21 July 2018

Putin Derangement Syndrome

Senator Paul has a short memory if he thinks that his colleagues' hostility toward Russia is fueled by their hatred for President Trump. He should know that 21st century Russophobia well predates the 2016 election. More than any other person, more so than even Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Putin stands as a scapegoat for the dissolution of post-Cold War dreams of a liberal, Americanist world order. He is hated because few Americans can imagine any good reason to resist U.S. Hegemony and so assume that Putin does so for bad reasons: a lust for personal power or wealth, an atheistic national chauvinism, an ideological antipathy toward liberal civilization. The anti-imperialist fringe may cite however many provocations of Russia by NATO and however many legitimate grievances, but the liberal establishment questions any entitlement Russia may claim by virtue of its size, its boasted culture or its nuclear arsenal. Many Americans see in Russia what some would say we fail to see in ourselves: a nation driven primarily by greed and a bullying temperament to no other end but its own gain. At the same time, those of us who can't comprehend such seeming belligerence motivated solely by national interest or pride see Russia as some saw it 200 years ago, as the bulwark and arsenal of international authoritarianism and an existential threat to liberal order. To his credit, Donald Trump doesn't seem to have such an ideologically blinkered view of the world. His own view paradoxically combines a cynical realism regarding international relations with a seeming naivete in dealing with those leaders whose strength he appears to admire. Whatever his own shortcomings as a diplomat may prove to be, he at least doesn't suffer from the Putin Derangement Syndrome that at least partly fuels many Americans' hatred for their President. Those people don't lash out at Russia to spite Trump, nor simply because they choose to blame Putin for Trump's election, but in many cases because, reasonably or not, they see Putin and Trump as two of a kind.

17 July 2018

Who goes there? Foe or ...?

For a politician, the President of the United States has a limited vocabulary which he uses in often slapdash fashion, yet Donald Trump showed unusual care in his choice of words when talking to a CBS interviewer last week. Many observers were alarmed by his use of the word "foe" to describe the European Union, even as he used the same word for Russia and China. While many took offense at his calling the EU a foe, it's clear from the word choice that he doesn't see the Europeans as an "enemy." At the same time, "foe" sounds more serious than "competitor" or "rival," which may reflect how much more seriously Trump takes global commerce than many do in the bipartisan political establishment. Unlike the libertarian consensus on trade, Trump clearly sees it as a zero-sum game that the U.S. can't afford to lose. He seems reluctant to accept the trade-offs globalism imposes or to concede the loss of any American job, even as critics warn that his protectionist policies may cost more jobs than they can possibly preserve.

To Trump, it seems, trade rivalry is more real and meaningful than the ideological affinities that, to some, should bind us unbreakably to the democracies of western Europe. At the same time, let's not overstate the implications of his labeling anyone a "foe." As noted already, he also identified China and Russia as foes, and in all cases foe-dom seems for him to be a matter of circumstances rather than an inherent state of being. Most importantly, when speaking of foes Trump added: "But that doesn't mean they're bad. It doesn't mean anything [!?!]. It means they are competitive. They want to do well and we want to do well."

The President has no vision of ultimate harmony among nations. His National Security Strategy recognizes rivalry as an inevitable fact of international life. That may seem fatalistic, cynical or self-fulfilling to many people, but it also seems to mean that Trump is less likely to attribute rivalry to malevolence on the part of his foreign counterparts. That would explain why he perceives and presumably approaches Vladimir Putin and other actual or alleged authoritarians differently from they way liberals or neocons would. He is almost certainly not as naive on that subject as many critics suspect, though it's possible that he underestimates how far Putin may go to advance his country's interests. It should suffice to say that as far as Trump is concerned, no nation's system of government or the governmental style of its ruler makes it automatically an existential enemy or a permanent friend of the U.S. His stance alarms people who see a solidarity of democracies as essential in the face of the apparently eternal authoritarian challenge, and see that solidarity undermined by Trump's protectionism. It may be that just as statesmen of the past questioned whether another nation's sovereignty was worth the lives of his own soldiers, Trump may question whether an alliance of democracies is worth the jobs of his own voters. The wisdom of that view probably will be longer in the proving than many have jumped to conclude.

12 July 2018

Captive to America?

