22 September 2017

Cheap Speech

George Will credits the coinage of "cheap speech" to the prescient law professor Eugene Volokh, who in the 1990s predicted the coarsening and increased polarization of public discourse as a consequence of the Internet. Volokh meant "cheap speech" literally; information technologies, and now social media, have dramatically reduced the cost of disseminating anyone's opinions. The term sounds oddly yet rightly pejorative relative to our cultural idea of "free speech." The problem with "cheap speech" seems to be that it's just too easy for everyone to inflict their opinions on others. The theoretical benefit of this democratization arguably has been outweighed by social media's tendency toward confirmation bias and ideological or partisan safe zones. As Will himself puts it, "Technologies that radically reduce intermediaries and other barriers to entry into society’s conversation mean that ignorance, incompetence, and intellectual sociopathy are no longer barriers." Volokh, reportedly a libertarian, worried about the consequences for public life, but also worried about over-hasty remedies.  While warning against statist solutions, he wrote, “The law of speech is premised on certain (often unspoken) assumptions about the way the speech market operates. If these assumptions aren’t valid for new technologies, the law may have to evolve to reflect the changes.” Will, who sees Volokh's direst predictions proven by both the rise of the Trump movement and the left's hysterical response, is even more opposed to regulating "cheap speech." The columnist has consistently opposed any measure designed to regulate political speech, and especially campaign-finance regulation, on the ground, repeated in his latest column, that "laws, written by incumbent legislators, inevitably will be infected with partisanship." Having seen no similar harm in the profligate speech of the wealthy, Will apparently prefers to endure the embarrassments of cheap speech in order to preserve the prerogatives of rich speech. He reassures himself that cheap speech does no great harm by claiming that the vast majority of Americans -- more than 95% -- "are not listening to excitable broadcasters making mountains of significance out of molehills of political effluvia." That estimate may be too conservative, but it's still fair of Will and others to ask whether anything can be done about cheap speech as a cultural phenomenon without endangering free speech as a political necessity.

Perhaps in Will's ideal world most people would naturally gravitate toward dispassionate arbiters like himself to distinguish the free from the cheap, but the trends predicted by Volokh and confirmed by Will make such an arrangement increasingly unlikely. Sadly, Will doesn't seem to consider whether the sort of skepticism he expresses reflexively, his refusal to believe that authority can ever be objective, is a fundamental part of the problem. Deny that possibility, after all, and you enable all forms of skepticism indiscriminately, and you elevate distrust to a fundamental right. While that skepticism pretty much prevents any attempt at even the most innocuous regulation of social media through law, the sort of remedies for the consequences of an altered speech market that Volokh conceded might become necessary may have to evolve informally. You can see an unhealthy evolution already in the antifa movement's assumption of a prerogative to silence perceived fascists or their fellow-travelers, a development likely to be mirrored once the alt-right gets angry enough. There may, however, be some cases, particularly in the field of "fake news" that Will rightly deplores, where similarly informal remedies for the most obvious lies or self-evident slanders could have some educational effect. All that would be needed then would be for the state to look the other way for a moment. Sometimes the remedy for cheap speech might be a cheap shot -- but not a gunshot, of course. Feel free to dismiss this as an immodest or too-modest proposal. That, for good or ill, is your prerogative. All's fair in the endless race for the last word.

20 September 2017

The vote-fraud libel: old news is older news

Cynthia Tucker writes: "Among true believers on the right, there is no sturdier fiction -- no fairy tale more popular -- than the one that insists American elections are plagued by voter fraud." So far, so true, as far as the belief is concerned, but Tucker doesn't realize just how sturdy the supposed fiction has been. A few sentences later, she writes: "the myth has been circulating for decades now." Decades? Try generations, if not centuries. Tucker apparently suffers from tunnel vision that limits her historical perspective. She wants to trace the vote-fraud libel back to "the same time that the Voting Rights Act guaranteed black citizens access to the ballot," or fifty years ago. But it was old news a century before that. She may miss that in her belief that the libel is an idea of "the right," but the truth is that the Republican party has been accusing the Democratic party of voter fraud from the time the GOP was born. That's because the Democrats, howevermuch their overall attitude towards blacks has shifted over time, have always been dedicated to integrating newcomers or marginalized people into the electoral process as quickly as possible. From their beginnings, Republicans have accused Democrats of cutting corners on that integration process in order to win elections. Then as now, Republicans accused Democrats of bringing unnaturalized aliens to the polls to vote. Republicans have always accused Democrats of cynical if not treacherous inclusiveness, giving voice to an irrepressible nativism despite Lincoln's contempt for Know-Nothingism. Republicans in turn might be accused of practicing a cynical nativism that was never much more than a sour grapes argument. If Democrats had the immigrant vote locked up, then immigrants were going to ruin the country. In the 19th century the Irish were going to turn the country Catholic. A few generations later Italians and Slavs were going to drive down the national I.Q. while spreading dangerous political ideas like the plague. And so it goes. To imply that the voter-fraud libel had been invented only recently to spite black people specifically is historically blind and additionally handicapping when the real facts might earn the present targets of voter-fraud conspiracy-mongering some empathy from the descendants of people targeted the same way generations ago.

19 September 2017

Trump's Axis of Evil

The President singled out five evil regimes in his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations today. His threat to "totally destroy" North Korea if necessary will certainly get the most attention, but while he issued no similar threat to Iran, his indictment against the Islamic Republic was more sweeping. Dismissing its republican pretensions as the "false guise of democracy," Trump takes the Sunni line that the Shiite power is the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East. This remains inconsistent with his once-more avowed "America First" policy, since Sunni rather than Shiite terrorists have been carrying out attacks on the United States since 2001, but he may believe that Shiite aggression is a root cause of Sunni militancy. In any event, he seems satisfied that the Sunni states are taking positive steps to suppress terrorism, while beleaguered Syria, an Iranian ally, remains one of the bad guys. Continuing westward, the President turned his hostile attentions to Cuba and Venezuela, again hinting at American intervention in the latter country. Of course, the Bolivarian regime has been on the neocon hit list for more than a generation now, presumably because Americans want Venezuela's oil resources in pro-American hands. Whether that really counts as an "America First" strategy by established Trumpian standards is hard to say. Of these countries, only Iran can plausibly be deemed an aggressor in its region, however it justifies itself on anti-imperialist, anti-zionist or anti-Sunni grounds. North Korea simply wants a deterrent to regime change, Syria remains in a state of civil war, and Cuba and Venezuela are in no position to export revolution. Calling all of them out today simply puts Trump in line with recent presidents in letting a personal distaste for certain forms of government or leadership styles influence his foreign policy, despite his repeated insistence that he doesn't wish to impose American culture or ideology on other countries. I don't think he's become an ideologue all of a sudden, but he does seem to have succumbed, almost inevitably, to the American tendency to personalize geopolitics by reducing conflicts of national interests to the pathologies of evil men. Of course, Americans seem to think of domestic politics the same way lately, so this shouldn't surprise us, though it should still disappoint us. Trump's speech probably will disappoint everyone here but the neocons. It will alarm liberals and anti-interventionist types with its menacing rhetoric toward North Korea and its "Rocket Man," while it may more deeply disappoint base supporters who might have hoped to hear their hero stick it to Islam on the ultimate global stage. No doubt Trump himself will think of it as the greatest speech ever delivered to the UN by an American President, but who's really keeping score?

