Monday, January 21, 2019

American Jews, Israel, and the Democratic Party

I have been getting a lot of messages and questions from friends and family about Israel, and especially about attitudes toward Israel in the Democratic Party. I hope that readers of this blog will forgive me poaching from other writing by way of addressing the issue here. A student sent me a link to a recent New York Times Op/Ed column by Matti Friedman, in which Friedman argued that "There is No Israel-Palestinian Conflict". The student asked me what I thought. I answered him, posted my answer to Facebook and now offer it below:

Hey there. Glad to hear from you in the new year.

I read Friedman's piece (as usual, on the treadmill at the gym). On the one hand I can appreciate his giving richer context to the issue- a historian can never really fault someone for demanding more context. But on the level of basic logic I find his approach rather sophistic. You could make this argument about any social issue at any place and time in human history. "There was no racial conflict between whites and blacks in the US of the 1960's, because that must be viewed in the context of the Cold War, the threat of the Soviet Union, Vietnam, etc." "There was no conflict between Turks and Armenians in the early 20th century, because that has to be viewed in the context of great power diplomacy, WWI, the Balkans, etc."

Yes, no binary conflict happens in a vacuum, and yes, many factors exacerbate each conflict and complicate the search for a resolution. But nothing detracts from the onus on the parties involved to seek a just peace. Nothing Friedman said in his article changes these facts: 1)The West Bank remains occupied, and its residents denied the right of enfranchisement in a sovereign government. The people occupying them and denying them that right are the Israelis. 2)If you made all of the people living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem citizens, Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority, and thus would no longer be a "Jewish state" in Herzlian terms; 3)The only just peace that preserves Israel as a Jewish state is a two-state solution; 4)The main impediment to a two-state solution is the presence of 300,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, many of whom are ready to (and already have, as in the case of Yitzhak Rabin) murder anyone trying to effect a two-state solution.

So that is my response to Friedman, which probably induces a sense of deja vu for you, since it is basically a reiteration of views that I'm sure I've shared with you before. Basically, I think Friedman's argument is of a species that appears very often from moderate-right Israeli intellectuals, which I will call the "it's complicated" argument. "Those people pushing us to resolve this issue don't understand- it's complicated." This kind of argument gets a lot of traction, in part because it has some merit, in part because most American Jews really don't know all the facts, and so it is very easy to impress them with how complicated the situation is.

All of that is fair, but my sense is that this kind of argument is going to come up against a very steep margin of diminishing returns in years to come. The occupation has gone on for almost 51 years now- with each passing year people around the world will have less and less patience with the proposition that the problem "requiring" the occupation was too complicated to be resolved in the time available to do so. Movements like BDS are not going away, they are only going to get stronger. You can see the effects now, with the election of people like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as Democrats to Congress. The pro-Palestinian movement within the Democratic Party here in the US is going to grow in strength. This is going to put liberal Zionists like myself in a bad position- I am facing the prospect of having to choose between my sympathies for Israel and my support of the larger Democratic policy agenda. As you might be able to tell, arguments like Friedman's notwithstanding, my inclination is increasingly in the latter direction, and will remain so until I see evidence of some kind of good faith effort on the part of the Israeli government to institute a two-state solution.

I don't know how useful or cogent you find my musings. In any case I hope this message finds you well, with 2019 opening up good paths for you. Come look for me if you are on campus in the spring.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin

The Trump presidency increasingly induces the feeling that one is living in an Ionesco play. The frequency with which we are all reduced to talking about the Emperor's new clothes as if they existed, even as he tells us himself that he is stark naked, would have been impossible to believe two years ago. The wall is only the latest such absurdity, but it is perhaps the most surreal. The endless ink spilled over whether "the wall" is practical, moral, effective or economical is truly amazing given that the concept itself is basically a frat boy joke. Debating whether we should spend 5 billion dollars to "build the wall" is like debating whether a major league baseball team should invest in a granite quarry to insure that "We Will Rock You."