According to the Trump foreign policy, alliances should materially benefit the United States. That became most apparent when the President chided Germany this week for receiving energy from a Russian pipeline. That deal, he claimed, made Germany a "captive" of Russia, presumably because German dependence on the pipeline gives Vladimir Putin leverage in geopolitical disputes. It was clear from the context of his remarks, however, that Trump resented the Germans not making themselves more economically dependent on the U.S. From an early point in his presidency, Trump has made it clear that he wants European nations to buy more American energy, making himself an open economic rival to Russia by making his pitch to Eastern European countries. When dealing with NATO, he makes it more clear that the member states should show their gratitude to the U.S. not only buy contributing more to the common defense but by buying American more often. As usual, Trump's comments on NATO have alarmed established observers. They take alarm because they see NATO  idealistically as something motivated by disinterested benevolence or by a principled defense of European national sovereignty against the perpetual threat of Russia. They see NATO as a matter of duty for the "leader of the free world" to which questions of compensation, much less profit, should be immaterial. Trump and his supporters take a more contingent view, and the President's demand that our allies come across with more money will most likely play well with Americans in general so long as it's understood that it will free up American resources for American needs. Few are likely to see his approach as the miserly shortsightedness described by many pundits and politicians. I see no reason not to expect Europe to contribute more to its own defense, so long as Europeans feel the need for an extensive defense establishment. But I can't help seeing the President's whining about that pipeline as somewhat venal and slightly childish in its intention to deflect persistent gossip about his own dependence on Russia. The alliance may not be the unconditional obligation some ideologues and geostrategists think it to be, but it isn't a protection racket either, and it's not unreasonable for people to worry when a statesman seems so openly to calculate the value of an alliance as a matter of profit and loss.

28 June 2018

Perils of Journalism

Because I work in a newspaper office,  I won't jump to conclusions about the motives behind the amoklauf at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. Just this morning as I came into work, one of my coworkers told me she was frightened a little by a man who came in demanding to see the editor. I'm going to keep this vague, but basically the guy got in big trouble because of something that appeared in the paper that he claimed was inaccurate. He didn't really threaten anyone, but the anxiety he provoked seems relevant in light of the terrible news from Maryland. Before we assume that the Annapolis shooter was lashing out at "fake news" of some sort, bear in mind that people might have many more reasons to lash out against a newspaper than we can see from a purely national perspective. What happened was awful regardless, but let's not make it out to be more awful in its implications until more facts are in.

Weaponizing the First Amendment

If you believe that the poor are always right, or that the working class or organized labor is always right,don't expect to find confirmation in the U. S. Constitution.  That document is too dedicated to individual and minority rights and reflects the Framers' ideal of balancing class interests instead of empowering a majority class among the others. The Constitution can be "weaponized" against working-class interests and agendas, as Justice Kagan claims has been done by the majority in the Janus case. Led by Justice Alito, the Republican majority overturned a 1970s ruling that allowed states to require public employees to pay "agency fees" to unions to which they didn't belong. The requirement violated the First Amendment, Alito wrote, because it forced individuals to subsidize political activity with which they did not agree when unions became involved in lobbying and electioneering. Democrats and the left have interpreted Janus as an attack on public-employee unions and a self-evidently partisan attempt to cripple their capacity for political advocacy. Aliso doesn't exactly discourage that reading. He writes: "We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members." In other words, unions had better abandon partisan politics. Such a warning has been inevitable since the white working class was infiltrated by Republican conservatism in the late 1960s. With that came a backlash against any extension of solidarity beyond the workplace that offended conservative sensibilities. As individuals and minorities within organized labor, this backlash was bound to win vindication in a Republican Supreme Court in spite of liberal rationalization, and with the retiring Justice Kennedy certain to be replaced by a Trump appointee, the backlash will prevail for decades to come. It will, of course, provoke another backlash as people begin to ask why, if it violates their rights to have to subsidize speech and policies with which they disagree, they should be compelled to pay taxes to support the Trump administration.

26 June 2018

Trump beats Hawaii

In Trump v. Hawaii the Supreme Court, voting along the usual lines, upheld the President's ban on travelers from select nations. The majority rejected the argument that the travel ban violated the First Amendment by targeting Muslim-majority countries, as they had to given that North Korea and Venezuela were included in the ban while countries containing the majority of the world's Muslims were not. The majority rejected the claim that the Trump administration had not offered an adequate national-security justification for the ban, arguing in effect that our national-security needs are whatever the President determines them to be. His prerogative is not disqualified by anything allegedly Islamophobic he has ever said. The dissenting justices notwithstanding, the objections to the travel ban have always been more ideological than constitutional. When national security appears to justify a take-no-chances stance toward certain nationalities, individual rights in the abstract are inevitably violated, as is the feeling that all people should be held innocent until proven suspicious. Until a  positive universal law enshrines and enforces that principle, however, individual rights will be subject to national laws and national interests; the people of the world cannot all be equal in the eyes of any nation. For those offended by this fact, the Court offers consolation by placing a limit on what the President can do to Muslim citizens. The majority explicitly repudiated the infamous Korematsu decision in which a wartime Court affirmed the President's right to inter Americans on the basis of ethnic origin. It may seem small gratification for the Court to say that at least the President can't round up American Muslims and put them in camps, but considering how fearful many people are about the current President's ultimate intentions there should be some gratitude shown to the Roberts Court. But at a time when every trumping of perceived human rights by supposed national interests is attributed to raw bigotry, today's decision will inflame  rather than quiet dissent, and the finer details are likely to be forgotten.