18 September 2017

Utilitarianism and trade policy

The International Trade Commission is considering whether to recommend the imposition of a tariff on solar panels imported from China. Two American manufacturers want a tariff that would "effectively double" the prince of Chinese panels, according to Justin Worland's report in the September 25 Time magazine, in order to make the American product competitive. The Heritage Foundation and a number of U.S. solar energy companies are lobbying against a tariff.  One lobbyist compares a solar-panel tariff to "cutting off your entire body to save your pinky." Their argument is that as many as 250,000 jobs, including installers and repairmen, could be negatively impacted by a tariff designed to benefit the approximately 8,000 people who manufacture panels in the U.S. While one may suspect that the "massive negative impacts" of any tariff are exaggerated by its opponents, the argument raises a fair question, and an important one for the President who'd be in a position to act on the ITC recommendation.

Populist trade policy tends to be protectionist on a sort of "no job left behind" principle, while free traders are more likely to see tariffs as robbing Peter the consumer to pay Paul the manufacturer. Worse still from their perspective, a political decision to conserve any American manufacturing industry is a case of "picking winners" instead of letting the Market, in its infinite wisdom, do its necessary work. Free-trade apologists would point to the quarter-million solar energy jobs as proof of the overall benefit of a free-trade policy, on the assumption that far fewer jobs would exist were the American manufacturers able to impose their preferred prices on everyone else. On classic utilitarian grounds, they'd seem to be correct, so long as you assume that all or even most of those jobs depend on the availability of cheap imports. Should 250,000 jobs be jeopardized to keep 8,000 people at work in a domestic industry that has, arguably, already failed in the global marketplace? The "greatest good for the greatest number" argument definitely doesn't favor a tariff, but it could be argued that a focus on literal numbers is an overly simplistic utilitarianism, while a "greatest good for the whole" argument might justify maintaining and encouraging an American solar-panel industry, even if that requires fellow Americans to pay more for panels than they'd like.

Whether the U.S. ought to have a healthy panel-manufacturing industry capable of meeting domestic demand is the sort of practical question our representatives should spend more of their time debating. I find such debates interesting because they seem to belie the individualist ethos of many free-market conservatives. It's probably more accurate to say that the implicit utilitarianism of their free-trade position belies their oft-expressed anti-collectivist bias, since it means that they're willing to sacrifice any number of individual workers, or at least their jobs, to the collective economy. I suppose they could argue that they remain individualists at heart because they uphold the supreme right of individual consumer choice against selfish manufacturers who would limit our choices, but whenever they condemn a domestic industrial sector to the death they feel it inevitably deserves, they are unavoidably sacrificing individuals to the collective. They might not be killing anyone literally on the altar of free trade, but they may well make life more difficult for thousands or millions of people, depending on the industry in question, and consumer choice doesn't always seem like justification enough for that.

15 September 2017

A fireable offense?

The White House press secretary crossed a line earlier this week when she implicitly recommended that ESPN fire anchorperson Jemele Hill for having called the President a "white supremacist" in a tweet. The network only went so far as to dissociate itself from her statement, and to publicize her acknowledgment that the tweet was inappropriate. Needless to say, this hasn't satisfied some people who, as usual, see a double standard at work. They recall that ESPN fired baseball analyst Curt Schilling for posting "anti-transgender" content on his Facebook page, and feel that Hill's comment about the President was at least as offensive as Schilling's post. On the other side of the debate, no doubt, distinctions will be drawn between Schilling's presumptive "hate speech" and Hill's personal political commentary. More so than in the Schilling case, the Hill case has been controversial because, as an anchor, she is presumed to speak in some way for ESPN. My call would be that unless her Twitter account has "ESPN" in the name anywhere, it should be seen as representing no other opinion than her own. That would be true for Schilling's Facebook page, too, but there, apparently, whatever he said or shared about trans people was deemed beyond the pale for a public figure. Should we feel likewise when someone makes a charge against the President in the face of his explicit repudiations, however little believed, of white supremacism? Trump himself, who appears to have only just joined the discussion today, seems to demand no more than an apology while claiming, as he always does, that his critics in the media are and have been losing popularity. Is he entitled to even that? Those who recall his unapologetic dabbling in birtherism think not,while many others, rationally or not, find his statements against racism grudging at best and probably insincere.

Is there any formula for moral equivalence between Hill's anti-Trump tweet and Schilling's anti-transgender whatever? It's hard to see the former as "hate speech" in the usual sense of that term, since Hill was criticizing an individual, albeit on subjective suspicion, while Schilling presumably disrespected an entire group of people. Trump supporters may feel disrespected by Hill's tweet, but it's hard to believe that their sense of identity is offended in any similar way -- presuming, of course, that any transgender person took offense upon actually reading Curt Schilling's Facebook page. It could be argued, however, that these social-media smears are approximately equivalent in their slanderousness -- that there could be a moral equivalence between disrespecting a group of people and maliciously lying about an individual. Is it slanderous to call Trump a white supremacist? Some would say it's self-evidently so in light of Trump's statements post-Charlottesville, but can they forbid anyone from thinking that the President was practicing white-man's taqiyya on this explosive subject? It won't be hard to find people ready to argue that this or that action of the President, including even his reiteration yesterday that both white supremacists and their antagonists had shares in the blame for the Charlottesville violence. In the 21st century, can a public official (or anyone) compel people to take him at his word by treating the refusal to do so as slander? Can Donald Trump -- or, some might ask despairingly, any white person -- prove a negative on this point so conclusively that no one would have a right to question his stance? It seems impossible, especially when the proof demanded by many is conflated with ideological tests by those who see Republican economic policies as racist in some way. This may seem unfair, but it explains why many people see the press secretary's statement as an un-American attempt at intimidation, and not as a defense of the President's honor. Nor is this anything new in our history. The difficulty of establishing the truth of certain points of controversy probably was a big reason why calling someone a liar 200 years ago was effectively to challenge him to a duel, or to invite a beating in the street. You might not be able to make someone believe you, but you might have a better chance at simply shutting him up. Back then, of course, dueling was a gentlemen's game, and it was a gentleman's prerogative to cane an inferior in the street for calumny. We probably don't want to go back to those rules in our more egalitarian age, but we still need to work out a new etiquette for the social-media age, as it becomes increasingly easy for people, whether presidents or reporters, to speak their minds without thinking.

