28 December 2016

Is populism authoritarian?

Even as a consensus definition of populism remains elusive, there seems to be agreement that 2016 in the English-speaking world was defined by "populist" phenomena: the "Brexit" vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. For the moment, then, populism will be defined in terms of these movements, as they are understood by political scientists. Jan-Werner Mueller is a German scholar who offers a refined definition of populism, based on his recent book, in the London Review of Books. He dismisses the most popular definition of populism by stating that "Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist....populists don't stop at protesting against Wall Street or 'globalism.'" In contrast to a leftist ideal of what populism could or should be, Mueller asserts that populism is essentially the opposite of pluralism. "Populists claim that they and they alone speak inthe name of what they tend to call the 'real people' or the 'silent majority,'" he writes, "Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate....Populists hold that those who don't support them -- or who don't share their sense of what constitutes the 'real people' -- may not themselves properly belong to the people." Mueller's populism is authoritarian if not totalitarian; for populists, he claims, "dissent and opposition are by definition suspect, even outright illegitimate." On that understanding, when he sees Donald Trump tweet that "We will all come together as never before," Mueller perceives "more of a threat than a promise."

Mueller goes on to characterize Trump voters as "a white-identity movement," but let's not go there today. Just from what I've quoted, I think it can be seen that Mueller overstates his case against populism as supposedly exemplified by the Trump movement. For him, populism is clearly on a slippery slope to Nazism because of its exclusivist or supremacist assumptions, but I think something slightly less awful is going on. Let me suggest that populism is less a claim of exclusive national or cultural identity and more an assertion of priority best summarized in the familiar slogan, "America First." We might get a better grip on populism if we accept that its opposite is not pluralism, which would make populism totalitarian, but universalism. In the U.S. at least, Trumpist populism rejects first and foremost the idea that the American people should treat everyone on earth the same way we treat each other; that we should let foreign industry compete with domestic industry by any means necessary; that we should let people from any country settle here; that we should care what happens to people in other countries as if it were happening here to us. This is why populists oppose free trade and neocon foreign policy as well as "multicultural" tendencies at home. The guiding idea is that the first priority of foreign policy and trade policy should be to maximize American interests, understood as the material interests of the American people, and not to fulfill any ideological imperative. Domestically, populism is more likely majoritarian rather than dogmatically authoritarian or totalitarian. Majoritarianism can take authoritarian forms, but it isn't necessarily as hostile to pluralism or multiculturalism as Mueller supposes populism to be. It makes pluralists and multiculturalists uncomfortable just the same, not by challenging their legitimacy, much less their existence, but by insisting that on some level -- electorally, at least, but perhaps culturally as well -- minorities are answerable to the majority, on the assumption that the majority has some right to define what the national culture is -- or to say that there is a national culture -- just as it should define the national interest.

Like other non-liberal mentalities, populism may reject a liberal ideal that is individualist as well as multicultural and asserts that it's your unassailable right as a citizen to be yourself, whether that means identification with something other than the majority or traditional culture or an idiosyncratic self-fashioning in defiance of any cultural norm. By rejecting this ideal a populist doesn't necessarily see nonconformists or self-conscious minorities as traitors, but he may feel that such people are failing part of their responsibility as citizens. In our time populism seems inevitably to bend right because most of the American left has shrugged off old notions of individual duty, while populism may have assumptions about citizens' duties (rather than their rights) at its core. The first duty for populist citizens, we can guess, is loyalty in action if not thought to a nationality that is concrete and specific, made up of real people who have a claim on their fellow citizens prior to the imagined claims of humanity. Such a claim offends those who see no contradiction between love of country and love of humanity and thus see populism imposing a zero-sum choice on them at humanity's expense. I don't assume that a populist can't be a humanitarian, but I'd guess that populists see love of country and love of humanity as separate kinds of love that should not be confused with one another to the point of disproportion. If they seem sometimes like ignored or cuckolded spouses in their anger at those who dismiss or disparage their claims, then you're probably getting closer to the essence of populism than many academics do. There's nothing automatically authoritarian about such attitudes, but the attitude comes with an assumption that you don't really have a right to ignore it, and for some people that's just as bad.

27 December 2016

Trump the Zionist

Part of Donald Trump's appeal for some voters was his apparent willingness to rethink the United States' foreign commitments. While for some that looked alarmingly like an abandonment of the country's moral duty to protect free peoples from authoritarian threats, to many Americans it was a refreshing questioning of costly, seemingly unrewarding obligations. Some were inspired by the thought that Trump would put American interests before any ideology, left or right. We know now that there will be one great exception to his critical thinking. With unprecedented vehemence, the President-elect has condemned actions by the outgoing President, specifically the Obama administration's determination that the U.S. should abstain from a United Nations resolution condemning the continued construction by Israel of settlements inside the territories occupied after the 1967 war. Trump will most likely prove the most pro-Israel President we've seen in decades, less critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing government than even recent Republican administrations, and I suspect we won't be hearing from him about Israel having to pay more for its defense and so on. Why should this be? Perhaps he imagines Israel to be a front-line state in the struggle with Islamic extremism, even though the Jewish state is ironically shielded from attack by the self-styled Islamic State by its longtime Syrian enemy. Trump can't be doing this because he needs Sheldon Adelson's money, though for all I know he may still covet it. It's most likely that despite his promise of out-of-the-box thinking Trump simply doesn't question the premise that support for Israel is a moral imperative that should be pursued regardless of all consequences and costs for the U.S. And while there's evidence that some of his supporters are disappointed by his stand on this subject, some of them are probably on the "deplorable" fringe he can readily do without. The majority of Trump's fans probably share his Zionist bias, and probably feel it more strongly than ever out of hostility to Islam. They probably reconcile his Zionism with their presumed "America First" principles on the common assumption that Israel is a literal ally of the U.S. -- though that may not matter so much when it comes to our actual literal allies in NATO -- and that Israel helps us in some way in the Middle East. But those who take this "America First" thing a little more seriously (or is that literally?) might want the President-elect to explain whether his commitment to Israel is unconditional or not, and if not, to explain when he might think Israel's interests might conflict with those of the people who elected him and the country he will swear to serve.

21 December 2016

Social media and subversion

Depending on who you read or listen to, some American is to blame for the rise of the self-styled Islamic State. It was either George W. Bush, who destabilized Iraq, or it was Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who provoked or encouraged rebellions against authoritarian regimes across the Muslim Middle East. Three families who lost loved ones to an IS-inspired gunman in the Orlando massacre have a different theory. They blame Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and are suing the social-media titans in hopes of proving their point. The plaintiffs claim that social media has been "instrumental to the rise of ISIS," and that "Without Defendants Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible."This is not the first attempt to hold social media accountable for terrorism, but previous efforts have come handicapped by the Communications Decency Act, which holds that social-media platforms are not liable for "user-generated content." Lawyers for the new plaintiffs plan to argue that the defendants effectively created terrorist content by combining web pages with ads. While that sounds like something of a reach, the argument that the defendants thus profited from carrying terrorist content may prove more impressive to jurors or judges. The defendants themselves claim to taking steps against "groups engaging in terrorist activity," but the scope of their activity is most likely too narrow for the plaintiffs. Much will depend on what the plaintiffs present as proof of social-media instrumentality, and whether they go beyond sites or accounts explicitly advocating acts of violence in identifying the building blocks of the IS and other groups. Whatever happens, the lawsuit is bound to alarm some civil libertarians on slippery-slope principles. How different will we be from China, some certainly will ask, if litigation like this has a chilling effect on social media, or if the remedy to the plaintiffs' complaint is greater state censorship of social media? If the defendants are believed to have taken responsible steps already, yet are not satisfactory to the plaintiffs, or others in a censorious or Trumpish mood, what more can be done without setting dangerous precedents threatening less culpable forms of dissent? I have no answer, but that doesn't mean there's no point asking the question, and if the lawsuit inspires reasonable discussion of the subject it will have benefited the country even if it fails to reward the plaintiffs in the end.

20 December 2016

Sic semper tyrannis?

Russia's ambassador to Turkey was assassinated yesterday by a Turkish security guard during a press conference in an Ankara museum. Most people probably see the deed as an act of Islamic terrorism, and while they may not be wrong to do so, that response is interesting in light of widespread perceptions, or perceived perceptions, of the Syrian civil war. The assassin reportedly yelled, "Remember Aleppo! Remember Syria!" or words to that effect. Aleppo, of course, is the besieged city long held by forces thought to be among the good Syrian rebels, as opposed to self-styled Islamic State forces or al-Qaeda affiliates. The siege maintained by the Assad government and its Russian ally is regularly condemned in the western media as something like a war crime, or at minimum a humanitarian catastrophe. Russia is condemned regularly in the western media for propping up and enabling Assad's tyranny. So why isn't the Ankara assassin a hero -- or dare I say a martyr -- here in the west? I suppose it has something to do with him shouting "Allahu akbar," since that throws into question what exactly he stood for. It's not so easy to think of him as a mere freedom fighter. This isn't just an Islam thing; a lot of liberals feel an extra thrill of fear whenever Donald Trump talks about Christianity, for instance. Also, I suspect that the Aleppo story appeals to western liberals because it's primarily a story about helpless people. On some level I suspect they prefer their rebels that way rather than taking power and settling scores or otherwise breaking the idealistic spell. The Ankara assassin probably was too proactive for their tastes, though assassins in theory remain the most cost-effective (in human terms) means of fighting tyranny or oppression.

