and if the Democrats offer a credible alternative, it can be confidently predicted that the implementation of the Trump program will eventually turn away enough voters to cause the pendulum to swing back towards some form of liberalism. Granted, those are two big “ifs”. And also granted that the damage that the Trump/Pence administration(s) will have done to the federal government, America itself and its role in the world will be incalculable and can never fully be repaired.  

The Art of the Lie

The chief reason we misunderestimated Trump so badly was our failure to grasp how he uses language. Trump uses words as tools: to enchant, to denigrate, to befuddle. He could not care less whether they’re “true.” You and I were brought up to value truth and hate lies (even if we fib a bit now and then). After we catch someone in a significant lie we trust them less, and if someone lies continually we consider them a “liar” or a “clown” and pay them no attention at all (except perhaps to laugh at them). In Trump’s case this was a fatal error, since a Constitutional plurality of voters did grasp what Trump was communicating, and liked it enough to elect him President.

Trump rose to political prominence through a big, blatant lie: the Birther Lie. There was never any question about the fact that Obama was born in the U.S.; he had a Hawaii birth certificate and there was even a mention of his birth in a contemporary newspaper. But Trump harped on and on, year after year, about there being some question about whether he was eligible to be President. Like most of us, I dismissed this as an obvious lie. I was aware that Trump’s attacks had racist overtones, but since they had zero truth value I dismissed them as garbage. I didn’t appreciate is that every time Trump said this he was gaining strength, and building a populist movement that would sweep all before it.

I propose an approach that may help us understand Trump’s use of words. Whenever he says something we need to think through what we heard, how we feel about it, what his supporters heard, and how they feel. Understanding Trump in no way defangs him, but it might help us avoid being blind-sided, and possibly might point the way to effectively countering him. Let’s start with the Birther Lie:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Obama is an illegitimate President. Trump is a liar and a racist. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. Maybe even amused. Obama is an illegitimate President. Blacks aren’t real Americans. Whites like you and me are the real Americans and together we can take control back. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

The obvious falseness of Trump’s lie does not reduce its attractiveness to his supporters; to the contrary, the fact that he can get away with telling bald face lies shows dominance and power that is seductively attractive. This is why pointing out the falseness of Trumps words has no effect on his supporters. They are resonating to the subtext, not to the text. The fact that his statements are textually false just makes Trump more fun, exciting and powerful.

Let’s try another one.

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
I’m going to build a wall. And Mexico will pay for it. He won’t build a wall and Mexico won’t pay for it: Trump is a liar and a racist. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. Maybe even amused. Mexicans aren’t real Americans. Whites like you and me are the real Americans and together we can take control back. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

Do some of his supporters think he’ll actually build a wall? Do any of them actually believe that Mexico will pay for it? Very few, if any. That isn’t the point, and we were wasting our time by pointing out that this was a fantasy. The message got through loud and clear. That his supporters believe, and, unfortunately, they’re right. The fact that Trump is lying doesn’t matter, and is actually more fun and exciting than off-putting.

Fast forward to the election, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, just over 2% of all voters. There were barely a handful of cases of voter fraud across the entire country. Nevertheless, Trump claims that he would have won the popular vote except for millions of fraudulent votes; a breathtakingly and demonstrably false claim. Take a breath, then analyze it:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016 Trump is a liar and has delusions of grandeur. Angry and annoyed. Dismissive. But no longer amused. The electoral system is rigged. I was robbed of my glory by fraudulent voters. The media lie and cannot be trusted. Angry at the system and the media. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

On January 23, in his first meeting with Congressional leaders, Trump doubled-down on this lie, with the added claim that the fraudulent voters were unauthorized immigrants. The New York Times for the first time after the election referred to this in its headline as a “lie.” Now even we are beginning to hear this for what it is:

What Trump says What we hear How we feel What supporters hear How they feel
I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of unauthorized immigrants who voted illegally Trump doesn’t give a fig about truth. What he says goes, even if demonstrably false. And he will crush anyone and everyone who opposes him. Angry. Afraid. The electoral system is rigged. I was robbed of my glory by illegal immigrants. The media lie and cannot be trusted. Immigrants (of color) aren’t real Americans. You and I are real Americans and together we can take power back. Angry at the system and the media. Excited. Flattered. Impressed that Trump is an Alpha Male who can get away with telling blatant lies.

At this point Trump’s lies are focusing more on delegitimizing institutions that might get in his way, like the media, and the electoral process. But the tweak to the Popular Vote Lie juices up its appeal to his base, despite making it even more breathtakingly untrue.

