11 November 2018

Nationalism on Armistice Day

In France, the President preferred honoring American veterans at a military cemetery to taking part in an international peace forum. Some viewers will find it telling that the BBC had to cut from the latter to the former. It appeared to emphasize Donald Trump's isolation from his ostensible allies in Europe. As it turned out, Trump's remarks were apolitical and sentimental, but that won't change the impression that he's on a different course from that of international cooperation. In Europe, Trump's identification of himself as a nationalist most likely didn't lead people to suspect him of racism, but it probably did reinforce fears that his will be a destabilizing influence on the continent and around the world. Trump was in France because today is the centennial of the end of World War I, an event seen by many as the inevitable consequence of at least one form of nationalism. Whether Trump's is the sort of nationalism that makes war more likely remains to be seen, but it remains suspect in many eyes that infer inherent hostility to foreigners from any "nation first" rhetoric. It's safe to say, however, that "nation first" isn't synonymous with "nation uber alles." My assumption is that Trump's idea of international relations is inherently competitive but not Darwinian; that is, it does not have the subjugation or extinction of any other nation, except possibly for Iran's Islamic republic, as its goal.

On CNN right now, President Macron of France -- a fluent English speaker, by the way -- is quoted defining nationalism, presumably without making distinctions, as " who cares what happens to others." That implies a zero-sum hierarchy of "caring," with which Trump probably wouldn't agree. It simply doesn't follow that to care for "your own" first means not to care for others at all. Trump himself demonstrates this by recognizing no contradiction of his America-first principles in his unconditional support for Israel. He does, apparently, see a limit to the costs caring for others should impose on his own. His envisioning of a limit worries both those of avowedly boundless compassion and those who believe that the richest nations have a  duty to subsidize peace by spending to stabilize troubled parts of the world. This may be the most substantive critique of Trumpian nationalism; the fear isn't that Trump will wage aggressive war, but that his selfish indifference will make outbreaks of war more likely around the world. A truly indifferent American nationalist might ask "so what?" so long as it doesn't affect us, but ultimately we can't know whether Trump is that kind of nationalist until the event happens. For all that people may hope that Trump might learn some lesson contemplating the Great War, the truth may be that the lessons of that war will teach us nothing about Trump. 

07 November 2018


The Democrats have regained control of the House of Representatives but lost seats in the Senate. They can do more now to block President Trump's agenda but can do very little to advance their own. The next two years will test the President's legendary negotiating and deal-making skills as he deals with Speaker Pelosi. He can be expected to combine threats and flattery, as he does with people in power around the world, and he'll most likely appear both more belligerent and more accommodating than he's been in the first two years of his presidency. For her part, Pelosi should resist the temptation, or the popular demand, to use the House as an investigative body dedicated to overthrowing Trump by extra-electoral means. The Senate results suggest that there's little constituency for that, and a strong risk of a backlash that could reelect Trump and give the House back to the GOP in 2020. The midterm results indicate a consolidation of Trump's position rather than a reversal of his movement. He got out the vote in several crucial states and remains tremendously popular among the rural and working-class whites most likely to share his unconditional nationalism. He also remains a lightning rod for the resentments of racial minorities, intersectional women and nonconformist whites. He's not likely to be more humble in public on the road to 2020, but how he behaves behind closed doors may be a different story. Meanwhile, Pelosi will have to balance her national constituency's demand for resistance with a wariness of appearing obstructionist at a time when both major parties agree that many things need to be done, even if they disagree in specifics. In a sense, this week's results wipe the slate clean. What happens over the next two years will do more to decide the 2020 elections than what's happened in the last two.

01 November 2018

The end of American individualism?