13 September 2017

The ACLU comes through

Writing in the September 28 New York Review of Books, American Civil Liberties Union national legal director David Cole cites with alarm a 2015 poll indicating that "40 percent of millennials think the government should be able to suppress speech deemed offensive to minority groups."  You're more likely to think this way the younger you are, it seems, since only 12% of people aged 70 and over at the time of the survey agreed with that view. Cole attributes this unhealthy attitude to "several arguments, all ultimately resting on a claim that speech rights conflict with equality." Those arguments rest on a zero-sum calculation of discourse, presuming that "the weak are silenced [when] the strong speak, or if some have more to spend on speech than others," as well as an assumption that speech hostile toward minorities "reinforces harms" already done to them. For now, under Cole, the ACLU goes against this tide of opinion. It defended the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" marchers when the city tried to relocate their August rally away from the site of the Robert E. Lee statue they meant to defend. It's yet another case where right-wingers benefited from the intervention of an organization they often affect to despise, but their hypocrisy shouldn't influence judgments of the ACLU's record of defending unpopular and provocative speech. In his article, Cole explains that his organization defends speech rights just about to the absolute limit. They'll defend people who advocate violence, relying on a 1969 Supreme Court decision finding such advocacy unlawful only when "it is intended and likely to produce imminent lawless action." In other words, "the government should be overthrown in a violent revolution" might be OK, but "attack the government now" wouldn't be.

Currently, the ACLU draws the line only when people plan to carry weapons during their demos, since that's something different from speech. Cole justifies this loose approach by noting that "Our history illustrates that unless very narrowly constrained, the power to restrict the advocacy of violence is an invitation to punish political dissent." On a related note, he finds it strange that many self-conscious minorities want governments to have more power to suppress speech when 1. "in a democracy the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority" and 2. "if we were to authorize government officials to suppress speech they find contrary to American values, it would [at present] be Trump -- and his allies in state and local governments -- who would use that power." In general, while "One can be justifiably skeptical of a debate in which Charles Koch or George Soros has outsized advantages over everyone else, [one can] still prefer it to one in which the Trump -- or indeed Obama -- administration can control what can be said." Unfortunately, I doubt whether those whose views Cole challenges will be swayed by his logic. Their demands for government power to suppress oppressive speech are inseparable from a demand for power for themselves, after all. I think they're just smart enough not to empower anyone like Trump to silence them, though they still need to consider, should they get power in turn, that they may not always have it. As for minority rights and majority rule, it wouldn't surprise me if some radicals actually look forward to something like the concurrent-majority form of government envisioned by John C. Calhoun, the great defender of slaveholders' rights, in which protected groups (slaveholders in Calhoun's case, take your pick today) could check the potential tyranny of the majority through veto powers, local nullification or other expedients. Civil libertarian groups like the ACLU rarely get on well with radicals, and I confidently expect to see Cole attacked in the letters columns of subsequent issues for his apparent blindness to the moral imperatives behind the movement to silence oppressive speech. But just as the right sneers at the ACLU one day and seeks shelter with them the next, the left will do likewise inevitably. The ACLU's work must often seem thankless, but so, probably, does much essential work in a democratic republic.

12 September 2017

Will Trump lead to a three-party system?

While the Republican party holds the majority in both houses of Congress,  last week seemed to show that a deal between an ostensibly Republican President and the minority party was all it took to get the debt-ceiling increased for another three months. That signaled fresh disarray in the GOP, since a united front should have sufficed to thwart any alliance between Trump and the Democratic party. Republicans were caught flat-footed by Trump's swerve. Not long before, he was threatening to veto any bill to raise the debt ceiling that did not include funding for his beautiful border wall. Now, anticipating emergency spending for hurricane relief, he backed a Democratic plan to raise the ceiling without the spending cuts demanded by the fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks in Trump's own party. For some GOP congressmen, this was the latest betrayal; for others, perhaps, it was the first. It provoked fresh speculation on Morning Joe and other talking-head shows about a Republican crack-up separating the ideologues from the Trumpists, the latter defined by little but their personal loyalty to the President and their likely emulation of his pragmatic/opportunist/ad hoc approach to politics. Of course, some observers have been waiting for the last quarter-century for the GOP to split, or ever since Pat Buchanan's primary campaigns. At first it was expected, or hoped for, that the libertarians would split from the social conservatives. Now the threat seems to be the departure of voters who share Buchanan's economic nationalism, and probably a degree of his cultural conservatism, but are otherwise as unpredictable as their current hero. The debt-ceiling decision may or may not prove a definitive moment in retrospect, but it's immediately telling the the President, if I understand his motives correctly, was willing to waive all previous conditions for the sake of hurricane relief, while rank-and-file Republicans spent the days of Harvey and Irma arguing over who among them had been hypocritical for demanding relief now while voting against it in the past, or whether past bills were more pork-laden than current measures. At times like this the cut-the-bullshit approach that Trump's admirers attribute to him -- rightly or not -- seems more like the right one. At the same time, his deal with the Democrats should refute for good the old argument that businessmen in politics will be fiscal conservatives. That argument never should have held water, given how often businessmen like Donald Trump go into debt in order to carry out their projects, or declare bankruptcy to further their interests. As President, Trump clearly isn't going to fit into anyone's mold. You can try to label or pigeonhole him based on some position he's taken that you admire or (more likely?) despise, but he's never going to be that predictable because he's never going to be an ideologue. Whether a new party can emerge and contend credibly for power without an ideological base is a big question for the future, but if Trump is tempted to break with the GOP, there's probably no better circumstance imaginable for the instant credibility of a new political party than if it has a standing President behind it. Such speculation should be kept on a low burner, however, until after next year's congressional primaries, when we'll most likely see whether Trump and Breitbart can bend the Republican party to their will. If they can't, then all bets are off.

11 September 2017

What if you had to vote?

There's an interesting exchange on the letters page of the September 28 New York Review of Books on the subject of voting. Peter Heerey, the former chair of the Australian Electoral Commission, comments on a recent article by Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, two Nobel prize winning economists, favoring the Instant Runoff Voting system by noting that Australia has a ranked-preference system similar to what the economists advocate. As a reminder, the idea is to rank all the candidates running for office in order of preference, so that if your first choice is eliminated for failing to meet a threshold of minimal support, your vote will count instead for your second choice. Around the world, the real driving idea behind such arrangements is to enable people to vote their consciences for left-of-center candidates without guaranteeing the election of right-of-center candidates. Heerey notes that Australian elections have a safeguard against extremism in the form of compulsory voting. "Arguably compulsory voting lessens the need to appeal to a party's hard-core supporters, to make sure they vote," he writes, "Thus debate tends to be less polarized."

Maskin and Sen respond with a cautionary note about compulsory voting, which might not achieve optimum results in American elections. "According to US data, citizens who don't vote tend to be less well informed about candidates and issues than those who do," they writes, "Compulsory voting might well introduce a raft of additional voters who are more susceptible to the false claims and simplistic solutions of extremists."

