15 August 2017

'You're changing culture'

The President probably had yesterday's demonstration in Durham NC, where a mob toppled a Confederate statue, as well as the weekend's carnage in Charlottesville in mind when he spoke combatively with the press today. While he had valid points to make, particularly that there was violence from what he called the "alt-left" as well as the alt-right in Charlottesville, he jumped the shark when he denounced the peaceful removal of Confederate monuments. He perceived a slippery slope taking us from the disappearing, so to speak, of Robert E. Lee to the purging of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If Confederates must be removed from the theoretical public square because they owned slaves, Trump reasoned, won't Washington and Jefferson inevitably be taken as well? To remove Confederate monuments, he argued, somehow was to rewrite or distort history. "You're changing culture," he complained, and that brings us back to Thomas Friedman's column of last week, in which the New York Times writer advised Democrats that not all Americans with "gut" cultural concerns about immigrants, Muslims, etc. could be written off as white supremacists. Friedman's column begged the question of where the line was to be drawn; to what extent should we tolerate and address people's cultural concerns, and at what point can we criticize their suspicions as bigotry? Trump has shown us where he'd draw the line, arguing that one can revere the Confederacy, and object to its purging from public history, without being a white supremacist. The President was most likely correct to say that not everyone who protested against the Charlottesville statue's removal was a white supremacist on the odious level of the Klan or the neo-Nazis. But can there really be a value-free embrace of the Confederacy on the abstract "heritage" level, presumably meaning that you think it cool, and nothing more, that great warriors once lived where you live now? It's possible, I suppose, as long as you have no idea at all of what the Confederacy was about. Only the ignorant could fail to draw important distinctions between Founding Fathers and Secessionists -- including ignorant people on the left who may well think exactly as Trump presumes. I'd like to think that I could make even Trump understand the difference. How would he feel, and what would he do, had some crazy Californians actually carried out their post-election threat to take their state out of the Union rather than have Donald Trump as their president? I'm pretty confident that the way Trump would feel is exactly how most Americans from Abraham Lincoln to the present day feel about the Confederacy. You can cut through all the neo-Confederate sophistry regarding the relevance of slavery to secession or the subsequent war by noting that a bunch of privileged crybabies took their states out of the union, without really consulting their constituents, solely to protest an election. Many states seceded before Lincoln had a chance to do any of the supposedly unconstitutional things they feared -- before he was even inaugurated. Theirs was the #notmypresident movement of their day. Does Donald Trump really want to endorse that? Does he really think that people who fought for that cause are heroes? Is the Confederate heritage really a core part of the American culture he expects everyone to defend? It's up to the President's northern supporters to say otherwise. They should be as hostile to Confederate idolatry as an internal poison as they are to any perceived external poison. On a cynical level, I can understand why the President, no doubt contemplating reelection, can't take the lead here. But if northern Trumpists don't feel the hostility toward the Confederacy that they should as a matter of heritage, I'd like to know why.


Repercussions from Charlottesville have taken most people's minds off some really irresponsible recent talk from the President. Trump told reporters last Friday that he would not rule out military intervention to end the instability in Venezuela, where the opposition sees the convening of a Constituent Assembly as the ultimate power grab by Hugo Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro. The President observed that "the people are suffering and dying" there, but he's never struck me as a humanitarian-intervention sort of guy. To the extent that Trump's own fans noted this before Charlottesville erupted, they must have wondered how national security justified a Venezuelan intervention, or how everyday joes like themselves could benefit from it. I suppose we could infer from the President's past comments about taking Iraqi oil that he might like to have Venezuela's vast oil reserves under American strategic control, but beyond that I can't understand this sudden bluster. I do understand that Maduro, as Chavez's heir, has a place in an unofficial axis of evil leaders whose bark is worse than their bite, to judge from the rage their rhetoric provokes in many Americans, but are we really so thin-skinned, or is our President, that we have to take down any ruler that insults us? That we are thin-skinned is beyond doubt, but what worries me about Trump's threat to Venezuela is the idea that the President might get off on threatening foreign leaders. Perhaps he feels more powerful, and even more presidential, as he exchanges threats with Kim Jong Un. Perhaps he thinks that, with the might of the U.S. military behind him, he can win through raw intimidation. Perhaps he thinks the rest of the world sees him as he sees himself, as a figure of unquestionable power who is not to be trifled with -- or perhaps he wants them to see him that way. And perhaps he relishes being able to "negotiate" with fitting antagonists like Kim and Maduro in a way he really can't when dealing with domestic opposition. Whatever's going on in his head, his behavior toward Venezuela doesn't really match the non-interventionist stance attributed to him, often by hostile observers, during his presidential campaign. Part of Trump's appeal, I thought, was the idea that he would not embroil Americans in counterproductive conflicts for the sake of ideas or the sake of humanity as his predecessors did. Or did we misread his audience? Or do they just want to see him slap somebody down, even if it isn't anyone they really want slapped down? We may get a better idea if Trump keeps up the tough talk on Venezuela and it actually starts to register with his base, or if he does something about North Korea first. If anything, should he not lash out at some foreign enemy, they may grow more impatient for him to lash out at home. For all I know, Trump may be picking foreign targets to keep himself from doing just that.