In any event, perspective determines perception. In Russia and Syria, I don't doubt that they took the assassin at face value as a representative or champion of their immediate enemy -- or better yet, as confirmation of their own propaganda portraying all enemies of Assad as terrorists. The Turks, meanwhile, are embarrassed by this lapse of security at a time when President Erdogan reportedly wants to improve relations with Russia even as he remains opposed to Assad. For them, the easiest explanation of the assassination may be that the killer was actually an agent of the same diasporic conspiracy, whose leader remains in American exile, that organized the failed coup against Erdogan earlier this year. The idea in that case is that someone wants to sabotage Russo-Turkish reconciliation for selfish reasons that actually have little to do with Syria. Likewise, I think American perception of the assassination has little to do with Syria, which may only prove how ineffective western propaganda against Syria and Russia has been. With the rise of Trump in the U.S. Vladimir Putin's popularity reportedly has increased among Americans, and for all I know polls might reveal growing respect for Bashar al-Assad so long as he is described as someone opposed to ISIS rather than someone opposed to Israel. The humanitarian appeal to action isn't working the way it used to as the neocon notion that the world will always be improved by overthrowing tyrants appears to be refuted by recent history and people worldwide feel they have more to worry about than whether faraway people suffer. Alleviating Syrian suffering is worth no one else's life, not even a Russian's.

Think 3 Video News: The last stand of the anti-Trump movement

Here's a video I shot yesterday morning on my way to work. It was the day presidential electors met in the several state to cast their votes, and while New York was solid for Hillary Clinton these demonstrators outside the state capitol in Albany, perhaps emboldened by the local newspaper's editorial from last week calling on electors to overturn Donald Trump's election, hoped that by waving their signs at passing traffic and news cameras on Swan Street they could inspire Republican electors either to elect someone else or force the election to the House of Representatives by denying Trump the electoral-vote majority he had appeared to earn last month. In the end, only two electors broke faith with Trump, one voting for Gov. Kasich and the other for Ron Paul, while a few others defected from Clinton, three of them voting for Colin Powell. I'm posting the video to my blog a day late, but in my defense these people were too late yesterday.

19 December 2016

Republican multiculturalism

Republicans' vindication of the Electoral College, which today meets in each state to formally elect Donald Trump president -- barring some acts of madness advocated in the supposed mainstream media -- should serve as a reminder that regardless of this year's apparent backlash against multiculturalism, and in spite of whatever Trump himself says or believes, neither Republicans nor conservatives really believe the United States to be one nation or even one culture. The justification for the Electoral College in the face of Hillary Clinton's daunting plurality in the popular vote is that there remains (and should remain) a qualitative difference between the city and the country, the urban and the rural. Deciding the presidency by electoral votes on the constitutional plan is a good thing, Republicans affirm, because it wouldn't be right for an overwhelming majority of a certain kind of people -- city dwellers -- to decide the nation's future when different kinds of people disagree so strongly. It's understood that Clinton built her maddening plurality in the large cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. -- and in geographic areas that can't help but appear isolated from the great American heartland when you look at a map. The Electoral College becomes all the more necessary on the assumption that the people on the coasts do not and cannot know "flyover" America, and that to be outvoted consistently by the cities would be unfair and oppressive to rural or small-town America.

This is not a new idea. It partly explains why we have an Electoral College in the first place. The Founders accepted that each state (and each future state) was in some respect a culture unto itself that was owed protection from the homogenization likely to result from domination by the most populous cities and states. Their great assumption, ironic in light of this year's supposed populist uprising, was that no one part of the country could claim to be America, and that no group of people -- not even a numerical majority -- could claim to be the American people in any sense that compelled people in the minority to submit unconditionally. The national interest emerged only from a consensus of these different peoples requiring a compromise of each group's particular interests, and not from the largest group dictating to the rest. On top of all this, cities have been mistrusted as cauldrons of decadence and dependency since ancient times, and despite the seemingly inexorable urbanization of the world the countryside's distrust of city dwellers may only have intensified in modern times. The irony is that the people today who insist most vocally that they are the American people in some implicitly exclusive way have made their hero the next president through a system that rejects their pretense. I've warned in the past, however, that Madison's schemes to contain majoritarianism have been strained by evolving forms of identity that transcend the geographic and "cultural" boundaries he knew: partisanship, race-consciousness and ideology. It remains to be seen whether the Electoral College's favoring of a purported populist signals a larger failure of Madison's system to prevent the sort of "tyranny of the majority" that many fear today, even as they claim that the "tyranny" lacks a real majority.

15 December 2016

Setting fire to a crowded theater

The Albany Times Union is the latest newspaper to call on the Electoral College to deny Donald Trump the presidency when it meets next week. "We do not ask this lightly. We realize that millions of people, including many of our readers, voted for Mr. Trump," the editors writes, "And we realize that passions are high and such a move by the Electoral College would further inflame them." That's putting it mildly. While it may be an argument from cowardice in some eyes to warn that violence is certain to result from such an action, it's also a pragmatic argument worth listening to by anyone who claims to value life. People will get killing mad over what they would take, understandably, as the ultimate proof that the system was rigged against "outsiders" after all. The TU claims that the electors have a constitutional right to vote for whomever they please -- though some states have made laws binding them to the winner of those states' popular votes -- but rather than cite the Constitution itself the editors refer to one of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist papers, in which our hip-hop Framer explains that the Electoral College is meant to guarantee that "the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Hamilton's wishful thinking is typical of Founders' opinions before their document actually took effect, but the TU, I suspect, is taking the Constitution literally but not seriously. History tells us that from the very beginning, presidential electors were chosen with a conscious expectation of whom they, in turn, would chose for the presidency. And while things may have been different from what we expect now in those states and at those times when electors were chosen by legislators rather than the electorate, when the masses have had the franchise they have, I'm pretty sure, always expressed their preference for president rather than elector, with the implicit expectation that the effectively anonymous elector would echo their choice instead of making one of his own. While the Constitution does not say that electors can't vote for whomever they want -- the only original stipulation was that electors had to use one of their two votes on a candidate from a state other than their own -- nothing in it says that they can, much less should do so. It would not make sense to recommend that once any state held direct elections in which voters named presidential candidates rather than electors. It makes less sense to recommend it now based on what inevitably must be a subjective appraisal, with which many millions disagree, and thousands might fight over, of Donald Trump's fitness for the White House, more than a month into the traditional transition period.

The TU makes an ad hominem appeal to faithless electors supposedly authorized by Hamilton. The editors claim to be guided neither by ideology nor a desire to see Hillary Clinton become President. And to be fair, they more or less rule out the Clinton option by suggesting compromise Republican draftees who are certain to reject the proposed honor like a poisoned chalice or a bloodstained crown. They condemn Trump for his narcissism,  his assumed conflicts of interest as a global businessman, his nebulous-seeming relations with Russia -- should we recognize this as the liberal answer to birtherism? -- , as well as "the bombast, the insults, the lies, the bigotry, the attacks on the free press" and so on. But ad hominem arguments are plentiful enough to be practically worthless, and can come from any quarter. You're sure to find people in this country who'd find any President-elect since Carter (except, perhaps, for the first Bush) personally or superficially unworthy of electoral votes. Anyone who is elected President is going to be disliked by millions of Americans. Any President-elect is going to inspire fear in his opponents -- and that probably applies even to the first Bush with his CIA history. But to the extent that fear follows from one side losing an election, both sides have to live with that fear, the winner tolerating it without feeling insulted and the loser swallowing enough of it to abide by the rules of our republic. Donald Trump won the presidency by the rules that have prevailed for more than 200 years. The only other time people rejected an election result this vehemently, the result was civil war. Of course, no newspaper editor today wants a civil war, and if we get one the editors will blame the other side. Nevertheless, there's something cowardly about this call, not just the hysterical fear of Trump that inspires it but also the constrained legalism of it all. For if Donald Trump is so self-evidently unfit for office that we should risk a terrorist civil  in order to keep him out of the White House, why even leave him alive to rally the enemy forces. Given the likely consequences of overturning the election this way, how much worse would it have been for the Times Union simply to call for Trump's death? Either way, after all, someone is sure to die, so why not make sure the one you're really worried about goes first.