25 June 2018

The little Red Hen and the decline of liberal civility

A few days ago the White House press secretary was thrown out of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington VA in a rebuke to her employer, the President.  This action was applauded by at least one Democratic congresswoman who encouraged people to "push back" at Trump administration people wherever they may be found in public. Inevitably, the President entered the discussion with an inevitable ad hominem attack on the Representative, an inevitable slander against the "filthy" restaurant, an inevitable misrepresentation of what the Representative said (translating "push back" to "harm") and an unsavory warning to "be careful what you wish for." It was another few days in the strange death of liberal America, a slight but still worrisome escalation of mutual intolerance. I can understand the desire to get in the faces of policy makers or political spokesmen, but I hope no one does it with the hope of changing anyone's minds. Gestures of this sort, probably inspired in part by the Supreme Court's protection of some conscientious objections to same-sex marriage, are most likely to provoke exactly the tit-for-tat response the President hints at, though it will no doubt be described differently, perhaps as "authoritarian intimidation tactics" or something along that line. Whatever you call it, it grows more likely the less we agree to let each other disagree about politics. That agreement is fundamental to political liberalism, but liberal civility appears increasingly unsustainable the more people feel that lives are at stake in political decisions. I've seen traditional liberal civility described as a form of white privilege, the privilege consisting of a presumed immunity to the material consequences of political decisions. The underprivileged and the self-consciously oppressed can no longer afford such civility, it seems, as antifa tactics grow more appealing. Whatever complexion you put on it, the underlying assumption is that politics is how people stay alive; to disagree, as Republicans seem to, is virtually to wish some people dead. This attitude, even more than the bigotry of reactionary whites, is a stumbling block for those well-meaning moderates who hope to re-establish mutual respect in the political sphere. How can you respect someone's opinion when you infer that that someone would rather see you die than compromise his so-called principles? Conversely, how can you respect someone when  they seem to have no principle but "I must live?" Can liberalism endure in such an environment? Liberalism seems perfectly compatible with an "everyone must live" ethos, until people claim philosophical or moral reasons to dissent from that ethos, and other people start to see such dissent as a crime against life. Genuine political liberals and civil libertarians in such conditions look like Rodney King during the L.A. riots asking, "Can't we get along?" Caught between two increasingly irreconcilable forces, they may well end up looking like King before the riots.

20 June 2018

Conservativism vs. anti-liberalism

David Brooks opposes the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants, believing that it unjustly targets many we've become useful members of society after their original offense. He also sees the policy as a betrayal of conservative values, being instead an instance of statist overreach, of "government officials blindly following a regulation." That observation moves him to clarify his distinction between Trumpists and authentic conservatives. Trumpists are merely anti-liberalism, and often "anti-liberalism trolls." Brooks has a theory that Trumpism, if not Trump, was shaped by the battles against political correctness on college campuses. While those struggles supposedly have been motivated by a spirit of liberty, Brooks charges that Trumpist anti-liberalism are interested less in liberty or any limited-government principle than in simply crushing liberals. They are uninterested, as principled conservatives presumably should be, in the "tangled realities" of a complex issue, but resort to "inhumane abstractions" and oversimplification, e.g. that any alternative to zero-tolerance is "amnesty." The immigration debate aside, Brooks is contesting the ownership of the word "conservative" and the right of some of the right to describe themselves as conservative. This is nothing new; it has gone on as long as fascists and anti-communists have been lumped together as part of "the right" and as long as many on the left have said they are all the same thing. Anti-statist conservatives have been at pains to deny any affinity with fascism and so emphasize their opposition to statism and any self-styled conservatism driven, as Trumpism allegedly is, by mere enmity. Theirs is a valid and perhaps even a coherent position, but it doesn't necessarily entitle them to exclusive ownership of the word "conservative." History argues against the claim, as there were statist conservatives in history long before American anti-communists aspired to define what was legitimately worth conserving and how it was to be conserved. Conservatism cannot be limited to limited government, and it's arguably contrary to the conservative modesty of someone like Brooks to claim that conservatism can only be one thing. On the other hand, it probably would be a good thing if each conservative faction adopted its own label, and just as good if every liberal or progressive faction did likewise. The sooner we all see that there are always more than two sides or two ways to view every question, the sooner we might form effective coalitions of factions or interests dedicated to governing rather than destroying or driving out the so-called enemy.  It might also make it easier to see whether there are actual enemies of the people in our midst.