As I’m writing this, on January 24, Trump had his Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeat this ludicrous claim, saying that Trump’s belief is “based on studies and evidence people have brought to him,” which Spicer refused to specify. Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN, “I wasn’t there, but if the President of the United States is claiming that 3.5 million people voted illegally, that shakes confidence in our democracy — he needs to disclose why he believes that.”

Now let’s tackle the lie du jour, the Inauguration Crowd Lie. Apart from the needs of Trump’s insatiable ego, the number of people attending the Inauguration is supremely insignificant. Obama won most of the states near D.C., while Trump lost them, so it stands to reason that there might be a smaller crowd for Trump. Also, the weather was crummy. Nobody would have thought twice about this issue if Trump hadn’t chosen to lie about it. But lie he did, and has continued to do.

As reported in the New York Times, at his speech to the CIA Trump, “called journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth,’ and he said that up to 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration, a claim that photographs disproved.” We don’t need a chart to parse this: it’s a direct attack on the media, for reporting accurate information that Trump would prefer were otherwise. Sean Spicer continued the attack at a no-questions press briefing, including multiple falsehoods. When Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press she lamely characterized Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.” We had a lot of fun with that phrase — which I just noticed can be tweaked into “aLternatIvE factS” — but Trump’s bold attack on the credibility of the press isn’t one bit funny. This piece by Ezra Klein in Vox nails it: Trump’s real war isn’t with the media. It’s with facts. But to destabilize our grip on reality he first has to discredit the press as an unreliable source of information.

Trump’s lies are part of a deliberate campaign to energize (and build) his base, discredit any institutions that might oppose him, and loosen our own grip on the real, factual world. Pointing out the falseness of his lies makes us feel good — and encourages those of us who care about truth — but does little to blunt their emotional power. Who in today’s America has the cohones to stand up to the Alpha Male and shame or bully him into silence, or truthfulness? There had better be such a person or institution, since this must happen soon! 

Don’ts for the Trump Era

How we behave can affect whether Trump becomes a Putin-esque dictator or whether we get our democracy back. Here are some things I think we should not do.

  • Don’t Get Distracted. For all his intellectual failings Trump is a genius at manipulation and distraction. It will be very easy — as the media did throughout the campaign — to allow shiny fluff like his 3 am tweets to distract us from what’s actually important. I have argued in The Worst Problem With Trump that Trump’s violations of law and the Constitution should be our central focus; I’m concerned that we will let him off the hook for violating the law by chasing after an infinity of awful but lawful policies and decisions. But whether you agree with me on this or not, don’t lose sight of whatever you think is most important.
  • Don’t Burn Out. We will be subjected to a veritable tsunami of upsetting information every day of the Trump Era. Each day’s news will cause us heartbreak and outrage, horror and fear. Disconnect for a while if it becomes too much to bear! Take time to breathe, and enjoy your life. But when you can, come back to the fray.
  • Don’t Sink to Trump’s Level. Some have said that to counter Trump Democrats must resort to similar tactics — lies, manipulation, and the ruthless use of power (this last currently being limited to the Senate filibuster). I say no: that isn’t who we are, it isn’t who we should become, and it isn’t how we will prevail. While I think the “arc of history” idea is sentimental b.s. I also believe that values matter and that very often sound and humane values will eventually win out.
  • Don’t Break the Law (Unless You Decide To). Trump and his minions will be most happy to have the FBI search your apartment or office and take away your computers, then lock you up and throw away the key. Don’t give them the opening! That said, there’s a time and place for nonviolent civil disobedience, so do what you feel is necessary so long as you’ve considered and accepted the consequences.
  • Don’t Get Violent. I think violence plays into Trump’s hands, by giving him justification to declare martial law. I don’t think we should use violence at all while there is any chance of preserving democracy through other means.
  • Don’t Normalize. These are not normal times and Trump is not a normal President. We can’t afford to give him the benefit of the doubt, since there is no doubt. When friends waver we must remind them that the Trump Era is #NotNormal and must never become “the new normal.”
  • Don’t Give Up.

Trump Diplomacy

Who would ever have thought to see “Trump” and “diplomacy” in the same sentence? The two ideas are antithetical. But responsibility for our nation’s diplomacy comes with the job. How do things look so far?