In Australia, compulsory voting apparently minimizes extremism, while American observers fear that it would empower extremists. Why the difference? The appealing answer would be that Australians, being obliged to vote, feel obliged to educate themselves on the issues. By educating themselves, they immunize themselves, presumably, against "false claims and simplistic solutions." How likely is this, actually, in the land where Rupert Murdoch was born, or anywhere? It sounds more plausible to assume that Australia requires people to vote whether they've bothered informing themselves or not. This, in fact, could explain the moderating effect of compulsory voting, since candidates must appeal to voters who, as Heerey claims,  most likely aren't really politicized, much less radicalized. If the U.S. is different in a way that makes an extremist result more likely, would that be because more uninformed people would be voting, or because more people would be voting who have already been radicalized? Many Americans claim that they don't vote because the major parties have nothing to offer them. Such people aren't necessarily uninformed about issues, though they may be uninformed about solutions, or they may have their own ideas about solutions that aren't usually echoed by the major parties. It might be premature even for Nobel laureates to dismiss all their ideas as "simplistic," and their forced entry onto the voter rolls might influence election campaigns the other way round from what Maskin and Sen fear. It might not be a matter of these marks falling naively for some demagogue's "false claims and simplistic solutions," but of canny politicians adopting more extreme positions simply as a matter of reaching out to a potentially critical mass of new voters. In short, if similar electoral systems were to produce radically different results in two countries, something other than "uninformed" voters would most likely be behind it. If compulsory voting in the U.S. would produce a more extreme or radical result, the most likely reason is that Americans already are more radical than Australians. The question than becomes whether elections should be arranged to prevent extreme or radical results or whether they should, as Maskin and Sen appear to believe, reflect "what voters really want."

06 September 2017

Equality of powerlessness

Here's an insight culled from an otherwise typically vacuous David Brooks column: "I had assumed that as society got more equal we would all share a measure of equal dignity. But it turns out that without an obvious social hierarchy we all get to feel equally powerless." He's commenting on the rage and fear felt by nearly every distinct group of people in the country, but the comment begs some questions, most obviously: how much does our sense of having a secure place in society depend on the existence of a "hierarchy," either in the broadest sense of a structure or the more familiar sense of a class or caste system? Brooks seems to describe a historic development similar to what Pankraj Mishra presents in Age of Anger, in which the spread of liberal capitalism worldwide leaves people uncertain of their place in society, or of whether they have a place at all. That, apparently, is the price of freedom as understood by capitalist culture. To be free to make your own place, all bridges must be burnt behind you. You either make your own place, or you have none. Until recently, it was relatively easy for any American to make a place for himself, or even herself, thanks to American economic dominance. As the playing field levels out and economic rivals compete at a lower level than most of us can accept, a sense of insecurity spreads nationwide, even among supposedly privileged classes. That feeling is exacerbated by the apparent collapse of any code of mutual respect as everyone plays the ever-popular game of musical deck-chairs on the damaged ocean liner, othering and anathematizing each other. Growing numbers of otherwise conventionally conservative people are horrified by their belated discovery that the freedom touted as their birthright and their guarantee of success has evolved into an unrelenting requirement of constant adaptation fueled by the competitive imperative to economize through imposed obsolescence. Many of these newly-horrified masses may lash out at lower-echelon scapegoats, but don't mistake their hostility toward their nearest competitors for an enduring failure to recognize the competitive order for what it is. For some, the only way to protest the competitive order is to go after the weakest or least-welcome competitors, on the assumption that their presence only perpetuates an oppressive system, or proves its oppressive nature. The simple hope here is that there'll be places for everyone after those who don't really belong are cast out. But while populism, for want of a better term, seeks to secure places for all its constituents -- the people here and now -- capitalism continues to be driven by an opposite imperative to reduce the number of places in order to increase profit and "productivity." As a populist politician, President Trump seems to be trying to transcend his own capitalist instincts, to judge by his desire to create jobs at all costs, with whatever consequences to the environment or other factors. His core constituents most likely are people who are sick and tired of having constantly to adapt to myriads of forces, cultural as well as economic, with decreasingly realistic hope of achieving security. Eventually they're simply not going to be able to blame everything on people who are "different" in some way or other, but if there's to be a real solution to the dilemmas of our time, it probably won't come any faster by preaching at people to stop blaming each other. Whoever offers a solution to the larger problem first, without all the moral exhortation, may well see hostile groups joining forces with them, whether they really like each other or not, against the real common oppressor. What comes after that will depend on whether any or all of us can learn to think differently about the pavlovian buzzwords that trigger us -- "freedom" most of all.

05 September 2017

The tears of antifa

While the President was being sort of presidential, trying to deal with the hurricane and flood damage down in Texas -- and it looks like he'll get another chance to do this sort of thing shortly -- last week was a bad one for the antifa movement. Not only did the mainstream media portray them as the aggressors in the latest round of violence in Berkeley, but the host of The Daily Show mocked them as a "vegan ISIS." There was definitely enough going on for antifa and their apologists to throw shit fits in social media, basically accusing anyone who criticized them of being soft on Nazism. They're accusing the media of playing the moral-equivalence game, as if anyone was saying that whatever ideology antifa espouses is morally equivalent to Nazism, white supremacy or fa. With fanatics like these, it's hard to tell whether they're missing the point of most recent criticism, or whether they simply don't give a damn what anyone outside their safe zone thinks. The reason it's hard to tell is that some of them probably believe that merely espousing white supremacist, white nationalist or even "white identitarian" views is a form of violence to which violence is an appropriate response. Most people won't go that far. They may find such views grossly offensive, but they can hardly be expected to equate them with a physical assault, unless you count the queasy gut feelings white supremacy may induce in some audiences. The antifa narrative is that the people they go up against actively advocate mass murder, but in practice they seem to go after just about anyone in a MAGA hat. They may assume that a person so topped has murder in his heart, but you know what happens when they assume? They make an ass out of themselves, and more and more people are noticing. Antifa is an embarrassment to anti-Trump opinion as a whole. By perpetuating the assumption that every Trump supporter is a white supremacist, antifa also perpetuates a stereotype of anti-Trump opinion, namely that it's founded on nothing but the assumption that Trump and his supporters are white supremacists. What does antifa have to offer as a positive, unifying agenda around which an effective anti-Trump coalition can rally? Nothing, really. Their entire existence seems founded on a belief that any threat to equality or social justice can simply be beaten into submission. That would be a puerile view of society, and just the one you'd infer from the their bullying tantrums. Sadly, their "if you're not with us, you're against us" attitude is all too typically American at this point in history.

31 August 2017

Redneck and Yankee

Has the United States ever really had one culture? From the beginning, the white population saw itself split at least in two along lines that matched culture with geography. Ever since, cultural polarization has persisted even as the poles themselves have shifted. The one constant has been the figure alternately known as the "Yankee" or the "Puritan." Identified originally with the northeastern part of the country, he can now be found all over the country, as can his current antagonist, the "Redneck." The Redneck himself is something different from the Yankee's old antagonist, whom we can call the Slave-Driver. There is an obvious difference in class between this older figure and the Redneck, even though both are identified with the old south and a contemptuous attitude toward black people. The Slave-Driver was defined more by his presumed aristocratic contempt toward any social inferior than by hatred toward any group. In antebellum days, to accuse Slave-Drivers of hating blacks would have been a pointless redundancy. The Slave-Driver's vices were those of a decadent aristocracy, as the Yankee often emphasized. In the 21st century, of course, our modern Yankees have purged the word "decadent" from their polemical vocabulary. It may be hard to see the Yankee, much less the Puritan, in his most vocal descendants, since they now endorse behaviors that would have horrified the scolds of 19th century New England. It's still possible, however, to see the ancient and the modern as the same type, in the way they treat their personal preferences as moral imperatives.