13 December 2016

The Tillerson Showdown

I was mistaken last month when I predicted that the first real battle between the President-elect and the Republican congressional establishment would be the selection of the next Speaker of the House, since Trump showed little interest in settling scores with Rep. Ryan. Instead, it looks like the big battle will be waged in the Senate over the confirmation of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. On one level the appointment of an Exxon executive looks like another betrayal of populism from a man who often railed against corporate America during his campaign. On the other, I can understand Trump's desire for a fresh set of eyes on the geopolitical stage. An oilman as top diplomat doesn't seem like a good idea at first glance, but then I remember how Noam Chomsky always recommends the reliability of the world-news reporting of The Wall Street Journal. It isn't propaganda like the Journal's editorial page, Chomsky says, because the big capitalists need their news as unvarnished and unspun as possible. Whatever conflicts of interest exist or may emerge, Tillerson's appointment is indisputably preferable to such proposed alternatives as Rudolph Giuliani or Mitt Romney because it seems to signal Trump's commitment to ideology-free diplomacy. That, of course, is what has made a number of Republican senators angry at the appointment. I wrote yesterday that Trump doesn't have much of a majority to work with in the Senate, and Senator Rubio's implicit criticism of Tillerson hints that he may not have a majority at all. Rubio's first comment on the appointment sets the tone for what's to come. "The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity [and] is free of potential conflicts of interest," the Floridian says. These demands are not unrelated; the implication is that Exxon's business relations with Russia may obscure Tillerson's moral clarity. The deeper assumption is that someone with moral clarity cannot be so chummy with Vladimir Putin as Tillerson seems to be or Trump seemingly wants to be.

Sens. McCain and Graham, of course, leave nothing to inference. "Vladimir Putin is a thug, a bully and a murderer, and anybody else who describes him as anything else is lying,” the Arizonan says, basically daring Tillerson or Trump to say otherwise. These aren't the only Russophobic Republican senators, and unless Tillerson makes "so unequivocal a condemnation of Putin that he they can confidently support him," as this source expects them to demand, they leave Trump in a position where he may have to make deals with Democratic or independent senators to get his man through. Of course, Democrats hardly lag behind Republicans in their Russophobia; that's why Putin supposedly favored Trump for the presidency in the first place. An op-ed columnist for the liberal New York Daily News could be elaborating on Rubio's theme when she writes that "A successful secretary of state has to be willing to fight for humanity," and that "there are non-negotiable values that the world counts on to be upheld and championed by the United States." These include “freedom of speech, conscience and religion, the rule of law and economic freedom" -- not in the columnist's words but in those of a State Department mission statement. As far as Russia is concerned, this means that a Secretary of State, not to mention the President, must be willing, going back to the columnist's words, to "repel Kremlin attempts to bring sovereign nations back under their influence by force." More generally our diplomats "should ache with every massacre against innocents, regardless of their race, nationality, religion or socioeconomic background."You can guess that the writer includes many Syrian rebels, those in Aleppo if not those in Palmyra, among the innocents.

Before I go on, I should confess that I've been a little unfair to the people I've quoted, because all of them do affirm that a Secretary of State first priority is the country's national interest. The problem, however, is that they seem not to see any possible contradiction between national interest and appeals to ideology or emotion. Too many Republicans think ideology is the national interest, while too many Democrats base national interest on emotion. That may render both groups incapable of the Nixonian realpolitik and its necessary compromises and sacrifices that the 21st century may require of American diplomacy, while the people who have no credibility as diplomats today may prove willing and able to "go to China [or Russia -- or Iran, though that'd be a harder sell]" as Nixon did. And to be more fair to the Democrats, I'm quite aware that many of them have the sort of strong anti-interventionist (or "anti-imperialist") principles that temper American Russophobia and could be helpful to Trump. I just don't know if any of them are in the U.S. Senate where he might need them. However, he might find Democrats willing to deal with the devil in return for domestic-policy concessions, and in them the makings of a new governing coalition down the line. That idea leaves me wanting the hardcore GOP Russophobes not to cave in on Tillerson, just to see what happens when Trump has to reach across the aisle.

12 December 2016

The Russophobe party

During the first two years of the Trump administration the new President's agenda will be most vulnerable in the U.S. Senate, and foreign policy will be the most vulnerable part of his agenda. The Republicans will control 52 seats, but will not act as a unit on many foreign-policy matters. This became starkly clear  this weekend as the neocon senators, McCain of Arizona and Graham of South Carolina, endorsed further investigations into alleged Russian interference with the late presidential election. Their action follows a CIA report claiming that the Putin government took active steps to support Trump against Hillary Clinton, most notably providing Wikileaks with dirt on the Democratic National Committee hacked by Russians from DNC computers. The CIA's contention is that Russians hacked both parties, but refused to release anything potentially damaging to the Republicans. Apart from that, it does not seem that Russia is accused of doing what would have been absolutely unacceptable, hacking voting machines to give Trump fraudulent victories. Minus such a smoking gun, Russia has probably done little different from what foreign governments, and probably foreign individuals, have done before in the propaganda line, though social media may have expanded the reach and enhanced the effectiveness of such efforts. Trump disputes these claims, of course, and invokes the buildup to the invasion of Iraq to challenge CIA's credibility, but he most likely cannot stop the formation of a Senate coalition likely to thwart his foreign policy initiatives to the extent that they involve rapprochement with Russia and (by extension) Syria. A combination of fanaticism, some venality, a historic suspicion of Russian authoritarianism and a new suspicion of Trump's authoritarian tendencies will bond this coalition together.

Since the days of the so-called Holy Alliance 200 years ago, Americans have seen Russia as an enemy of liberty, whether as a reactionary force throughout the 19th century or as a revolutionary force for most of the 20th. It's almost irresistibly easy to see the Eurasian giant as an evil empire, whether it stands for communism, mere authoritarianism, or only itself, and it's impossible to dispute that Russia has never been very friendly to civil liberty, civil society, etc. But what follows from that? For many in the political and diplomatic establishment here, it follows that Russia, in resisting U.S. encroachment on its historic sphere of influence -- a process seen here as simply the spread of liberty -- must be advancing an "authoritarian" agenda that threatens liberal democracy and individual liberty everywhere, including a U.S. seemingly threatened by Trump. You see that thinking in the assumption that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in order to undermine the moral or intellectual legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions, as if to refute anyone's claim of moral superiority over Russia, when you don't really have to go any deeper than the idea that Putin thought Trump would be more friendly, as he clearly desires to be, than Clinton would have been. Even that minimal motivation is seen by some as damning to both Putin and Trump, on the assumption that whoever Putin favors can only be Putin's stooge or dupe, or else a fellow authoritarian. Entirely missing from such speculation is the possibility that Trump may want better relations with Russia for reasons that have nothing at all to do with Russia's interests.

Apart from building a stronger coalition against the self-styled Islamic State, which has just embarrassed Russia and Syria by retaking Palmyra while the two allies busied themselves with Aleppo, Trump may have a long-term vision of breaking up any "authoritarian" coalition of Russia and China and thus improving both the U.S. position in the Pacific and its balance of trade with China. The Chinese themselves seem to realize that Trump's apparent provocations on the subject of Taiwan are most likely designed to force concessions on trade in return for his renewal of the "One China" policy, and if they're right about that then Trump is probably after as much leverage as possible. Whatever happens, Trump clearly intends to think outside the conventional foreign-policy boxes, which may explain why he's currently looking to the private sector for his Secretary of State. He may feel that the current diplomatic-intelligence establishment is incompetent, but he may suspect that they're too ideologically rigid as well. Whatever he thinks, on foreign policy he has to answer to the Senate and for now it looks unlikely that he will change many minds about Russia. To get anywhere, he'll probably have to go over their heads and use his weird charisma to get public opinion behind his Russia policy, whatever it proves to be. That really shouldn't be too difficult, since most Americans never will give a damn about Russian civil society or the rights of Ukraine. Instead, they should have reason to believe that, contrary to Russophobic rhetoric, Trump is out to put America and not Russia first. That doesn't mean he won't get played by Putin in some manner more likely to harm east Europeans than Americans, but even with that risk Russia is probably one area where people really ought to give him a chance instead of presuming the worst.

09 December 2016

Populist Republicanism: shall men or markets rule?

The President-elect isn't waiting until his inauguration to try and save American jobs, yet he's getting criticized for everything but acting prematurely. Democrats are criticizing his negotiations with Carrier on the assumption that the company will be bribed with tax breaks to keep jobs here, while unions, to Trump's disgust, claim that his intervention is only a cosmetic gesture. How do Republicans feel about it? It seems to depend on their commitment to conservatism and what they mean by that term. George Will, for instance, describes the Carrier deal as "the opposite of conservatism." What, then, is not being conserved? The free market, apparently, because the Carrier deal is a form of government intervention where it doesn't belong. It smacks to Will of "industrial policy," which governments shouldn't have. Industrial policy "involves the essence of socialism — capital allocation, whereby government overrides market signals about the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Therefore it inevitably subtracts from economic vitality and job creation." Will is far from reconciled to Trump because Trump, for all his enthusiasm for cutting taxes and regulations, seems far from reconciled to the free market. Both Trump and his supposedly more ideologically sound running mate have questioned the national interest in free markets, or at least in free trade as an ideological imperative. This is heresy to Will, who writes, "When Republican leaders denounce the free market as consistently harmful to Americans, they are repudiating almost everything conservatism has affirmed." That sounds like a lot, but based on what Will writes here, conservatism as he knows and loves it dates back only to Friedrich Hayek, the 20th century prophet of "spontaneous order," though Will tries to backdate the concept to Edmund Burke's time, the 18th century. The doctrine of spontaneous order contends that politics can never produce better results than the self-educating and self-correcting mechanisms of the Market, though the contention begs the question, "Better results for whom?" Will's answer, at least -- confirming my view that conservatives aren't the most dedicated individualists -- is the collective. "The damages from government interventions [like the Carrier deal] are cumulatively large but, individually, are largely invisible," he writes, "The beneficiaries are few but identifiable, and their gratitude is telegenic." Who cares if a few people cling bitterly to their jobs, after all?

