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.