To his antagonists across history, the Yankee has always been judgmental first and foremost -- hence the "Puritan" label. His impulse to judge involved him in things thought none of his business, from how a master dealt with his slaves to how people passed the time in a tavern. You might think his true descendants are the "moral majority" types of today, but you're more likely to find them on the opposite side of most debates -- including debates over college speech-codes where 21st century Yankees take a more obviously puritanical position against "hate speech" and other "triggers." In an apparent paradox of history, much of "Puritan" culture in the U.S. embraced the values of hedonism in our age of prosperity, though that might not be so paradoxical if you perceive narcissism as a fundamental feature of the Puritan/Yankee mindset. The focus of that narcissism is the question, "Am I a good person?" In the old days that was answered with reference to Scripture. Now the question seems to depend on whether not only you but others are happy. It might be rephrased: "Are people free to enjoy life by their own lights and be themselves without interference or the pressure of inferred judgments?" From that perspective, the bad people are those seemingly determined to keep others from being happy.

On the other side, for all that they love their simple or simplistic pleasures, rednecks arguably haven't succumbed to hedonistic values in the same way, if only because they've never been able to convince themselves that the world owes them a living. They in turn may go too far in refusing to demand more of society or its rulers, but that's a topic for another time. It suffices for now that their refusal, for religious or other reasons,  to acquiesce unconditionally to the imperatives of hedonism inevitably strikes their antagonists as contemptuous -- or simply hateful -- and that only makes them more contemptible in the eyes of the prevailing media. For some observers, these differences may not rise to the level of a cultural divide, but that doesn't seem to be how either side sees things. Culture wars in America may be fought more intensely between whites than they are between whites and any other group, and neither side seems willing to let elections settle their fundamental differences. These divisions, or similar divisions, have always been with us, but that doesn't mean we should take their indefinite sustainability for granted.

30 August 2017

Identitarianism and White Republicans

David Brooks now uses the word "identitarian" to identify a middle ground between ideological conservatism of the sort he presumably practices and outright white supremacism. He estimates that 40% of white Republicans can be described as "identitarians," which means that they practice "identity politics" in a manner similar to other ethnicities of self-conscious groups in American society. A larger number, though not a majority, espouses the sort of conservatism Brooks describes as universalist. "White universalists believe in conservative principles and think they apply to all people and their white identity is not particularly salient to them," he explains, "White identitarians are conservative, but their white identity is quite important to them, sometimes even more important than their conservatism." Identitarians are not supremacists, since they do not claim superiority to others, nor do they assert the inferiority of any other group. Instead, according to Brooks's idea of what identity politics is, white identitarians practice the politics of self-pity. They feel that they are being picked on due to their color or culture -- presumably by not only other colors or cultures, but by the white elite identified with the "mainstream media." Brooks considers the emergence of white identitarianism an unfortunate development, other people's identity politics being bad enough, that President Trump has only exacerbated. He sees it as something that could destroy the Republican party, which he sees as an entity historically and fundamentally opposed to race hatred.

"The G.O.P. was founded to fight slavery," he writes. That's a deceptive generalization. The Republican party was founded to fight "the slave power," i.e. the disproportionate influence of slaveholders over the federal government. It opposed the spread of slavery into the territories conquered from Mexico in the 1840s to prevent plantation owners from gaining unassailable power in Congress, once slave territories became states, and because they thought that slave economies limited economic opportunities for yeoman farmers. Few Republicans were abolitionists committed to the actual extinction of slavery, although Lincoln provocatively claimed that denying the territories to slaveholders would put the peculiar institution on the course of ultimate (albeit natural) extinction. Some early Republicans agitated for "free soil" while striving to prevent free blacks from living in their states. Lincoln himself was not committed to emancipation until it seemed expedient to him as a wartime measure. It's true, however, that after Lincoln Republicans regularly portrayed themselves as the champions of black America until the 1960s, when G.O.P. congressmen provided critical votes for major civil rights measures even as Barry Goldwater's ideological opposition to those measures set the tone for the party's future. The Republicans' transformation into the "white" party since 1964 has been fairly well documented and even more strongly denounced, but Brooks believes that things have really gone south, so to speak, over the last decade. To be more specific, something has changed for the worse since 2005, as measured by a great increase over that year in the number of whites claiming that they or their kind experienced a "great deal" of discrimination. This probably has less to do with the advent of Barack Obama than with a surge of challenges to a cultural hegemony that many whites had taken for granted.

Brooks implies that white identitarians are likely to feel discriminated against not just as whites but as Christians, and some no doubt feel discriminated against, however they might mean the word, as men, or as straight men. Some of that has to be written off as inevitable anger at inevitable change. If there really was such a thing as "white privilege" that all whites (or at least all white men) enjoyed once upon a time -- mostly with no real economic benefit to make it meaningful to them until it was gone -- it was the privilege of thinking of themselves as the default or "average" American, entitled to judge the authentic American-ness of everyone else regardless of any individual intellectual or moral qualification. To have that almost unconscious privilege yanked away, or at least yanked at, amid a profound economic downturn and societal demoralization (measured by suicides and opiate addiction) was the last straw, apparently, for many whites whose newly assertive demands for respect and anxiety over their perceived cultural endangerment are taken by many in other groups as a reassertion of a now-unacceptable hegemony -- and by some, most notably in the antifa movement -- as virtually a casus belli. The irony of all this, from the standpoint of partisan politics, is that the Republicans' ancient antagonists in the Democratic party may have done more than any other entity in American history to invent "whiteness" in a conscious effort -- and here's a further irony -- to gain acceptance for immigrants who were considered culturally alien by virtue of their religion. So if Republicans seem to many observers to betray a noble legacy by pandering to "white identitarianism," Democrats, in opposing that phenomenon, are confronted with a monster -- it's purely a literary metaphor, folks! -- of their own creation.

29 August 2017

They Saved Hitler's Desk!

It was struggle enough for the New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates to continue holding gun shows in Saratoga Springs NY in the face of increased uneasiness about the alleged fetishization of firearms and the violent potential of gun enthusiasts. Things got worse for the NEACA this month when people saw that their next show in the Spa City would include an exhibit and auction of a writing desk and accessories believed to have belonged to Adolf Hitler. Under pressure from the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, which operates the venue, the NEACA cancelled the exhibit and arranged for the auction to take place out-of-state. Concerns were raised about the exhibit following the violence and controversies over Confederate statuary elsewhere in the U.S., but this strikes me as a case where important distinctions can be made.