Several hundred Carrier workers may keep their jobs for a while, but multitudes more will suffer in the long run, Will warns. His is at heart a warning against a demoralization of economic life defined by our refusal to submit and adapt to the inherently impartial verdicts of the Market. Instead, the columnist argues that Trump, in his desire to keep jobs from going where the Market directs them, is pandering to a victim mentality among American workers similar to the victim mentalities Democrats cultivate in other contexts. For Will, it is morally wrong for American workers to look to government to protect their jobs. To him, that is a contemptible admission of helplessness when it should always be possible to improve our own lot through effort, but what's really contemptible about this line of argument is what Will holds up as a healthy counterexample.

"[T]here was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)," Will writes, "When the Dust Bowl smothered Oklahoma, the Joads were not enervated, they moved west in search of work." No, your eyes did not deceive you. George Will sees The Grapes of [F'n] Wrath as a hymn to the American work ethic. You know, the book in which the Joads move west not simply because of weather issues but because their farm was repossessed by a bank. I'll let Wikipedia tell the rest: "Reaching California, they find the state oversupplied with labor, so wages are low, and workers are exploited to the point of starvation. The big corporate farmers are in collusion, and smaller farmers suffer from collapsing prices. Weedpatch Camp one of the clean, utility-supplied camps operated by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, offers better conditions, but does not have enough resources to care for all the needy families. Nonetheless, as a Federal facility, the camp protects the migrants from harassment by California deputies." In other words, government people are good guys in the Steinbeck novel, while by following George Will's recommended course the Joads simply continue to get screwed by the Market. Will's is the sort of deliberate misreading that should bring John Steinbeck bursting from his grave to bash Will in the head with his Nobel Prize. With enemies like Will, Donald Trump deserves more friends. Whatever his nearly numberless faults, Trump as a populist seems to recognize something that the secular Pharisees of so-called conservative Republicanism never have: that the market was made for man -- or, in populist terms, the American market was made for Americans, workers as well as consumers -- and not man for the market. And somehow that makes him a bad person in George Will's eyes. Yet you could argue that Trump is the more conservative Republican than Will so long as Trump intends to conserve -- or, rather, restore -- the original protectionist essence of Republicanism that mastered markets during the 19th century and once helped make America great.

07 December 2016

Literally but not seriously

The phrase you keep seeing and hearing to explain why so many people underestimated Donald Trump and his appeal is that people took Trump "literally but not seriously." Jonah Goldberg, a conservative critic of Trump, traces the phrase back to a September Atlantic Monthly article and notes that it's been adopted by Trump supporters and advisers as a valid insight. I suppose it makes sense in light of the way liberals focused far too intensely on all the different utterances that supposedly disqualified Trump from high office. We can assume that for Trump supporters, those statements didn't define the man, apart from demonstrating a healthy contempt for political correctness or even conventional political etiquette. In the "real" world in which Trump fans locate themselves, people might well find it absurd that words could disqualify an otherwise competent or highly qualified person from a position of responsibility. The whole point of the attack on political correctness is that people shouldn't take such offense at words. Trump voters, and the rest of us, will have to judge him by actions in the end, though Goldberg warns that international diplomacy, not to mention the pursuit of truth, may hold Trump to a higher standard than "seriously but not literally." Goldberg's rumination on the subject reminded me of something I'd just read by David Runciman in the London Review of Books. The Cambridge professor wrote that "It would be a big mistake to think that [Trump] won because people believed him." What Runciman means is that Trump voters took neither seriously nor literally their candidate's assertion that the U.S. had become, in Runciman's words, a "failed state." According to his interpretation of the election:

People voted for him because they didn't believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America's political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump.

Runciman writes believing himself that more radical change, presumably in a leftward direction, may be required than either Trump or his fans desire, but that it will require a degree of risk few Americans seem to want. "The understandable desire to keep the tanks off the streets and the cashpoints open gets in the way of tackling the long-term threats we face," he argues. Anyone who thinks Trump will bring radical change is mistaken, he claims, because Trump is not the "disruptor" they hope for. The distinction between taking Trump literally and taking him seriously extends to basic perceptions of what the man is or represents. If some see Trump as a disruptor, Runciman sees him as "a spiteful mischief-maker." If others see him as another "authoritarian father figure" in the Republican presidential mode, Runciman sees "a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime."  Here I think Runciman's own notions of what makes a "father figure" may get in the way of seeing Trump clearly, since my gut feeling is that many do see him as a Big Daddy figure, and an authoritative if not authoritarian one, even in the absence of whatever gravitas or responsibility Runciman deems paternal. On some level, however, Runciman believes that American voters share his perception. "The people who voted for him did not believe they were taking a huge gamble," he reiterates, assuming that "they believed that [the political system] was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice." He assumes that Trump's election is no more than a "tantrum," but this assumption seems to be based more on his perception of Trump than on any deep perception of Trump voters. From his safe distance he may not be taking them either literally or seriously. Time will tell whether that is wise.

06 December 2016

Bull in the China shop

Unless you still consider China to be in a state of civil war and believe the People's Republic to be an illegal regime, the least you owe it diplomatically is to refrain from claiming that the successors of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan are the legitimate government of the Middle Kingdom. The U.S. has not seen Taiwan that way since the 1970s, and the Taiwan government really doesn't see itself that way anymore. The "Republic of China," however, is for all intents and purposes a sovereign state, and not merely a renegade territory, as the People's Republic might claim. The Communist government might argue that recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign nation would be equivalent to extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, but in China's civil war there really was no equivalent to the Confederate secessionists. One could just as well argue that Taiwan is equivalent to where Abraham Lincoln would stand if the Confederates had taken Washington D.C. and spread north and west from there while Lincoln holed up in Maine and claimed, along with any successors, to be the real government of the United States. Depending on your ideology or your notion of international relations, China's communist revolution may have no more inherent legitimacy than the creation of a secessionist confederacy in America, no matter how powerful either entity became. Pragmatically, of course, one must accept the Communist party's rule over mainland China, but it doesn't necessarily follow from that that you must accept the Communist government's claims regarding the status of Taiwan. In short, you can question whether there's any compelling reason for Donald Trump, as President-elect, to defer to the People's Republic by refusing to take a congratulatory call from the leader of Taiwan. Trump has every reason to believe he can do business with the People's Republic, to whatever extent he desires, without taking their feelings into account -- or seeking their permission, as Trump himself characterized their demand -- when he does business with Taiwan. It would be petty of the People's Republic to alter its policy toward the U.S. on the basis of a perceived insult, especially considering that, whatever its pretensions, it does not rule Taiwan. That being said, it's fair for Americans to ask how far Trump might be willing to go to assert his freedom of action regarding Taiwan. His defensiveness on the China question, combined with his recent comments on Cuba, suggest that Trump might be less a new kind of politician than an unreconstructed Cold Warrior for the 21st century, distinguishable from the rest only by his recognition that Russia is no longer a Communist state. If he's going to make an issue out of Taiwan in order to show toughness toward the People's Republic, as his tweets in response to Chinese criticism suggest, it becomes imperative for Americans to ask whether and why Trump considers Taiwan more worth risking war over than Ukraine, the Baltic states, a "free" Syria, etc. I suspect many of his supporters here don't really care any more for Taiwan than for those other places. They may enjoy seeing Trump seem to stick it to the People's Republic, in contrast to his predecessor's perceived appeasement, but if this is all trolling for its own sake with no real commitment to Taiwanese independence, it may prove more injurious to Taiwan itself in the long run than insulting to the Commies. If they don't want to risk war over Taiwan down the line, they had better make that clear to the President-elect as soon as possible.

30 November 2016

Artifact: The New York Vigilance, "The Body of Society"

A second New York Vigilance broadside has been published. As before, I found the new one in an Albany coin-op laundry. Here's the latest from "Doormouse":

Somehow I don't think using the human body as a metaphor is the best strategy for someone arguing for diversity as an end unto itself. Sure, if all the organs or organelles of the body exist in a state of mutual fear and distrust the body itself will be in bad shape, but will it be much better off if each organelle does its own thing, as they must if this is to be a meaningful metaphor. All I'm saying is that body metaphors are better arguments for unity than diversity, and while Doormouse in his/her own fashion may be arguing for a form of unity, it's probably not the sort of unity of purpose and function that a living body requires. I also have to disagree with the Vigilance's exemption of religion from insult, if not also from "exploitation" or "violence." Religion isn't the same as ethnicity; it's a value system and as such is subject to criticism, even if the criticism proves "insulting" to those criticized. It would make as much sense to call it bigotry if people are criticized for their ideology -- though I suppose that's exactly what some of the Trumpophobes are doing. You can interpret that either way: that they're calling Trumpists bigots for criticizing the ideology of people like Doormouse, or that Doormouse is a bigot for equating Trumpism with bigotry. Trumpism is bad enough (in its blind faith in folksy billionaires, for instance) without jumping to that conclusion. Meanwhile, Doormouse has resolved to ruin next month's holiday gatherings with politics ("We shall challenge our relatives' ignorant views"). Vive la Resistance!