Europe. Trump’s disparagement of NATO, and equivocation about whether the U.S. would honor its treaty obligations, combined with his cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is a catastrophe for Europe. I don’t suppose Putin will invade Germany any time soon, but one can confidently anticipate that it will continue to bite off chunks of its neighbors, such as Georgia and Ukraine, and will seek to destabilize the Baltics. But quite apart from what Russia actually does, the weakening of NATO leaves Europe no alternative but to seek an accommodation with Russia. With the U.S. now an unreliable ally, countries bordering Russia will have to make nice to avoid destabilization or disguised invasion. Most of Europe is already dependent on Russia for natural gas and with the U.S. out of the picture is on its way to becoming part of Russia’s “near abroad.”  See, for example, this Bloomberg piece: “U.K. Said to Fear Trump to Embolden Putin, Weaken NATO Pact

East Asia.Trump has wobbled on East Asia. At first he said Japan should get its own nuclear weapons, then he said he never said that. He violated decades of protocol by taking a call from Taiwan’s President and claimed that our “One China” policy was subject to negotiation, which China rejects. He has expressed admiration for the brutal, autocratic President of the Philippines, reportedly endorsing Duterte’s campaign of extra-judicial murders of suspected drug dealers. What all this means is anybody’s guess. Most likely it’s “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” What it means for East Asia, however, is easier to predict. America is no longer a reliable ally for anyone, so our East Asian friends must start planning for a future without American protection. This will mean cozying up to China and Russia in the short term, and at least laying the foundations for a sprint to nuclear weapons in the medium term. Even if there is no hot war Japan and our other East Asian friends have little choice but to accept Chinese dominance.

Mexico and Canada. Trump’s announcement of his campaign included one of his most iconic claims:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Trump proposes to protect us from these sinister Latinos with the Wall, for which Mexico is supposed to pay. He also proposes to rip up NAFTA, which could send the Mexican economy into a tailspin. Sending back millions of undocumented Mexicans would be unfathomably cruel, and damaging to the U.S. economy, but if it actually happened the injection of wealth and talent might help cushion the other damage Trump intends to cause to their economy.

Trump hasn’t been as nasty to Canadians as he has been to Mexicans — he hasn’t (yet) proposed to build a wall along the longest undefended border in the world — but his threat to rip up NAFTA also casts a cloud over Canada’s economic future.

While in general I think Trump is a disaster for our foreign relations, in the case of our immediate neighbors he may more or less get away with his bullying. Both Canada and Mexico are highly dependent on our economy and they are geographically stuck with us. And if either gives Trump any serious lip he can just invade.

Free Trade. It must be acknowledged that the benefits of free trade have been oversold, both by Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats. Yes, we have known since Adam Smith that trade benefits both countries, but we have turned a blind eye to the fact that many of the benefits of trade flow to a few people and regions while other people and regions are grievously harmed. My own view is that we should combine something closer to “fair trade” with extraordinary investments in the people and communities who are harmed by trade (or other global changes such as automation).

People hurt by free trade — or who thought they had been — were obviously a potent political force in the 2016 campaign. Not only did they power Trump’s victory in key rustbelt states, but they enabled Sanders to make a serious run at the Democratic nomination. Clinton’s disavowal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that she had helped negotiate was breathtakingly too little too late.

Trump, however, seems oblivious to both economic theory and history. He instead embraces a pre-Wealth-of-Nations “mercantalist” idea in which trade is a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. His threatened tariffs could easily lead to a trade war that could bring world trade crashing down. This would be devastating to the economies of producing countries and would also fuel inflation in consuming countries who are suddenly forced to produce goods and services at higher cost. Without overplaying the parallel, these were the conditions that led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Russia. The big winner in all of this is of course Russia, which did so much to help Trump get elected. It’s nonsense to say that America has been turned into a “subordinate ally to Russia,” as claimed in a recent Maclean’s article. But it is true to say that America’s “soft power” to influence world events has been crushed. Russian tanks will not be parading down Fifth Avenue any time soon, because America’s “hard power” remains strong. But our moral and persuasive influence around the world, most particularly in the key theaters of Europe and East Asia, has been destroyed. America is now a military powerhouse located in North America, with little ability to influence events — apart from blowing things up — elsewhere in the world. Russia can’t take us over, but they have neutralized us as a world superpower. Vladimir Putin just won World War III without firing a single shot.

Addendum 1/16/17: I still think Trump is just a no-nothing contrarian, but there’s also the possibility that he actually is Putin’s puppet, in which case we’re truly f#%*ed.

Addendum 1/17/17: Note that the damage to our alliances doesn’t come only from what Trump may or may not actually do in office. A President elect saying that NATO is obsolete itself shatters confidence, no matter what he later says or does. And even more deeply, it’s not just what he may say and do that will destroy America’s alliances all over the world: it’s who he is. Nobody can rely on an unstable compulsive liar, or the country he leads. If the next administration is sane and reliable we can begin to heal, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.