A desk is an artifact, a literal piece of history, and it is also simply a desk. Nothing about the desk is heroic unless you project something heroic onto it. To the contrary, it strikes me that a curious person might want to see a desk where der Fuehrer might have signed important orders, drafted a speech, or doodled without at all approving of anything Hitler did. The spectator might simply crave the sensation, morbid or otherwise, of being close to history. An artifact is not a monument; it does not exist to honor anyone or anything. To go to the City Center to look at the desk would not be to do Adolf Hitler any honor. I suppose, however, that a "one percent doctrine" prevails among those who opposed the exhibit. The idea that anyone might approach the desk with reverence -- that someone in the building might be a Nazi sympathizer -- probably was the truly unacceptable thing.  There's something paranoid about such anxiety that is not equivalent to the abhorrence one probably should feel over the existence of statues in public squares anywhere in America honoring -- no other verb describes their purpose as well -- the ringleaders of a seditious conspiracy.

Of course, apologists for the statues will argue that the mindset of today's iconoclasts isn't really different from the hysterical attitude of some people in Saratoga Springs. Those apologists will argue that it is paranoid to assume that someone who admires the statues is a white supremacist or neo-Confederate. They may argue further for a distinction, fudged by the President recently, between "history" and "heritage." For the sake of argument, "heritage," the word usually used by statue apologists, entails a value-free (or politics-free) reverence for ancestors who died in war, no different in essence from the monument anyone gets over his or her grave. Whether Confederate monuments ever can be politically neutral is debatable in the face of persistent claims that secessionists and rebels, not to mention slaveholders and their defenders, deserve reverence from no one. Despite that debate, descendants of Confederates will continue to claim the right to honor their kin, if for no other reason than that they are kin. In any event, it should be self-evident that a desk, no matter who used it, is a thing of a different order. There is less reason to see it as inherently idolatrous or offensive than there is to distrust a public statue. While the Saratoga Springs case is less flagrantly absurd than ESPN's recent reassignment of an Asian-American reporter named Robert Lee from its coverage of a Charlottesville basketball game, it's still an instance when the impulse to remove any reminder of evil from a potentially tempting place in public view goes a little too far.

28 August 2017

Has antifa jumped the shark?

The Washington Post headline for its report of yesterday's violence in California reads significantly: "Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley." The story itself reports that the usual black bloc types took the offensive against people identified as Trump supporters -- people who chose to express themselves despite being warned to stay home by organizers of an aborted "No to Marxism in America" rally. The story serves as a reminder, if not a revelation to some, that leftists often have been the aggressors in confrontations with right-wingers or Trump supporters since the President took office. These aggressors no more represent the left as a whole than any gathering of "alt" or "old" right represents the opposition as a whole. The black-bloc attackers reportedly represented about 100 people out of an estimated 7,000 people who showed up for a counter-demonstration against "No to Marxism." The mayor of Berkeley called out the attackers, stating that "Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps.” It's an admirable sentiment, but will he back up words with actions? What is to be done about antifa? Ideally the term should become a pejorative as the peaceful opposition to Trump and Republicanism distances itself more distinctly from those who claim license to beat up "fascists" and "haters" while applying those labels to nearly everyone to their right. Shunning may not be enough, however. Ironically, one way to tame antifa might be to borrow from the old anti-Klan playbook and ban the wearing of masks and hoods in public by adults. At the same time, an old-fashioned civics lesson about tolerance for those we disagree with, or deeply dislike, couldn't hurt. It needs to be said authoritatively, from the left, that the Trump movement is not -- or is not merely white America's war against the world, before the widespread assumption that it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst thing that could happen over the next three years is for people to refuse to listen to Trump supporters, even if they're mostly wrong about things, for the express reason that they're white, as that might only encourage a counter-assumption that only white people are capable of citizenship on the terms Trumpists might deem necessary. The next-worst thing is to keep running around calling Trump people "fascists" when most of them probably haven't had a truly fascist thought in their entire lives -- though they probably have an idea by now of what real stormtroopers look like.

24 August 2017

Building a wall around Congress

The President has frightened Republican congressional leaders and Wall Street investors by threatening to "shut down" the government by vetoing any bill that raises the debt ceiling without also funding the border wall that was supposed to be funded by Mexico. The credibility of the threat depends on Congress itself. The question the GOP leaders face is twofold. First, can they pass a bill to fund the wall? Second, can they override a presidential veto of a bill without wall funding? The answer to the first question is up to Republicans themselves, since they have a majority of both houses of Congress. Some Republicans, possibly a critical mass, dislike the wall idea for pragmatic or libertarian reasons. There's probably no chance of getting Democrats to make up for any Republican defectors on a wall vote. Meanwhile, Democrats could help override any veto of a wall-less bill -- but at what price? These questions trouble Speaker Ryan and Senator McConnell because they assume from past experience that they, rather than the President or the Democrats, will be blamed by the public should the government shut down. I'm not so sure that that's so. Isn't it more likely that the President would take most of the heat, at least from the media? After all, this would be madman Trump shutting down the government because Congress wouldn't fund his nativist, racist, etc. goddam wall. Yet I suppose the fates of congressional Republicans are tied to the President whether they like it (or him) or not. They'd be the first to face a public backlash, whether he shuts down the government or gets his wall -- if there is a backlash, that is. Republican congressmen can only distance themselves so far from a Republican President, no matter how much they might insist that their aren't responsible for or to him. The veto is any President's check on the legislature's power of the purse, but our age of seemingly ceiling-less national debt may have tipped the balance in the executive's favor. It may be true that Congress owes the President nothing personally -- the latter is not the leader of the majority party and must negotiate (or threaten in this case) rather than dictate to them -- but as far as the executive and legislative branches are concerned, the Constitution may require Congress to pay up this time, so to speak, if the majority isn't willing to seek a better deal elsewhere.

23 August 2017

What's the matter with moderation?

David Brooks writes, "Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate." While he never explains his assumption that most of us share his view, he does explain that the word "moderate" sounds too "milquetoast" to him. He then goes on, in a recent column, to list the praiseworthy qualities of "moderates," conceding that he'll stick with the word "until a better one comes along." The better word, I'd suggest, is moderate -- once you stop treating it, as Brooks (if not "most of you") apparently does, as synonymous with "centrist" or "middle of the road." His disdain for "moderate" is a consequence of the very bipolar political thinking Brooks urges us to transcend. Thinking in terms of American party politics, he takes to "moderate" to be seeking a dubious middle ground between the extremes of Republican conservatism and leftist liberalism. But there is nothing inherently centrist about moderation. Our English word derives from a Latin word meaning control, and its traditional meaning is "self-control." Moderation has been identified with the middle ground because it's often used to describe a philosophy ascribed to the ancient Greeks, "moderation in all things." That idea, in turn, is often identified in classrooms with the avoidance of opposite extremes, e.g. one must not be too miserly nor too profligate. Moderation thus tends to be placed in bipolar contexts, and when these contexts are controversial moderation gets equated with intellectual or moral mediocrity. But the concept of moderation doesn't depend on the concept of opposites, and the true moderate should not be presumed to cower in the middle ground between them.