14 August 2017

Is a culture truce possible?

The day before the Charlottesville incident, one of the local papers ran a Thomas Friedman column urging Democrats to appeal to swing voters on a gut level, on the understanding that "Some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them." Friedman appeared to argue that it was possible to take a populist stand on some cultural issues without going down the slippery slope to white supremacy. He made a distinction between a pro-Trump "white nationalist constituency" that Democrats can't hope to reach and a larger, potentially more decisive group of voters to whom Democrats ought to make some intellectual concessions. Three out of his four recommendations touch on cultural issues. He asks Democrats to acknowledge that "We can't take in every immigrant who wants to come in." He suggests "constructively engaging" Muslims on their problems with pluralism. He proposes easing off on "political correctness" so people feel more "comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country when globalization is erasing national identities." His fourth recommendation is for Democrats to focus on blue-collar job creation while acknowledging the existence of "a trade problem with China" and the even-bigger problem of increased automation. These are Friedman's "gut" issues, "gut"apparently being a euphemism for "culture" at a time when some on the hard left, echoing the legendary words of a Nazi playwright, reach for a rock to throw whenever anyone says "culture." 

Charlottesville is a win for the rock-throwers because it appears to reinforce their argument that white supremacy is the true face of the Trump movement, after the media spent the weekend asking why the President didn't denounce white supremacy specifically (or exclusively) after Saturday's violence. Presumably Trump satisfied most critics with his remarks today, though no doubt it will be claimed that his condemnation of white supremacy was tardy and only made under pressure. After this, there probably will be even less desire on the left for compromise with cultural populists than there was before Friedman wrote his column. Whether or not people honestly believe that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, a desire to spite the actual white supremacists is likely to outweigh either pragmatic or principled considerations for the next little while. Nevertheless, Friedman is right to remind readers of the existence of cultural populists -- one might also call them materialist conservatives, but this isn't the time to explain that one -- who are not rednecks or any sort of hyphenated Nazi. Friedman's is a rare concession that there are Americans with exclusionary views who are not a priori white supremacists, who can't be said to want a "lily-white" America just because they're suspicious of Muslims or Mexicans, but the majority on the left -- the people most likely to dismiss Friedman himself as a neoliberal -- can't imagine any other reason for excluding foreigners. In the face of that skepticism, it was still right for many Republicans to denounce white supremacy after the car attack, because they have a job of persuasion of their own if they hope to calm the nation's turbulent mood. It's in their interest to persuade the skeptics that there is an American culture worth defending against potentially antithetical influences that cannot simply be reduced to "whiteness," and that cultural populism isn't simply a matter of white people dictating to everyone else how to be an American. If the Democrats have to go for the "gut" to regain power, Republicans may need to go for the brain to retain it.