29 November 2016

The Burning Issue

Does the President-elect even know that what he proposed in a recent tweet -- that flag burners be prosecuted and possibly stripped of their citizenship -- is unconstitutional according to a Supreme Court majority that included arch-conservative Antonin Scalia? Is he aware that he would need to amend the Constitution to get his way -- if it's really his will and not just his feeling -- or else appoint justices committed to overturning the existing precedent? My answer to both questions is "probably not," but it's unclear whether those fretting over Trump's tweet realize either, or care, that the Constitution stands in his way. For them it's just further proof of Trump's "authoritarian" tendencies, his desire to crush dissent he deems unpatriotic. I saw some of the Morning Joe show this morning and saw the host argue passionately with one of his panelists that the tweet was no further cause for panic, precisely because the Constitution blocked any action against flag burners, while the panelist insisted just as passionately that Trump's mere desire to punish them proved that Americans had cause to fear his presidency. Of course, that fear is magnified by the assumption that millions share Trump's desire, and in this case liberals' assumptions about the attitudes of Trump voters are closer to the mark than usual. There is decreasing tolerance for perceived disrespect for the flag, whether it's professional athletes refusing to salute it or at least one college in Massachusetts refusing to raise it as a protest against Trump's election. There's an increasing divergence in attitudes embittering those for whom the flag represents the nation and all its people, living and dead, toward those for whom it represents their pet peeve of the moment, who think they can withhold a salute to protest that specific thing without being accused of disrespecting bigger things. Like it or not, in an age of insecurity most people are going to demand more positive and overt proof of loyalty to nation (and not just its constitution) than liberals typically feel necessary.  That's not an argument against civil liberties and the prerogatives of dissent, but consider it a warning that dissent may require more courage than many of us are accustomed to. Liberals don't like "with us or against us" arguments because they sound unconditional, if not also because they don't feel obliged to prove to other people, much less the stereotypical Trump voter, that they're good Americans. But to the extent that the United States is a democracy, mutual accountability means that all people have the right at least to ask where others stand, and draw conclusions from their answers. They have a right to wonder whether those who take liberties with national symbols because the nation isn't living up to their ideals can be counted on to defend or support the nation to the fullest extent. The only problem with making flag burning or flag rituals the focus of this concern is that those who pose real threats to the nation aren't likely to be dumb enough to draw attention to themselves with such overt displays of "disloyalty." It's more likely that flags are burnt or ignored by disappointed lovers of their country than by those who've never given a damn about it.

28 November 2016

Amoklauf at Ohio State?

Now that it seems that no students were killed or critically hurt during an apparent knifing rampage this morning at The Ohio State University, it seems time to investigate the possible radicalization of students at the University of Michigan following last Saturday's football game between the two schools. Following Michigan's overtime loss, their coach denounced the referees for effectively screwing his team out of the game and any chance of taking part in the playoffs to determine a national collegiate champion. Could today's attacker, who has been reported killed by the police, have been morbidly embittered by this dubious victory of Michigan's traditional Big Ten rival? Probably not; it will surprise no one if the attacker turns out to be some Muslim idiot. But why shouldn't it be a disgruntled football fan? After all, football is like a religion in that part of the country, and objectively speaking a football fan -- remember, fan is short for "fanatic" -- has as much reason to go out and slash students as a Muslim does.

Sore Winner-elect

Donald Trump finally was provoked last weekend to take the position many of his supporters had taken since it became apparent that Trump would become President without winning the popular vote. It took a report that elements of Hillary Clinton's campaign organization would cooperate with Jill Stein's kamikaze attack on the presidential vote in Wisconsin. While I continue to uphold people's right to vote for the candidate they like best, regardless of whether or not the candidate has a realistic chance to win, Stein only has herself to blame for Trump winning Wisconsin. As the latest tally of the popular vote in that state shows, Stein, the Green party candidate, received more votes than the margin separating Clinton from Trump. For all I know, Stein might like to see Trump's lead grow through a recount to the point where she won't be blamed for the Republican winning. But I suspect that a Trump presidency so horrifies the leftist candidate that she'd like to see recounts in Wisconsin and elsewhere flip some of the close states from Republican to Democrat. But as below, so above; just as Trump supporters have been answering efforts to use the popular vote to question Trump's legitimacy by questioning the legitimacy of the popular vote, so now Trump himself is claiming that only millions of fraudulent votes kept him from winning the popular as well as the electoral vote. The fraud libel is the modern version of the old Republican tactic of "waving the bloody shirt." Just as Republicans a century ago and more loved to remind voters that the Democrats were the party of secession, so Republicans now assume that since the Democrats always have been the party of immigrants -- at least until each wave of immigrants turns "white" and frets over the next wave -- Democrats will always depend on fraudulent voting by unnaturalized immigrants to win elections. History provides at least some basis for such claims, but it gives no reason to think that Republicans don't also cheat. If anything, we're only returning to partisan normalcy after a long period where fraud wasn't that big an issue between the parties. Perhaps demographic polarization has something to do with this, but in any event the timing of Stein's challenge is terrible. It comes after the establishment, at least, had reconciled itself to a Trump presidency, and after the lumbering transition process had begun. It may prove the climax to the self-defeating hysteria over Trump's election -- so long as they blame it on white nationalism they'll never figure out how to beat him or Pence next time -- but I still fear that worse is to come, perhaps on Inauguration Day.

26 November 2016


Compared to his historical peers, Fidel Castro at least had a sense of his own limitations. He did not feel the need to rule or reign until his last breath, and in his brother he apparently had someone he could trust in a way few of his peers did. Nevertheless Castro's death is being celebrated in the streets of Miami and elsewhere as the demise of a tyrant, and that's understandable. His repression of civil liberties in Cuba was inexcusable and his tendency to see any dissident as an American agent was either dishonest or pathological. Yet it would be wrong to let the knee-jerk liberal judgment preempt further analysis of Castro's place in history. The civil-liberties standard is not the only one applicable to political leaders. Many people around the world still see Castro as a great man, not only as a revolutionary leader, but as someone through whom Cuba has improved life in other countries. This is the part when someone mentions literacy rates, public health, etc., and someone else asks what good literacy is if you can read only what Fidel allows, or what good longer life is if you have to spend it all under a dictator. I don't know if there's have an objective answer to that, but I suspect that we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about other people's quality of life. Nevertheless, I expect history to judge the Castro brothers harshly, not just because history is often written by liberals but also because most people assume now that Cuba would have been better off today had the 1959 revolution never taken place, no matter how much longer the prior dictatorship stayed in power, so long as a liberal regime followed it. History seems to show that Marxism-Leninism was the answer nowhere, except arguably in China where it served to clear out centuries of deadwood so a modern economy could be built on largely non-Marxist principles. China was a model often urged on Castro,  but one he never embraced. Whether he was right or wrong depends on your opinion of today's China, but his failure to make Cuba any kind of paradise certainly makes him less of an idol or icon today than his comrade Che Guevara. That only shows that it's easier to revolt than to rule, and if there's any tragedy to Castro's story it's that he will always be judged more harshly than Che because he chose the harder course.

22 November 2016

Trump's Golden Rule

If the news media seemed excessively hostile toward Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, that certainly had something to do with his threat to "open up the libel laws" in a way inferred to threaten freedom of expression and dissent. Now that the election is over, and after some contentious negotiation, the President-elect called on The New York Times today and pretty much signaled that they and other media powers had nothing to worry about, at least on the libel front. His explanation was priceless: somebody told him, "You know, YOU might be sued a lot more." Trump: "You know, I hadn't thought of that." I suppose he might convince himself that the President can't be sued for libel, just as -- so he told the Times -- the President is incapable of conflicts of interests. But why take chances? Similar thinking may explain why he's walking back from his vow to prosecute Hillary Clinton. I've already heard evidence that Trump has angered some supporters by not sticking to what they considered a serious campaign promise. It'll be interesting to see whether he rethinks his new position. He may feel that going after Clinton will further divide the country when he wants to unite it, but people who voted for him probably feel that the country could not be more divided than it was this year, and the last thing they want to see so soon is President Trump on the other side of the divide from themselves.