There is, or ought to be, a difference between telling both right and left that they can't have everything they demand, on one hand, and merely splitting the difference between them. Because the true moderate -- a word synonymous with his position, but unfortunately tainted by association with a failed reform movement, is "temperance" -- is moderate in all things, that moderation can't be understood in terms set by the opposite extremes of bipolar politics and can't be reduced by either or both to a mere middle ground. A real moderate would be just as moderate in a tripolar or even more pluralist political order where the choices can't be reduced to opposites but the risks of extremism are just as great. The moderate has something like the quality Brooks himself calls "humility," which he describes as "a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself," though "objectivity" might be the better word. That, at least, makes sense of his recommendation to put "truth before justice," though the obvious implication that truth and justice are not synonymous, in current political usage at least, is a future topic unto itself. In the end, Brooks, still a conservative in theory, has a very liberal sense of what moderation entails, incorporating pluralism, syncretism and skepticism into the mix on the assumption that "monadic" identities "brutalize politics." Whether these qualities truly characterize moderation depends on the extent to which any of them tend to be self-indulgent or become ends unto themselves, but the true moderate presumably will still cultivate these qualities in moderation. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with the word "moderation." Those who think otherwise may need to moderate their attitude toward reality itself.

22 August 2017


On MSNBC this morning, after the President's speech on Afghanistan, Joe Scarborough brought a panel on to discuss whether last night was the moment when "Paul Wolfowitz became President." The question, in other words, was whether Donald Trump had become a neocon, or given in to them, by committing to an indefinite, expanded American military presence in that benighted country. Trump himself acknowledged that he had changed his mind about Afghanistan, having once been inclined to withdraw. He now accepts at least one premise identified with the neocons (like Wolfowitz) of George W. Bush's time: that terrorists have a better chance of striking at us if they have a sympathetic country as a safe haven. That premise remains debatable. It'd be interesting to see someone attempt to correlate the volume of ISIS-inspired attacks over a given time period to the amount of territory the self-styled caliphate controlled in Iraq or Syria. My hunch is that the idea will outlast the caliphate, especially now that terrorism is most often carried out on a relatively small scale that doesn't seem to need the scale of logistical support that a sovereign country might provide. Such speculation doesn't change the likelihood of a power vacuum emerging in Afghanistan following a U.S. pullout, or the likelihood of an entity more hostile to us taking power there. Whether our presence alone prevents that outcome, and how much longer Americans in general and Trump's base in particular are prepared to accept that responsibility, remain to be determined.

The Wolfowitz question was a funny one for Scarborough to ask, since he had just shown a clip of the President from last night saying that the U.S. would no longer go around the world trying to remake every nation in our own image. That sounds like a repudiation of the "democracy promotion" that was a hallmark of both W-era neoconservatism and its Democratic counterpart under Clinton and Obama. But as at least one guest pointed out, Trump's position was not inconsistent with what might be called first-generation, Cold War era neoconservatism as practiced by people like Jeanne Kirkpatrick who often opposed democracy promotion. Kirkpatrick in particular became notorious for defending dictators aligned with the U.S. from demands for democratization. Her position was founded on a distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes, and on a suspicion that, under Marxist influence, superficially democratic uprisings against authoritarians would turn totalitarian too often for America's comfort. Exchange Islam for Marxism and you can see why this line of thinking might make a comeback after a stormy "Arab Spring." Trump apparently has decided that democracy is not the answer for Afghanistan, or at least that it's not the answer for any problem Afghanistan poses for the U.S. His next question should be whether an authoritarian solution is possible that includes a degree of power sharing to end that country's seemingly incorrigible sectarianism and ethnic strife, or whether his best bet is to put all his chips on one strong man who could be given the tools to keep everyone else in line. Some of Trump's supporters may be disappointed that simply nuking the place isn't an option, but if they thought their man would simply wash his hands of the place, they should have known better. His initial gut skepticism about our presence in Afghanistan might have been right on a practical level, but how would he ever have turned our withdrawal from a destabilized land in the face of hostile forces a win? Trump must win somewhere -- his personality presumably demands it -- and by now he may believe that he has a better chance of winning there than here.

21 August 2017

Us and Them

People of good will everywhere bemoan the fact that world seems perpetually divided into "us" and "them." Anywhere you go, you have an "us" and a "them," or many "thems." Why should this be, many people ask, when we are all human beings? Why can't there just be "us?" Some of these people answer their own question when they treat those of "us" who don't identify with a universal "us" as "them." At the same time, those who claim to represent the universal "us" can only be "them" in many eyes in nearly every place, because they seem not to belong to, or care for, any particular "us." That's where we're at, it seems, in the United States today, deadlocked in mutual resentment of a mutual refusal to belong to each side's ideal "us." It's easy to dismiss any particular "us" as narrow-minded and exclusive, but it's nearly as easy to dismiss an indiscriminate "us" that may amount to no more than a multitude of "me." It sometimes seems as if you have to jump through too many hoops to belong fully to any particular "us," and for no good reason other than custom, but do we really want to say that you don't need to do anything but be yourself to belong to the universal "us?" Is there really an "us" when the only requirement is to accept each other as we are? Some may answer that our common humanity is an irrefutable fact that makes us "us" automatically, but is that how most people feel about "us?" I suppose it depends on whether we mean "me" by "us," or something more that makes belonging meaningful and responsible. Ultimately, the problem of "us" and "them" remains a problem of, and for, "me" and "you."

17 August 2017

'Our Beautiful Statues'

It looks like the President is going to give love to those who love him, and not give a damn about anyone else's opinion. In the continuing debate over the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, Trump at least has a leg to stand on when he asserts that both "alt-right" and "alt-left" (antifa, etc) were violent, though that means neither that both sides are equally to blame, as some infer him to mean, nor that the left has any share in the blame for the vehicular homicide that climaxed the day. The President might have furthered a useful conversation about an emerging violent streak on the left or the question of whether the alt-right has a right to assembly without molestation. But he's just about blown any chance of that conversation happening soon with his tweets and other comments in defense of Confederate monuments.

Trump reached a new low this morning when he took to Twitter to decry the removal of "our beautiful statues." For the most part he reprised his arguments of the other day, in which he equated the removal of Confederate statues with the rewriting of history and worried that Washington and Jefferson might be purged from "history" because they owned slaves. But that "our statues" bit was an insult to most of the country. Donald Trump may be our President, some far-leftists notwithstanding, but those definitely are not "our" statues, and it's sad, to use words Trump will understand, to think that he thinks of them as his statues. For all I know, the fool may simply like them because they're pretty. That's what I get, in a generous frame of mind, when he tweets about "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities." I suppose he'd find statues of Lenin and Stalin beautiful as well, when he visits Russia, and he might well feel the same way about statues of Mao in China, or the Kims in North Korea. As for the good old U.S.A., he tries to justify his stance by tweeting, "You can't change history [even though that's what he accused the statue-removers of doing], but you can learn from it." But what exactly can you learn from a statue? That Robert E. Lee was a handsome man, or a brave one? In fact, we do need to learn from history, but can we learn anything we need about Confederate heroes from these statues? All they really teach us is that the defeated foot-soldiers of a defeated conspiracy still saw their leaders as heroes, when they had no cause to that the rest of us are bound to respect. The old idea that even we in the north should look at the generals, at least, as tragic heroes of an American Iliad is garbage and has rightly been trashed. The right attitude toward those statues is probably something closer to what Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos etc. express whenever Japanese politicians visit the Yasukuni shrine where convicted war criminals are memorialized. As I wrote before, I understand the President's need or desire to pander to his perceived base, but for him to think, in the 21st century, that no one should be offended by the memorialization of slaveocratic secessionists, is maliciously ignorant. Maybe if he read books instead of admiring statues he'd have a better sense of history. And as for the "you will not replace us" crowd, if Confederate statues represent what they're worried about, then maybe they or their forebears should have been replaced a long time ago.