David Brooks' pop psychoanalysis of mass shooters leads him to an indictment of an individualist ethos that to many seems fundamental to American national identity. The common trait of mass shooters, he claims, is that they're lonely, and American society today seems designed to turn out lonely, distrustful, indifferent to other's opinions, etc. Brooks claims that Alexis de Tocqueville warned of this, that even in the early 19th century there was suspicion that individualism as an ideology could be taken too far. Brooks doesn't have the space in an op-ed to describe why the warnings were ignored, but it certainly had much to do with a long polemic against all forms of "collectivism" that encouraged Americans of nearly all political persuasions to believe that their individual identities were theirs alone to decide. Without necessarily admitting it, Brooks is arguing for a social construction of identity that may seem abhorrent to both the most self-conscious freethinkers and those who equate individual identity with the soul as an inviolate gift from God. Many Americans, I suspect, still see the claims of individuality and community in zero-sum competition. That 's partly the legacy of the Cold War and its existentialist excesses and partly, as Brooks hints, something deeper in the American heritage. Brooks himself, in his apparent willingness to question individualist premises and prejudices, arguably is becoming more of a pre-American sort of conservative. Long ago, conservatism and individualism were antagonistic viewpoints, but today conservatism critical of individualism usually is labeled "authoritarianism" or, more mildly, "populist," and seen as essentially un-American. Even Brooks' mild collectivism, which is all about trying to forge friendship through shared activities, is sure to face mistrust from all those who fear "brainwashing," "indoctrination" or "mobilization."  My disinterested advice to Brooks is to let the adults rail, focus on the more malleable younger populations, and start reform in the schools. There's no guarantee of success, of course, but if a century ago a "lost" generation could be followed by "the greatest," it may be wise to skip ahead.

31 October 2018

The authoritarian moment?

The President probably has never sounded as much like the authoritarian strongman his most hysterical critics believe him to be as when he told an Axios interviewer that he could effectively amend the U.S. Constitution by executive order. He wants to end the policy of "birthright citizenship," which he believes to encourage illegal immigration. The policy is based on the 14th Amendment,  which states that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof," are citizens. Critics of birthright citizenship claim that the "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" clause is a qualifier that rules out the children of illegal immigrants, but the fact that any qualification would apply equally to both those born and those naturalized makes that a questionable reading. The President's apologists are quick to state that it will be the Supreme Court, not Donald Trump, that decides ultimately what the words mean. They predict that any executive order will only start a process resulting in a definitive judicial ruling on the meaning of the amendment. In our current political climate, a lower court most likely will block any executive order until the high court can have its say. Nevertheless,  this is a bad time for Trump to suggest that he could change the law unilaterally. We've just had people massacred by an extreme xenophobe because he assumed that they supported the welcoming of more refugees into the country, and we are now less than one week from the congressional elections. Now the President underscores his own xenophobia -- let no one deny that fear rather than principle drives the reaction to mass migration -- while appearing to fulfill the worst fears of both liberals and ideological conservatives about his style of governance. All you need for a perfect storm would be for that refugee caravan to arrive in time to be violently turned back before the election -- but in our climate, such a storm could blow either way.

28 October 2018

The false flag

As news came in from Pittsburgh yesterday many Americans, after their initial horror, had one of those increasingly familiar moments when what mattered most was the identity of the person who killed eleven people in a synagogue. Many no doubt felt relief when the killer proved to be a white man. For some, the worst case scenario would have been for the killer to have been a person of color, a Muslim and a recent immigrant. That would have been bad news, according to this line of thinking, because it would have been used to vindicate suspicion toward those categories or justify harsher measures against them. People on the other side of the political divide no doubt felt the same way. Now that both the Pittsburgh shooter and the would-be mail bomber who targeted liberal celebrities have been identified tentatively as almost stereotypical angry white men, many right-wingers fear understandably that these crimes will be used to discredit the Trump movement and the Republican party close to the congressional elections. Their fears are justified, as Democrats will most likely treat Republicans the way they wouldn't want Muslims or migrants to be treated had circumstances have been different. It's clear already that they want to hold the President rhetorically responsible for the past week's crimes, especially since it appears that the Pittsburgh shooter's anti-Semitism was exacerbated by anger at a Jewish organization that assists refugees.