Faithless electors

Now it's Democrats turn to condemn the Electoral College as undemocratic and thus illegitimate. Earlier this year Donald Trump's people worried that their man might win the popular vote yet be denied the White House by a "rigged" electoral vote. That only went to show that many Trumpists had no clue how the electoral vote usually works to the Republican candidate's advantage so long as the least populous states, each of which still gets a minimum of three electoral votes, remain "red." Since the electoral vote makes the presidential election effectively a vote of the states rather than a vote of the people en masse, Trump won a majority of states and won the election. That result reminded Democrats that they disliked the Electoral College a decade ago when it worked twice in George W. Bush's favor. Now that it has made Trump the next president and supposedly emboldened a cavalcade of hate, some Democrats are determined to subvert the Electoral College itself if not Trump's election. A number of Democratic electors, nominally committed to vote for Hillary Clinton on December 19, hope to entice a number of their Republican counterparts to join them in repudiating their respective candidates. They claim an entitlement to vote as a deliberative body, on their own discretion, instead of according to the instructions of their states' voters. But some also suggest that they want to spark a crisis in order to persuade Americans to abolish the Electoral College altogether, either literally by amending the Constitution or effectively by getting an electoral majority of states to sign on to the National Popular Vote pact. In other words, these faithless electors hope to start a discussion rather than a civil war, but if they even come close to denying Trump the presidency the latter is most likely what they'd get. It would be the most outrageously antidemocratic act in American history since the mass secession of southern states following Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 -- and, as I probably can't emphasize enough, it would almost certainly get some Trump supporters shooting mad. It would also be illegal in many states, including two with electors who've already declared their faithless intentions. State governments still decide how presidential electors are chosen, and in 19 states they have standing instructions for electors to abide by each state's popular vote. The relevant states ought to act preemptively to replace the faithless electors who have declared themselves, even if those who have declared themselves won't take votes away from Trump.  I have no problem with people demonstrating to express their disapproval of Trump and his supporters, even if their fears have grown hysterical, but this electoral conspiracy is where we have to put our collective foot down. Our liberal democratic republic depends on the assumption that no President or Congress can destroy the country in two to eight years' time. If people think that can happen here and now with Trump and a Republican Congress in charge, than their real problem isn't only with the Republicans but with an electoral system that permits such apparent monsters to run for office and even win, even before the Electoral College plays its part. So where does the threat to liberal democracy in America actually come from now?

20 November 2016

Artifact: The New York Vigilance (November 2016)

There were a couple of copies of this little broadside in the coin-op laundry I patronize in Albany NY:

It's hard to take the fascist threat as seriously as the author intends when he can't even spell fascist correctly, but I suppose pointing that out makes me some kind of orthographic fascist. Beyond that, "Doormouse" is perhaps necessarily vague on the terms according to which various groups must come together or work together. The author rightly prioritizes resisting a "rigged" economic system, but while the Vigilance emphasizes that the middle class itself is threatened by neocon/neoliberal policies, it's unclear whether Doormouse has figured out how to build a resistance without alienating a "white male-dominated" middle class presumed jealous of its "overt dominance over social, economic, cultural and political aspects of daily life" -- whatever that means.  This large, still-decisive demographic can't be treated as victim and villain at the same time, but whether the left can stop itself from treating them exactly that way remains to be seen.

19 November 2016

Introducing Think 3 Video News

Slowly and surely the Think 3 Institute catches up with modern times by introducing its video news operation. Beginning this weekend I'll try to give you snippets of public events of potential interest in the Albany NY area, and possibly beyond, as I happen to come across them with my cheapo smartphone. Think 3's first original video is a walkthrough of an anti-Trump demonstration held at Townsend Park, a large pedestrian island between Central and Washington avenues in Albany that has long been a popular demonstration site despite the conspicuous monument to the U.S.'s "imperialist" conquests circa 1898. I would have liked to capture more of the show but today was a day of errands for me and I only had time to swing by as it was just getting underway. The video will probably get more attention at its YouTube home than it will here, so feel free to start or join the conversation there.

18 November 2016

Sore winners

All through the summer and into the fall I had to listen to one old lady who called into my newspaper's opinion line to rant against the Electoral College. Obviously Donald Trump was right about the election being rigged, she'd say, because the media was saying that Hillary Clinton had already cinched such-and-such a number of electoral votes. As far as she was concerned, election analysts were telling her that the popular vote didn't matter, only the electoral vote, which somehow Clinton had already won. But there would be hell to pay, she vowed, should Trump win the popular vote yet lose in the Electoral College. As everyone knows, the reverse took place on Election Day. As of the latest count, Trump trails Clinton in the popular vote by just over 1.1 million votes, yet he is President-elect thanks to his success in less-populous states that still get a minimum of three electoral votes for their Senators and Representatives. By the rules set down in the Constitution, Trump has won fair and square and, just as the old lady warned -- she's one of those who claims not to like Trump, by the way, but voted for him anyway and expects everyone else to kiss his ass now -- the popular vote didn't matter. But she can't let the matter go. Too many people are calling Trump a "minority President," making that an excuse not to give the poor man a chance. So now she calls questioning the legitimacy of the popular vote. If the Democrat got more votes, it must be due to fraud: repeat voting, dead people voting, illegal immigrant voting, etc. She happens to think that that's how Barack Obama won both times. She claims to have once been a Democrat, but now believes all the old propaganda about Democratic election fraud -- not all of which is fraudulent -- that Republicans have been peddling ever since there have been Republicans. I suppose that tells you that it's not the party but the voters that make you believe those stories. But why get worked up about it when no one's going to stop Trump -- who in another vindication of his sterling integrity has agreed to a multimillion dollar settlement of the Trump University suits -- from taking office in January. Why worry whether Clinton won the popular vote -- and let's note that she didn't win a majority of it -- when winning it is meaningless? There are probably two reasons. One is that on some level the old lady still thinks of the Electoral College as illegitimate in some way, or at least as an insufficient mandate in the face of Trump being physically outpolled by Clinton. The other is that people like her, despite their own professed reservations about the man, simply do not want to see or hear anyone on the other side say anything bad about Donald Trump. They may even have thinner skin about it than Trump himself has, but the heart of the matter is that they want to see the "elite," the liberals, the "mainstream media," all humbled if not cowed into submission, but while many in these groups are chagrined, they are not yet humbled in any submissive sense of the word. Trump's voters are definitely more interested in this outcome, I think, than Trump is, because they feel these elites and their clients have lorded it over them in a way Trump can't really empathize with, and the longer their enemies remain unhumbled the less Trump's inauguration will calm them. They want scores settled, and not just with the Clintons, and they won't feel that they've won along with Trump until they see  the entire liberal establishment laid low. They had better not hold their breaths.

17 November 2016

It is forbidden to forbid thought, except for the thought of forbidding a thought.

Every year, it seems Russia and its friends in the United Nations general assembly, whose votes are non-binding, try to embarrass the U.S. by trotting out a resolution recommending a ban on Nazi or neo-Nazi expression. The embarrassment presumably is unwitting, since the U.S. is unapologetic about voting against the resolution every time. Those who think the worst of Donald Trump might expect his UN ambassador to vote this way, but it's been an annual event already under Barack Obama. The usual excuse is our American belief in freedom of speech, but in recent years, it seems, our opposition has been all about Ukraine. That country is one of only two that joined the U.S. in opposing the resolution this year. The idea behind this is that Ukraine today celebrates nationalist leaders of the past who inevitably were anti-Russian. When we get to World War II, this inevitably means that some Ukrainians idolize Nazi collaborators, if not outright Nazis. Russians are rather sensitive on this issue, and to listen to them sometimes you'd think that anyone who didn't like Russians was some sort of Nazi. From the Ukrainophilic perspective in the U.S., the anti-Nazi resolution now looks like an excuse to suppress or at least discredit Ukrainian nationalism, but Americans have never really needed the Ukrainian excuse to oppose the idea of criminalizing Nazism. You would think that of all the thoughts ever thought, those of Adolf Hitler are thoughts that don't need to be debated every generation, yet I'm sure someone will tell you that banning Nazi expression outright would only lend Hitler's thought the dreaded allure of the forbidden. Someone else might tell you that banning Nazism might seem like a no-brainer, but would only start us on some slippery slope to more widespread and indiscriminate censorship. You can probably play out all the arguments in your own heads. In this country a guilty idea is like an endangered species; no matter how dubious its value, many here can't bear to see any idea die, and definitely don't want to see any killed. That attitude may handicap us at home in some ways, and it definitely makes us look bad to the rest of the world. But wouldn't it be amusing if that great boor Trump, given his presumed indifference to Ukraine and its beef with Russia, instructed his ambassador to vote with the great majority on this question the next time it came around? Sure, it might be funny, but it would probably also further convince a lot of people here of his contempt for the First Amendment. That would be funny, too, in a grim sort of way.

16 November 2016

Obama in Athens

The President has taken advantage of his visit to Greece to pontificate a few times more on democracy in its cradle. At a press conference yesterday, he said, "The ideas of ancient Greece helped inspire America's founding fathers as they reached for democracy." That oversimplifies things a little. I don't want to sound like a conservative, but the Founders and Framers aspired to a republic, albeit a democratic republic within strict bounds, rather than democracy in the Athenian sense. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has something to say about the Founders' perceptions of Athenian democracy in her book Athens on Trial:

By and large the Athenian example was one from which the founding fathers wished to dissociate themselves. Madison made a point of distinguishing the American republic from the 'turbulent democracies of ancient Greece and modern [i.e. Rensaissance] Italy....In the representative principle he saw the remedy for the inherent turbulence of democracy, which, he argued, was a bad thing in ancient Athens. 'In all very numerous assemblies,' he insisted, 'of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,' he maintained, 'every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.'