15 August 2017

'You're changing culture'

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


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

14 August 2017

Is a culture truce possible?

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

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

12 August 2017

Violence in Virginia

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

10 August 2017

Defrauding the donors?

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

09 August 2017

Fire and Fury

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

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

07 August 2017

The unfriending of America

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

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

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

04 August 2017

The cowardice of signing statements

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

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

01 August 2017


Jeff Flake knows how to sell a book. His new tome, Conscience of a Conservative, hit bookstores today with a vast blast of publicity emphasizing how vehemently the junior U.S. Senator from Arizona, a Republican, denounces President Trump. The title is a conscious borrowing from a declaration of principles by fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, Flake's model of a conscientious principled conservative. In Flake's opinion, Donald Trump is neither conscientious, principled or conservative. To an extent, this is a matter of temperament. Trump is too "inconstant, mercurial, and shallow" to be a true conservative, Flake writes, much less President of the United States. The current President's unpredictable volatility is the opposite, in Flake's view, of conservative governance. Personality aside, Trump is guilty of enticing Republicans and others with "the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery." Flake warns that “The crash from this sugar high will be particularly unpleasant.”

The senator couldn't have picked a better time for an ad hominem attack on the Trump administration, in the aftermath of the meteoric rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director for an epic eleven days, and while the President rails against his own party failing to repeal Obamacare despite its Senate majority. Unlike the senior Senator from Arizona, Flake voted for the so-called "skinny repeal" bill, but that's an increasingly rare point of agreement between him and Trump. In promoting his book, however, Flake may have overplayed his hand by describing Republican infighting as the "spasms of a dying party." It's a strange thing to say given the GOP's undefeated record in special congressional elections so far this year, but I suspect Flake means that the Republican party is turning into something he soon won't recognize, that it may soon be dead to him, rather than that the party is doomed at the polls. He fears that a GOP dominated by Trump will abandon the principles that have defined the party for the last 50 years, since Goldwater's heyday. In an MSNBC interview Flake emphasized that "protectionism and isolationism are not conservative values." That crack about isolationism is just silly, since there really is no evidence that Trump is isolationist, while Flake's claim in the interview that "The Republican party has always been a free-trade party," is an abandonment, if not a simple forgetting, of a principle that defined the Republican party when it was founded. In that respect, at least, if not also in its suspicions of immigrants, the Trump movement represents a reversion to Republican attitudes predating the Goldwater-Reagan takeover of the Grand Old Party. The death spasms Flake perceives with such anxiety may only be the last stages of a long but temporary phase of American political history. We'll probably know sooner rather than later which side of history Jeff Flake is on.

31 July 2017

President vs. party

Contemplating the spectacle of President Trump, whom he describes as "the alpha male as crybaby," George Will consoles himself with the thought that Trump's follies will do the nation good. His difficulties with Congress should inspire the legislative branch to be more assertive, since it "cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking." His more embarrassing episodes, Will hopes, will do "invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness." By appearing to degrade the presidency, Trump "drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it."By this standard, "worse is better," on the assumption that the Trump administration will end any unhealthy desire Americans have for strong executive power while teaching them greater appreciation of the more deliberative, and thus more conservative, branches of government.

I suspect that Will misreads the temper of the time. Ambitious presidents around the world, from Nicolas Maduro to Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Vladimir Putin, often seem boorish and embarrassing to sophisticated critics, yet retain large followings despite numerous foul-ups. The desire for strong executive  (or "authoritarian") leadership will not go away after one or more executives prove themselves fools, because that desire is driven more by persistent conditions than by any temporary faith in transient personalities. If Trump fails, it will only prove that Trump was the wrong guy. For that matter, in the eyes of his voting base, his feuds with veteran Republican leaders, most recently his Attorney General (a former U.S. Senator) and his lately ousted chief of staff (the former RNC chairman) probably aren't failures. All of us are witnessing a slow-motion showdown that will determine whether the Republican party is to be the President's instrument or his nemesis." Constitutionally, of course, the Republican party owes the President nothing; the chief executive isn't even really the de facto leader of the party, though his fans may assume he should be. While he can deal roughly with Republicans who answer directly to him after taking jobs in his Cabinet, he can't fire the party hierarchy and can only attempt to fire congressmen by recruiting candidates to run primaries against them next year. That's just as things should be for conservatives like Will, but Trump's voters more likely assumed, when they voted Republican for Congress, that people on the same ticket should be working on the same agenda. Their more dangerous assumption, in Will's judgment, is that the President is the one to set the agenda and the one to whom Republicans should be accountable when they go against it. I can't feel very sorry for them or Trump in their disappointment so far, since this is exactly what they deserve for taking the shortcut of "taking over" one of the established major parties rather than building their own party. But my lack of sympathy makes their desire for a more decisive executive no less real, and the divide between the expectations of ostensibly conservative voters and the ideology of the ostensibly conservative party no less profound.

For better or worse, we have to assume that voters chose Trump in the crucial states because they wanted him to practice his particular leadership style (as seen on TV) in Washington. In other words, Trump's voters probably want him to fire more people, yet he has little power to do so immediately outside his own executive-branch territory. His inability to fire top Republicans, in Congress or the party hierarchy, exposes what some may see as a flaw in American government, if not in the Constitution itself, that may not have been apparent earlier. Just the other day, so to speak, most right wingers believed that the problem with Congress was that it had no term limits for members, no maximum time in office. For the Trump movement, the real problem emerging now may be that congressmen have a minimum time in office, two years in which they are not really accountable to their constituents until the next Election Day. Ever since the first congressmen effectively shot down the idea that they should be subject to instruction from their constituents, their lack of political accountability between elections has been held sacred, the proof of their deliberative independence, their entitlement to legislate as they alone saw fit. But just as the original populists of more than a century ago included the recall of elected officials in their long-term reform agenda, so  the so-called populists of the 21st century might adopt that idea -- if they remember how Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up governing a state -- as an appropriate measure for a time of more instant accountability in every other sphere of life. That may seem unlikely to you, but how much less likely is it than George Will's expectation that we'll simply give up electing Trumps, when Americans are probably only getting started?