12 August 2017

Violence in Virginia

In Charlottesville VA the city council voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, presumably on the premise that memorials to Confederate soldiers endorse slavery or racism. Alt-right groups saw the move as anti-white and are holding rallies in Charlottesville to protest the statue's removal, chanting the slogan, "You will not replace us." Inevitably, anti-racist groups, no doubt with "antifa" streetfighters in their midst, held counterdemonstrations. Just as inevitably, alt-right and anti-racist groups have been clashing all weekend. This afternoon, a presumed anti-anti-racist escalated the conflict, apparently borrowing from the Islamic terror playbook by deliberately driving his vehicle into a crowd of marching counter-demonstrators, killing one outright and injuring dozens more. The President quickly condemned the act, but his denunciation of "hate" and "bigotry" quickly proved inadequate for many critics. The problem, as they read his tweet, was that Trump had failed, predictably from their perspective, to denounce white supremacism. The President's spokespersons in the news media came to his defense, inferring a self-evident condemnation of white supremacy in Trump's more general comments. The story no doubt can write itself from there. But let's review: Confederate leaders, military or political, should be heroes nowhere in America; white chauvinists or supremacists, however odious their views, have just as much right to demonstrate without getting beat up as any one else with a controversial opinion; no offense committed by antifa or anti-racist groups in general against freedom of speech or assembly justifies an attempted mass murder of the sort that apparently took place today -- this could yet prove a DWI or apolitical road rage incident -- the victims of which may not even have taken part in street fighting. Finally, the President should be given the benefit of the doubt, this time at least, when he says he condemns what happened, when the more Trumpian response, based on some people's estimate of the man, might have been to say nothing at all. It's sad to think that some Americans think that if the President didn't say "white supremacists," he might have been condemning the victims or proposing some moral equivalence of all the weekend's combatants. In any event, white supremacism, if it was a motivating factor at all, was not the sufficient cause of today's atrocity. Neither white supremacists nor the alt-right in general is exclusively responsible for creating an environment in which vehicular homicide looks like the next natural step to take. People on all sides are taking "culture war" all too literally these days, including many who should know better. There's more than enough hate to go around right now -- but of course, no one will admit to it. We could all stand to be more honest about our biases at this moment in history. Candor certainly can't make things much worse.

10 August 2017

Defrauding the donors?

While channel surfing this morning I saw a brief item on Fox News about a Virginia man who was suing the state and local Republican party organizations for fraud. The story is actually about a week old and started here. Bob Heghmann wants the money back that he donated to the GOP last year, contending that Republicans solicited donations under false pretenses. They solicited donations on the promise that they would repeal Obamacare, but Heghmann claims, citing statements from a former Speaker of the House, that they did so knowing that they could not or would not kill the Affordable Care Act. He believes that while "members of the House of Representatives and Senate cannot be sued for failing to abide by campaign promises," the party can be held responsible for its members' failure to fulfill its promises. He considers it the party's responsibility to "pressure" its congressional caucus to live up to those promises. Of course, party spokesmen dismiss Heghmann's suit as frivolous, and I can understand why they'd be angry at him. His complaint puts the lie to an oft-used argument against stricter regulation of campaign donations, which is that donations are not quid-pro-quo transactions. Donors don't give money in return for specific votes, we're to understand, but to support candidates who already have an affinity with donors' values and priorities. Heghmann clearly expected something specific in return for his admittedly-modest donation, and who knows how many donors, modest or not, feel the same way. Common sense may argue that you punish politicians and parties that break their promises at the polls, but that doesn't get Heghmann his money back after he expected it to be effective. If more donors begin to act as he has, or start voting with their wallets by keeping them closed, it will be harder for politicians to sustain the argument that campaign donations aren't intended to influence votes. If a judge ever hears Heghmann's case, I the official to argue that he had no right to expect a quid-pro-quo return on his donation, that too many variables of circumstances make it impossible to hold political parties to such expectations. Those would actually be perfectly valid arguments, practically speaking, but they won't change the truth that Heghmann has spoken about campaign donors and what they expect for their money.