The cruelest joke of all is the skill that Trump invariably displays in transmuting the petty and absurd into a crisis with genuine stakes. Wasting five billion dollars on a pointless vanity project would certainly not be either an unprecedented folly or the end of the world, but the context in which the current mud-wrestling match transpires lends added consequence to its outcome. Trump rode into office 2.7 million votes shy of his opponent. Despite that fact, and though his party controlled both the executive and legislature, he gave no urgency or priority to the building of "the wall" in his first two years in office. Now that voters have once again come out as a majority to vote against this plan, and handed the House to Democrats, Trump is shutting down the government and threatening to declare a state of emergency to force his unpopular policy through. Thus, even though "the wall" itself is a ludicrous fantasy, the manner in which Trump's pursuit of "the wall" subverts the norms and principles of democracy itself is not.

Above and beyond these systemic issues, the ethical stakes in the contest over the wall are even higher. Nancy Pelosi has been ridiculed for calling "the wall" immoral, but viewed in a particular (but nonetheless rather obvious) light her remark makes pellucid sense. Since "the wall" has never really been a practical policy, its chief significance has been as a symbol. This of course raises the question: "a symbol of what?" The answer is again obvious: a symbol of racism. "The wall" derives its importance entirely from the facts about the people on the other side of it: their language, religion, color, and ancestry. Donald Trump himself declared this when he told us that anyone of Mexican heritage could not be trusted to judge him fairly, because Trump "is building a wall."

So this is the condition to which we have been reduced. We have shut the government down over an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem. The damage to our way of life, present and forthcoming, however, is real.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Schrödinger's Trump

If the Trump presidency has taught us anything, it is that things can always get worse. The "Muslim ban," the Singapore and Helsinki summits, the separation of migrant families, and a litany of other disgracefully conceived and executed policies of the Trump administration each created the impression of a moral and professional floor, beneath which the nation could not possibly sink. Those impressions persistently proved out wrong.

Yesterday, with the President's edict-by-tweet announcing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a new low was reached. So many aspects of this event were shocking and offensive that they are difficult to call to mind coherently, much less enumerate. Syria is one of the most sensitive strategic frontiers in the world. It sits at the crux of painstakingly constructed alliances and at the convergence of a complex tangle of threats to the national security of the United States. ISIS is only one of these threats, though at present perhaps the most urgently acute, and contrary to Donald Trump's blithe pronouncements, it has not been neutralized.

A withdrawal of US forces risks the descent of Syria into newly intense chaos, which in turn could undermine the peace and stability of Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, and an expanding circle of nations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Communities that have placed their trust in the US- separate Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, the government in Baghdad, anti-Assad forces in Syria, Yazidis- would be abandoned to an uncertain and potentially horrific fate. The only global actors that stand to gain from a US withdrawal- Russia, Turkey, and Damascus- are hostile to American interests.  It may or may not be a coincidence that the Trump Organization has significant and lucrative business ties with two of these governments.

Even if the wisdom of a withdrawal could be argued (and it cannot), the execution of this policy would yet be a disgrace. Announcing a withdrawal over Twitter, without consulting Congress or any cabinet agency responsible for its execution, and without preparing answers to the host of complex questions arising naturally from even the contemplation of such a plan, is an act of criminal political malpractice. This gross negligence, combined with the obscene appeal to the shades of fallen US soldiers ("they are up there looking down on us, and there is nobody happier..."), mark this as a newly profane debasement of the presidency.

The US Constitution does not provide a clear legal definition of the class of infraction that merits the impeachment of a president. "High crimes and misdemeanors" could be virtually any form of transgression, the only force constraining the discretion of Congress being the political will of the voters. This is why the potential impeachment of Donald J. Trump is a problem structurally akin to that of "Schrödinger's Cat".