Madison and other Founders identified democracy with government by an assembly that constituted itself as "the people" but consisted of whatever (presumably qualified) people were motivated or could be induced to show up. The Americans insisted on democracy delegating power to representatives through elections, and demanded the extra safeguard of a Senate whose members sat for longer terms and were chosen by state legislatures, not directly by the people. Legislators in either house were presumed capable of deliberation in place of "passion," with the Senate under less immediate pressure from the rank and file. Obama, by comparison, equates "democracy" with "democratic republic," and trusts in the deliberative capacity of the people themselves. For him, democracy's redeeming virtue -- the thing that makes it, in Churchillian terms, the least worst form of government, is its self-correcting quality. In a speech today, he equated democracy with the scientific method, claiming that it's more responsive to facts than any other form of government. When you consider how both the electoral and the popular vote turned out last week, you may be tempted to laugh at his idealism. There's no room for ideology in the scientific method, the President observed, but there's no bar to ideology or other prejudices at the polls. Were the Founders here, they'd probably conclude that the 2016 election was waged with undiluted passion on both sides -- by the candidates if not the voters -- but they'd hope that the people elected, the legislators in particular, will govern more dispassionately. That seems unlikely, though there is still room for hope that Donald Trump is not as thoroughly governed by ideology or passion (go ahead and scoff!) as his party.

Modern American politics -- and, some might argue, Greek politics as well -- may only demonstrate the bankruptcy of political philosophy as a method for recommending or guaranteeing ideal forms of government. Every form of government ultimately depends on the character of the people who govern. That's just as true for the American model of a constitutional democratic republic as it is for any authoritarian model. Any model might work with the right people in it, and all will fail, through abuse or decrepitude, without the right people. No model can guarantee a consistent supply of "right people" across generations; no amount or quality of education can perfectly immunize people from the temptations of power or the temptations of surrender. No mechanism of ideal government can be set in place and left to operate on its own. Obama's panegyrics to democracy ring hollow after a generation of American efforts to spread democracy by the sword, even as he repeats the old saw about the peacefulness of democracies. The world has had too much of political theorizing in recent centuries, whether from a passion to make omelets or a zeal to protect every egg. We might be better off thinking practically rather than theoretically, about solving problems as they come rather than the right way to solve every problem. Our goal should be to say that we are governed not right but well. There is a difference.

15 November 2016

Secretary of State Giuliani?

People were expecting Rudolph Giuliani to become Donald Trump's Attorney General, but perhaps the former New York City mayor's reputation as a prosecutor was too impressive for the President-Elect. Instead, Giuliani is now said to be a front runner for Secretary of State in a Trump administration. It looks like an odd choice if it happens, but as a onetime presidential candidate himself Giuliani should be presumed to have some knowledge of foreign affairs. A Giuliani nomination will be taken as a signal that the War on Terror will be the relatively narrow focus of the Trump presidency. Giuliani, who has been described as a sort of "authoritarian" in his own right, doesn't seem to share the foreign-policy establishment's suspicions toward Russia, and it's unlikely that "democracy promotion" will be a high priority in a Giuliani State Department. That might make life more difficult for democracy promoters in various countries, but on the other hand, if the U.S. lays off on that front, maybe such people are less likely to be seen as American stooges by their political leaders and fellow citizens. As for the War on Terror, the challenge for Giuliani will be the same as for Trump; to avoid handicapping the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State by persisting in a zionist Iranophobia that will keep us alienated from Russia and its friends in the Middle East. Giuliani might not be the most promising diplomat on that point, but he'd certainly be preferable to John Bolton, who had been reported under consideration last week. Appointing George W. Bush's U.N. ambassador would  betray just about every promise Trump has made to pursue a non-neocon foreign policy. I can only assume that he considered the opinionated Bolton at all was because he liked the idea of our head diplomat telling off the international establishment the way Trump himself tells off the American establishment. The more recent talk about Giuliani suggests that Trump and/or his advisers came to their senses, but at least one Republican still isn't satisfied. Sen. Rand Paul sees either man as too interventionist for our own good and has vowed to oppose either one if nominated. Given that the Republicans will have no more than 52 seats in the next Senate Trump will have to be careful not to offend too many others with whatever choice he makes, unless he can make deals for Democratic support of his eventual nominee. If Trump's eventual choice inspires a truly meaningful debate on American foreign policy, it may prove to have been worth the trouble.

14 November 2016

In the belly of the beast

Liberals and some mainstream Republicans are alarmed by the President-elect's selection of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News as his White House strategist. Bannon is perceived as a spokesman for the "alt-right," which for some observers has become synonymous for "white nationalism." To drive the point home, some indisputable white nationalists (David Duke, etc.) have been quoted praising Bannon's appointment. During the campaign I couldn't be bothered worrying about Bannon since Trump was worrisome enough in many ways. Now that the hue and cry continues I decided to take a look at Breitbart News, the site that bothers so many people. I didn't really see much to distinguish it from other right-media websites. Most of its main stories today focused on intemperate responses to Trump's election, some by celebrities, some by civilians. The message of the day seemed to be that "the left" were so many hysterical hypocrites in their calls for violence or actual acts of violence. I didn't see anything explicitly and specifically hostile to the groups supposedly targeted by the "alt-right," and I did see what looked like a favorable report on Sen. Sanders lamenting Democrats' inability to communicate with the white working class -- though the comment thread was pretty harsh on Bernie. My guess is that what people dislike about Breitbart takes place in the comment threads, which most likely serve as a safe space for angry white guys (and, I'd suspect, likeminded others) to dish out to everyone else what the left-media dishes out to them. It's not my cup of bile, but I suppose they're just as entitled to a safe space as anyone else. It's probably smart -- even, dare I say, strategic, for Trump to elevate Bannon, since doing so is like waving a red flag at a bull, or whatever a matador does. He's probably figured out that the more his opposition obsesses over "white nationalism," the more they don't get the real issues of 2016 -- and the more they alienate the voters they supposedly want back. The opposition's message right now should be "Don't be suckers," not "Don't be bigots." They should be talking about how Trump's supply-side Republican policies are going to make his supporters' lives more miserable, since Trump's opponents are already convinced that their lives will be hell for the next four years. But unless they focus more on changing how people vote than on changing how people think -- unless they diminish whatever transgressive appeal Breitbart has by ignoring it -- it could well be eight years of hell or more for liberals.

10 November 2016

'Not My President'

In the most literal sense, the thousands of people demonstrating against Donald Trump last night were correct. Trump is not their president, yet --but he will be by the end of January. I'm sure the protesters are realistic enough not to think they can prevent his inauguration, unless they plan more drastic steps than demonstrations. From what I saw on the news these were mostly young white people, apparently organized by hard-core left groups like International ANSWER. Probably this is an attempt to stake out a position as the real opposition to Trump in the face of the apparent bankruptcy of the Democratic party. There are good reasons for leftists to maintain vigilance against the President-elect. But their slogan reminded me of how people were treated when they said that Barack Obama was not their president. It was taken for granted that such people were bigots, especially since it was unlikely that anyone other than white people would say that. But if bigotry refuses respect to people due to race, religion, sexual preference, etc., ideology is a kind of intellectual bigotry that denies respect to people's opinions without making any effort to listen to them. That sort of bigotry has no more place in a democracy than any other kind. If you're an American citizen you can't say that Trump won't be your president because you don't like his attitude, so long as the voters and the Electoral College say otherwise. Yet I'm sure the protesters feel that they're only exercising a right of conscience embedded in the First Amendment. I agree that there is such a right, but if these protests escalate into my worst-case scenario, a large-scale attempt to disrupt Trump's inauguration, it will only prove again that any good thing is bad in excess. That may be more true in our kind of democracy than anywhere else.

Update: Right now there's probably an early disconnect between Trump and his fans. The President-elect is getting kid-glove treatment from President Obama and the Democratic leadership and seems to be responding in kind -- Obama, he said today, is "a very good man" -- while his followers only see the protesters from Wednesday night and are blaming everyone to the left of themselves. Through my sources I get the impression that Trumpites are angrier at these protests than they've been at Black Lives Matter demos and their attendant riots. While Trump may be waxing conciliatory the rank and fire are only getting into a more retributive mood. I don't know if Trump himself has opined about the demonstrations or if the coddling he's receiving right now is cancelling out whatever anger he may feel at them, but whether Democrats have any influence over the crowds or not -- and given the hard-left tone of the protesters, I doubt they have much -- it would probably be a good idea for the President, the Clintons, etc. to urge people to take a breath, take a break, do anything but do that again right away, because the constituency for a crackdown is growing. On top of being the sorest losers since 1860, their outbursts could well make their fears of "fascist" suppression of dissent a self-fulfilling prophecy.