On the far right, the defense mechanism against anticipated assertions of collective guilt is to spread a counternarrative portraying the mail bomb attempts, for starters, as "false flag" attacks, actually perpetrated by the other side specifically to discredit an entire movement or party. I haven't yet seen anyone claiming that the Pittsburgh amoklauf was a false-flag shooting, but modern times have taught us that sufficiently motivated people are capable of believing anything. False-flag paranoia isn't exclusive to the right, of course; that thinking dates back to the anarchist habit of blaiming all discrediting actions on agents provocateurs in their midst. It just seems to be more popular lately among those who seem to see humanity itself as a conspiracy against their liberties. False-flag thinking in general is grounded on a justified resistance to sweeping assertions of collective responsibility after individual atrocities. Donald Trump is no more personally responsible for the past week's crimes than the Muslim who lives down the street is responsible for the crimes of any self-styled IS soldier. If he has any responsibility as a person or a President, it's not to admit guilt but to warn against anyone claiming his kind of populist (if not nativist) nationalism as an entitlement to kill those who seem subversively un-American. And if there's a false flag flying anywhere in this country it's the one that presents the traditions and prejudices of one group of people as the standard of the nation itself.

23 October 2018

'They have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned...'

The President called himself a nationalist the other day and some people took predictable alarm. To some listeners, to be a nationalist is tantamount to being a national socialist, but we should take that suspicion no more seriously than the canard that national socialists, as socialists, belong to the left. Nationalism got a bad name before Nazism, however, being blamed for the horrors of World War I, if not both world wars. "Nationalism" denoted an inherently competitive if not Darwinian system of international relations that made war a constant danger, if not a fact of life in some places. For Donald Trump, nationalism is most likely a synonym for another old-fashioned term he favors, "America First." Its opposite in his dictionary is globalism. A globalist, he told his Texas audience, is "a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much." That may strike some listeners as a misrepresentation. Many self-styled globalists will tell you that as the "globe" does well, so will the U.S. The idea, of course, is that global prosperity creates markets for American goods. This, however, is a utilitarian view that expects the nation in general to do well regardless of however many individual Americans do less well. The globalism Trump decries is in part the libertarian sort that tries not to cry over lost jobs and challenges the unemployed to adapt to the global market as a test of character. It's also the "progressive" sort that assumes that the U.S. owes the rest of the world something that may require individual Americans to pay a just price. Trump himself affects to begrudge every American job lost, treating globalists of all sorts as at least theoretical enemies of the people. At the same time, there's some of the old-fashioned nationalism to his foreign policy, which seems based on a premise of perpetual competition that falls short of the existential antipathy of neocon thinking but still carries a risk of war, especially as he abandons treaties in his pursuit of maximum national advantage. In short, there's a lot more to Trump's nationalism than the mere racism some people seem to infer, but that only means it could be both better and worse than it sounds.

22 October 2018

Damned if we do, damned if we don't

Michael Gerson writes: "The accusation of fascism must clear a high hurdle, so that the term has content when it is necessary to employ." The theme of his latest column is that it's not yet time to employ the dread term to the Trump administration. Despite "echoes of fascist language and arguments" in his rhetoric (nostalgia, nationalism, fuehrerprinzip) Trump has not yet taken concrete action against civil liberty or the separation of powers. Saying this, Gerson presents himself as a moderate critic of Trumpism and a more moderate critic of liberal alarmism.  He then goes on to say that Trump could go fascist if the Republicans win the midterm congressional elections. Should the GOP hold Congress, Gerson warns, Trump will be emboldened to seek retribution against his enemies on all fronts. Should Trump go that way, "alarmism would be realism." That's Gerson's case for voting Democratic this November, but the relative merits of the major parties aside, Gerson's subtle alarmism can be refuted counterfactually. Isn't it more likely that Democratic victory and control of Congress would trigger a fascistic reaction on the part of Trump and his supporters? Wouldn't Trump, as Gerson describes him, be more inclined to ignore Congress if he sees it as the enemy of himself or the people? Wouldn't he play the sore loser and claim that the congressional elections were rigged against him (i.e. against the Republicans) in some way that would throw Congress's legitimacy into question? Aside from any predictable accusations of voting by illegal immigrants, the President arguably has already laid the groundwork for this sort of backlash by insinuating that the Chinese are trying to influence the election. That could prove to be more than tit-for-tat pettiness, and the consequences could be just as bad for civility as the Russia libel against Trump. This scenario may or may not seem more plausible than Gerson's, and I don't offer it as some rationale for voting Republican. Regardless of whether either scenario looks realistic, let's agree that if there's real fascist potential in the Trump movement -- and that still remains to be proven in terms of real fascism -- then it's unlikely that that potential or spirit will be long thwarted or deterred by the results of one round of voting. Real fascists don't take elections that seriously, after all.