09 August 2017

Fire and Fury

The Secretary of State says that the President's threat yesterday to subject North Korea to "fire and fury like the world has never seen" was just Donald Trump's attempt to speak to Kim Jong Un in the only language the hereditary dictator is presumed to understand. Tillerson promptly translated the remark into more conventional language as a reaffirmation that "the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so." The Washington Post noted an important shift in emphasis; the secretary promised a response to an "attack," while the President threatened a response to "threats." Greg Sargent believes that Tillerson is trying to prevent "fire and fury" from becoming Trump's "red line," an equivalent to President Obama's mostly empty threats to the Syrian government. At issue is what the current President means by "threat." The current presumption seems to be that hotheaded Trump was provoked by the verbal threats of the North Korean government, and that, as Tillerson suggested, he was responding to trash talk with trash talk. If that's what the President meant when he said the Kim dynasty "best not make any more threats," then the clock is already ticking for "fire and fury," as the Kimites have already answered him by threatening to launch missiles at Guam. If Trump doesn't answer with "fire and fury," we should expect to hear criticism at least from the neocon right -- Senator McCain has already  called it an irresponsible statement -- and mockery from Pyongyang. It may be one thing to bully and bluster the same way that Kim Jong Un does, but it will be another for the bluster of a President to be as empty as Kim's often is.

Of course, no one has asked what Trump really means by "fire and fury." For all we know, it could just mean that North Korea will have made him really, really mad. They could well face fire and fury like Twitter has never seen -- and wouldn't that be preferable to the worst-case scenario some people assume? If history judges his words, they'll be judged by what Kim Jong Un does in response. Trump's hope, no doubt, is that the dictator will be intimidated by his obvious power to return to the negotiating table, in which case, if the terms end up favorable to us, the President will claim a win. For all we know, Trump may be practicing the kind of "madman" diplomacy Richard Nixon occasionally indulged in, in an attempt to persuade Kim that he is, in fact, a different kind of President whom the dictator must deal with differently. It's hard to say, however, whether Kim Jong Un is more or less likely than, say, an American liberal to perceive Donald Trump as a dangerous madman. Either way, the smart play for the dictator would be to negotiate, perhaps to meet Trump face to face. After all, the President often seems greatly impressed by strong leaders who are beloved by their people, and no one projects that image more persistently than Kim Jong Un. They might actually get along great, and while I do mean that as something of a slap at an oddly ingratiating tendency of Trump's it would also be something of a relief to have a President not conditioned by neo-thinking to see the Kim dynasty as evil incarnate, a thing to be crushed unconditionally rather than dealt with diplomatically. The risk now is not so much that Trump might treat the destruction of North Korea as a moral imperative, but that he may feel it necessary to follow through on his threat to prove his dominance, not only abroad but at home. He'd be better off asking his advisers why North Korea is building nukes. If it's not to export communist revolution, then it must be for national defense -- and that should make it simple for the President. Is it in the national interest -- by his standard, the interest of actual Americans -- to maintain a permanent confrontational stance with ad admittedly repugnant regime that still would not be an existential threat to the U.S. under ordinary circumstances? Is it in the national interest to defend South Korea at all costs? Is it in the national interest to perpetuate a conflict that inevitably will be exploited by more serious potential antagonists to distract us while they advance their agendas? All of that is for Trump and his team to decide, but not to take for granted as his predecessors have. He needs to take his vacation seriously, resist the temptation to get into some macho showdown with Kim Jong Un, and give the cooler heads he's hired a chance to prevail.

07 August 2017

The unfriending of America

Republicans and right-wingers often rail at leftists who want to turn university campuses into "safe zones" where their opinions and self-esteem are never challenged by "hateful" ideas, but there seems to be a tendency on the right to treat social media as a safe zone. An op-ed in a local newspaper criticizes a number of Republican officeholders, including the President and the Governor of Maryland, who are blocking critics from their social media accounts. While I wouldn't be surprised to find Democrats doing the same thing, Republicans are supposed to be the people advocating robust debate everywhere. In the Maryland case the governor's office supposedly removed only "hateful and violent" content, but at least some of the people blocked insist that comments were "respectful, thoughtful and not profane." The ACLU is encouraging litigation against public officials who block users, on the premise that an official's social-media account is a public forum and blocking people violates the First Amendment.

Blocking unwelcome people from your social-media account is an uncontroversial practice for private citizens, though it usually reflects poorly on you in the eyes of those you block. When politicians block people from "official" accounts, it echoes the practice of relegating protesters and hecklers to some "free-speech zone." In both cases, the idea violates an assumed right of dissidents to get "in your face," to confront power directly and make your dissatisfaction with it known in the most obvious way. In the case of street demonstrations, "free-speech zones" are justified on the premise that demonstrators threaten the right to assemble of those they protest against. In social media, blocking people, however justified in some cases, is part of a much-deplored overall tendency of users to isolate themselves in "safe zones" of like-minded opinion, in an environment where any disagreement can be taken as an insult, if not an assault.