09 November 2016

Rachel Maddow punches down

In Florida, Donald Trump ran ahead of Hillary Clinton by not quite 120,000 votes. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, won just over 206,000 while Jill Stein, the Green nominee, collected just over 64,000 votes. You know what that means. It's time again for diehard Democrats to denounce third parties. Let's let Rachel Maddow of MSNBC speak for this group as a whole. In her wrath last night, she said: "If you vote for somebody who can't win for president, it means you don't care who becomes president." As someone who voted for neither Trump nor Clinton, I can tell her to go [mouths F-word] herself. If you believe one candidate is the one who should be president, how can voting for that candidate mean you don't care who becomes president? If there's a "don't care" element involved, it's that I don't care how many other people vote for other candidates. Your choice, ideally, should be the candidate you think best qualified, regardless of how many other people think so. If you have any responsibility to those other voters, it's to convince them to vote as you will, for the reasons you will. But by Maddow's logic, you only care about who becomes president if you vote specifically to prevent the worst candidate from taking office, which you can do only by voting for the other strongest candidate. I did not want Trump to become president, but since we don't elect presidents through elimination rounds I had no obligation to vote against him, much less vote against him by voting for Clinton, whom I did not want elected either. The idea that I have a paramount duty to block the worst candidate from winning by sacrificing my vote to the second-worst candidate goes against the spirit of liberal democracy, which does not (or should not) presume a "worst candidate" but rather encourages each person to vote according to his or her conscience and intellect. But for Democratic partisans like Maddow it's always the year 2000, and it's always the fault of the relative handful who vote with integrity despite the odds, as they're supposed to, and not the fault of the multitude who voted for her bĂȘte noire. She'd rather blame thousands than millions, and you know who does that?

A bully.

A Free Shave ... and then what?

After Richard Nixon was finally elected president in 1968, the Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, one of Nixon's most graphic critics, drew a cartoon of a barber shop, with a sign on the wall reading, "This Shop Gives Every New President of the United States a Free Shave." Since Nixon had become a public figure, Herblock had portrayed him with a heavy five o'clock shadow -- a fair hit from a physiognomic standpoint -- to exaggerate what the cartoonist saw as a seedy thuggishness. The free shave, within the boundaries of the cartoon, indicated that Herblock was willing to give Nixon a fresh start as he took office -- a chance, if not the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what sort of free grooming service the nation's cartoonists can offer Donald Trump before his inauguration -- I'm sure many suggestions will occur to people -- but respect for democracy requires us all to give the President-elect that minimal chance the free shave signifies. Whether he will get it remains to be seen. Hillary Clinton and President Obama are making the right noises right now, but I was tempted to damn all the Republicans to hell this morning when Kellyanne Conway appeared on one of the morning talk shows to ask that Trump be given the same chance Obama was given after his election. That bit of hypocrisy was breathtaking even after everything we've seen this year, but Trump himself struck an appropriate conciliatory note in his victory speech, though I suspect that he'll have to be careful of how conciliatory he gets. There was talk already this morning that for the sake of national unity Trump might let the matter of reinvestigating and prosecuting Clinton drop, but even if Trump wants to do that he probably shouldn't, since it would most likely be seen as his first betrayal of a movement that wants revolution with retribution before any reconciliation.

Trump may be sincere about reconciliation, but real reconciliation requires movement by both (or all) sides, and it's too soon to tell whether the Democrats left in the trenches after Obama and Clinton retire from public life will be in any conciliatory mood. Back in 1968, when American politics was just starting in its current awful direction, it was still reasonable to suspend judgment on a new leader until he could be judged by what he did. We judge politicians now by what they think, or what we believe them to think, and to the extent that Trump is assumed to be a billionaire bigot with authoritarian tendencies Democrats -- not to mention the juvenile leftists who staged mini-riots in some cities overnight -- will no more want to give him a chance than Republicans were willing to give the alleged Alinsky cultist Obama a chance in 2009. In either case it's a failure to respect the electorate. The alternative isn't to roll over for Trump and an unleashed Republican Congress, but to wait until they actually do objectionable things rather than object preemptively. There's no evidence yet to suggest that Democrats are ready to listen to the plurality -- Trump will be yet another minority Republican president and still trails Clinton in the popular vote by the latest count -- much less the President-Elect. The Democracy continues to suffer from a self-inflicted tone deafness that hears any protest from working-class whites against anyone but the "1%" as hate. Their perception isn't entirely wrong -- I have to listen to Trump supporters as part of my job and some of them are indisputably haters -- but the real error is to attribute all their complaints to hate. We were told this year that "racial resentment" led many whites to misrepresent economic conditions as worse than they actually were, and that seems to have been a fatal error. It's more likely that economic distress led to greater "racial resentment," but to admit even that would have been to admit that people were still hurting despite Obama's efforts against the Great Recession -- or, arguably in the case of Obamacare, because of his efforts -- and this the Clinton campaign would not do.

The same thinking drove Clintonites to claim that by pointing out bad conditions in black communities, Trump was insulting those communities. That's what happens when you assume that bigotry is Trump's core ideology; Clinton probably was trying to warn blacks that Trump wanted to strip blacks of power within their communities, but blacks themselves probably found it absurd for her to state that their neighborhoods were essentially "vibrant." If black turnout declined from the Obama elections, as many suspect, or if more blacks voted for Trump than expected, it's probably because many realized that Democrats, however, well-meaning, had no real answers for the country apart from the old standby of soaking the rich. This election may have confirmed the demise of old-fashioned class consciousness in this country, outside the Democratic leadership. They could not compute -- and so attributed it to "hate" -- how a boorish billionaire could claim with any plausibility to be the working-class candidate. He was a billionaire, after all! Even if he could talk the blue-collar talk he had to be conning them! What were these blue-collar bootlickers thinking? They were thinking of themselves, most likely, as a "working class" in essential antagonism not with the employing class -- their exploiters according to traditional class consciousness -- but with a non-working class of welfare and disability clients, the same American lumpenproletariat that thwarted the Sanders challenge to Clinton's nomination. This newly conscious working class will be rewarded with supply-side economics and (in all likelihood) a new class of crony capitalists for their support of Trump, but Democrats may not be rewarded in any way for years to come if they can't make a distinction between "hate" and an understandable small-d democratic desire that everyone pull his or her own weight as far as physically or intellectually possible. The Democracy may finally have succumbed to latent contradictions in its ideology. Practically from its beginning the Democratic party has portrayed itself as the party of the working class, and in keeping with the long-term agenda of the American labor movement it still sees its goal as an easier life for the majority of Americans. In olden days that meant obvious things like shorter hours on the job, workplace safety, financial aid for college, etc. But we may be at a point where the promise of an easier life has become a hedonist end unto itself, detached from the idea that working people had earned the right to an easier life than bosses would grant them without government or union pressure. An easier life is a plausible goal according to a progressive notion of history, but events appear to have overtaken that liberal utopianism, and the old appeal to an easier life seems an inadequate response to those events. There's no "or else" in the liberal utopia, where each of us would be what each alone meant to be, without consequences, but liberals haven't caught up with the possibility that an "or else" moment is upon us, when Americans will be expected to pull their own weight or be more than their sheltered selves. The electoral tide may turn again when Democrats (or their successors as the "left" party) reconcile themselves to all of this instead of dismissing it as "hate." Doing so might make things easier for themselves and their constituents in the years to come.

Above all, however, the Democrats have to nominate better candidates. Hillary Clinton's campaign was a suicide pact in almost adolescent protest against the "hate" that supposedly motivated every objection to her ascension to power. So bewitched were Democrats by the "hate" narrative that few really could comprehend why anyone took the email controversy seriously. By their logic, for Republicans to accuse Clinton was to prove that she had done nothing wrong. Yet even if you leave out this last straw of a scandal, the Clinton campaign appeared complacently incompetent compared to the Obama operations of previous elections. On top of all its errors of perception and tone, it ran an almost entirely ad hominem campaign against Trump, when the sensible strategy would have been to warn voters against his likely recourse to discredited Republican policies. Instead, over and over again you saw that stupid commercial with the kids watching Trump on TV. Sure it was always funny hearing Trump singsong, "And you can tell them, to go ... themselves," but kids don't vote, for one thing, and for another it should have been clear by the summer of 2016 that for millions of America Trump's occasional asinine sayings were entirely irrelevant to his qualifications for office, or else gave him an important common touch untainted by a p.c. hypersensitivity that was getting in the way of necessary debates. On economics, after all, apart from trade, how different was he from Republican orthodoxy? We'll all find out soon enough now, but Democrats should have been slamming him as Dubya Redux all year, and instead made it look like the worst thing about Trump was that he had a potty mouth and a funny voice. For all we know, any Democratic nominee might have made the same mistakes, though I feel in retrospect that Sanders could have won with his own style of populism, but we'll never know for certain because the Clinton Cult drank its last round of Kool-Aid out of some misguided sense of loyalty and/or history. For some she had been the Chosen One since 1992, and why that was will be one of the great mysteries of American history.

Hopefully a 73 year old Clinton won't be taken seriously for 2020, especially given the rumormongering about her health, but if Trump really screws up you never can tell. It's more likely that, disqualifying Joe Biden for age as well, the Democrats will choose between Sen. Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Booker of New Jersey, the one possibly catapulted at the Glass Ceiling by feminists, and probably backed by the Sandersites, and the other an Obama 2.0: younger, probably more centrist than Warren and more likely to get out the vote despite the continued temptation of History. Of the two I'd prefer Booker because, while it was understandable that he not seek to succeed Obama immediately, Warren abdicated the responsibility all Democratic leaders had to stop Clinton this spring, whether out of cowardice, deference or some other motivation. For all I know she may have had a cynical expectation that Clinton would lose and thus open a spot for her in 2020, whereas Warren probably is too old to wait until 2024, but that doesn't help anyone else now. One can still hope that in four years the Democrats won't be our only realistic alternative to Republican rule, but it's probably too early to predict the shape the opposition will take until Trump gives them something solid to oppose.