30 November 2018

Trumpism vs. capitalism

The President's heart is in the right place when he denounces General Motors for announcing the closure of several auto plants, but few people seem willing to give him credit for that. Instead, critics to his right and his left blamed Donald Trump's own tariff policies for the loss of jobs, arguing that they had made materials imported by GM prohibitively expensive. Those critics shake their heads contemptuously when Trump protests against GM closing American plants while keeping foreign facilities running.  All these critics may have valid points, but howevermuch Trump may have himself to blame, it still seems appropriate for an American leader to begrudge the loss of every American job. It's a welcome change of pace from Republican orthodoxy, which on questions of trade is effectively libertarian orthodoxy, according to which the judgments of the Market are true and righteous altogether. Donald Trump's admirable attributes may be few, but one of them is his unwillingness to bow mindlessly before the Market idol. Just as his attempts to buy political influence through campaign donations informed his attitude toward establishment politics, so his experience as a global businessman most likely makes him cynical toward the idolization of the Market by fellow Republicans. His whole argument since entering politics is that the global market as we know it is not the objective entity of free-market idealism. All along he has argued against a self-defeating idealism that requires Americans to play by dogmatic rules even while other nations don't. His desire to maximize employment may be criticized when, in his enthusiasm for coal mining and oil drilling, it shows an indifference to ecological consequences, but merely defying Market orthodoxy is hardly morally equivalent to that. In this, Trump shows his post-Cold War colors. It's no longer necessary to believe that if the U.S. doesn't stand for free markets it stands for nothing. It might have been possible once upon a time for a patriot to argue that the U.S. and the free market were, for all intents and purposes, one and the same, when the great adversary embodied the unfree market. In the absence of that adversary, it becomes easier to imagine a divergence of interests separating the Market and the nation that forces a choice of loyalties. As a nationalist, or at least while he's a politician, Trump will try to put the nation before the market, while people in his own party continue to claim that there's no need to choose. Those same people probably will still wonder how Trump keeps winning primaries in 2020. As for the other party, they have no deep sympathy for capitalism nor any great faith in the Market, but they remain too fearful of Trump's competitive vision of the world to rally too enthusiastically behind his corporation-bashing. They might feel differently if Trump had a more progressive vision of economic competitiveness than prioritized subsidized tech training over reviving moribund industries. His commitment to some sort of government program to that effect could earn him good will from unexpected quarters, and it would go a long way toward proving that he really believes in both full employment and a competitive economy and isn't just pandering to disgruntled Rust Belters to win another term. We can remain doubtful about him, but even at our most doubtful we shouldn't take it for granted, between him and GM, that he's the bad guy.

26 November 2018

Escalating the gun debate

Lawrence Corbett claims to stake out a middle ground in the gun-control debate. His, he claims, is the ground of objective scholarship, while both the gun-control community and "the NRA and their ilk" take neglectfully one-sided stances that ignore other facets of the great question. In an op-ed that reads like a plea for research funding, Corbett argues that we can determine the reasonable scope of gun ownership by focusing on one facet of the question. He appears less concerned with the individual right of self-defense advocated by the NRA than with the collective right of defense against tyranny. The decisive question, he claims, is twofold: "What is the minimum level of arms that a population needs in order to allow it to resist a future government gone bad, and at what point do we decide that the cost of having that capability is too high?" Only people with specialized knowledge -- Corbett is a scholar of logistics -- can provide the information to answer these questions. Yet his plea can't help seeming disingenuous. Though he pays lip service to the possibility that such weapons as the AR-15 are "wholly unworthy of the damage they cause on a day-to-day basis," he has to anticipate that many observers will think the risk to individuals worth the security against tyranny. It may be telling that he doesn't discuss the possibility that no volume of private gun ownership can provide an effective safeguard against a tyranny armed with the full military power of the state. If his theoretical committee came to such a conclusion, would Corbett concede that there is no good reason for hoarding assault weapons, or would he let the question be decided according to the principle of individual self-defense? While he may have wanted to escape that facet of the issue by reverting to the original intent of the Framers, Corbett may stake too much on an obsolete argument. Those who would have prevented tyranny may have been better off limiting the expansion of the military establishment before it surpassed irreversibly the civilian power to match it. That's a side of this issue nearly everyone ignores.

11 November 2018

Nationalism on Armistice Day

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

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

07 November 2018


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

01 November 2018

The end of American individualism?

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