Reports this weekend of Trump TV's "real news" videos on the President's Facebook page triggered fears that social media could be made an instrument of state propaganda where alternate points of view are even less welcome than conservative opinion supposedly was in the old days of the three major networks and their allegedly biased news reports. Meanwhile, I suppose it could be argued that the social-media accounts of elected officials are not "public" in the sense assumed by the ACLU, that would confer constitutional rights on anyone who wants to comment on them. "Social" and "public" are not synonymous, and "social media" could be seen as yet another manifestation of "civil society," the flourishing of which, according to liberal thinking, is a safeguard against encroaching totalitarianism. Yet we could also be seeing a modern, secular version of the old American Christian tendency called "come-outerism," invoking the injunction from II Corinthians 6:17 to "come out from among them and be separate ... and touch not the unclean thing." Now you can do this without even leaving home, and that makes it easier for all sides to abandon the ideal of mutual accountability upon which principled democracy depends. When no one wants to hear that they're wrong, or even that they might be wrong, you have a consensus, in effect, that everyone is wrong.

04 August 2017

The cowardice of signing statements

As President, Donald Trump is similar to his recent predecessors in one respect. He likes to attach grumbling signing statements to legislation passed with veto-proof majorities in Congress. The most recent case involves the bill imposing new sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia. It passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. In the Senate, only Sen. Sanders, who felt it disrupted our nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Sen. Paul, who seems to have little use for sanctions in general, voted against it. It was obvious to the President immediately that the bill would complicate any attempt he might make to reconcile with Russia, not only because it imposes more sanctions, but because it constrains the President from negotiating away those sanctions before getting Congress' consent. Trump believes that this unconstitutionally violates his executive prerogative to negotiate with foreign leaders, and said so in his signing statement. This seems to be a higher-order objection than those that George W. Bush was wont to make in his signing statements, which usually indicated that he would still do whatever he pleased according to his (or Dick Cheney's) notion of executive power. One would think that a President has a duty to veto legislation he believes to be unconstitutional as a matter of principle, regardless of whether the veto will be overriden or not. Yet after expressing his objections, Trump feebly signed the sanctions bill for the sake of "national unity."

In one sense, I can understand Trump's capitulation. The Constitution makes no distinctions among the reasons why a President might veto a bill. Whatever the executive's objections, Congress always has the right to override. There is no procedure for referring a constitutional objection to the Supreme Court, and since the President is not the Supreme Court, Congress has no obligation to take his constitutional objections seriously. Given the consensus in favor of the sanctions, Trump would be SOL trying to dissuade Congress even if he had his immediate predecessor's academic credentials in constitutional law. Still, this might have been the time, given our increasingly tense relations with both Russia and North Korea, for a President who is not supposed to do things the way his predecessors did to do things differently. He still couldn't stop Congress from overriding a veto, but actually vetoing the bill might have been the sort of "profile in courage" gesture that might -- I know I'm being wildly theoretical here -- just might have provoked people into rethinking it. Trump did not do this, I suspect, because on a certain level he's a coward. Determined to win at all times, or to call whatever he happens to be doing a win, he probably could not stand to take a stand that was guaranteed to fail. He most likely didn't want the humiliation of an overwhelming override of what would have been his first presidential veto, particularly on a foreign policy question, as that might make him look weaker on the world stage. Well, that damage has been done anyway, as the world recognizes a reassertion of congressional influence in American foreign policy that the supposed strongman Trump could not resist. Now, presumably, Trump can only reserve for himself the satisfaction of saying "I told you so," not in the event of a Supreme Court vindication of his position, since they'll probably never hear the law challenged, but possibly after further deterioration of American relations with the rest of the world. If he really wants to tell us so, he should have vetoed the bill and damned the consequences. He'd have lost, certainly, but he might have earned a little more respect, in some quarters, at least, than he has now.