In the abstract, Trump's "withdrawal by Tweet" is a miscarriage of duty so grotesque as to merit removal from office several times over, and it is only the worst of a long list of similar transgressions. The popular speculation about what Robert Mueller's investigation might or might not uncover is moot. What we the American people have seen with our own eyes is sufficient. At this point, asking whether Donald J. Trump should be removed from office is like asking whether one should throw water on the bedroom drapes that have caught fire.

The problem of course, is that however clear the answer to such a question might be in the abstract, in the practical particular it remains difficult to resolve. A significant proportion of the American electorate wants to let the drapes continue to burn, and see what happens. More specifically, a critical mass of Republican primary voters continue to view Donald Trump as an effective leader, and will vote for or against GOP candidates at his direction. As long as that remains true, it is folly to expect any Republican lawmakers to defy Trump in any regard, much less to vote for his removal in an impeachment proceeding.

Thus, though the House of Representatives would be perfectly justified in passing a Bill of Impeachment against the publicly recorded misconduct of President Donald J. Trump, if roughly 40% of Americans cannot see what a disgrace he is right now, it is unlikely that any amount of evidence of criminal activity could ever persuade them to refuse him their support. Under those circumstances, any Bill of Impeachment, no matter how justified or well-evidenced, is bound to go down to defeat in the Senate (where a 2/3 majority must be reached for removal). As a country we are thus faced with a conundrum. Which is worse, allowing Trump to commit such criminal malpractice as he did yesterday without being formally censured or, having been formally impeached, to see his behavior officially condoned by an acquittal in the Senate? Call it the "Schrödinger's Trump" paradox: the impeachment of Donald J. Trump is simultaneously an absolute imperative and utter folly. True to his nature, Trump consistently leaves us with nothing but bad options.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump,

      I write to you as a Democrat, as a Jew, as an American, but more fundamentally as a fellow human being. The events of the last few days have revealed our national politics to be more dangerously turbulent than at any point in my adult lifetime. Not since the Vietnam War have Americans been so angrily divided, nor has partisan violence been so pervasive.
      This is not entirely your fault. Structural changes in the global economy have caused profound inequities and widespread suffering, the impact of which was compounded by acute crises like the recession of 2008. Deepening confusion in the post-9/11 world order has added to a climate of uncertainty and fear. But your share of responsibility for the current crisis is considerable.
      The blame lies in the signature brand of politics that brought you to the White House and continues to guide your presidency. Since being sworn in, you have flouted the conventions of your office. When "liberal elites" sputter with outrage at the egregiously racist, sexist, homophobic, or flagrantly mendacious things you say, you count that as a win. Your strategy is to make your political opponents look entitled, oversensitive, impotent and ridiculous, thus gratifying the anger and sense of grievance among your supporters. You are, in effect, a troll.
       This strategy is very clever, because it is devilishly difficult to counter. If liberals express the requisite outrage at your profanities they fall into your trap and give you fuel for the passions of your base. But if they attempt to take a more measured, "reasonable" response, they dignify your "principles" far above their merits, and betray whatever constituency (usually a key community in the Democratic coalition) has been offended by your remarks. Yes, it is a very clever strategy, effectively boxing your opponents into a "lose-lose" position.
        But as the recent attempted assassinations by postal bomb and today's tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue demonstrate, we have all of us (that is, all Americans) been boxed into a lose-lose position by your nihilistic and irresponsible rhetoric.  In a country of 300 million people, if you pursue a course of constantly stoking fear and rage, there will inevitably be deranged individuals who will translate that anger into violence. Does this make you personally to blame for the acts of these criminals? No.
         It does, however, put you in a uniquely impotent position to provide leadership in the wake of these tragedies. You cannot serially  and unabashedly insult people and then credibly offer them condolences in the wake of a violent assault.  "I did not care about your dignity when I was hurling invective at you, but I feel very badly now that you have been physically attacked" might be a plausible position for an ordinary civilian, but it is utterly unacceptable from the President of the United States. Shame on you, sir.
         Beyond abstract shame, the practical impact of your moral impotence is real. Without someone possessed of the moral authority to calm passions and mend breaches, the situation will continue to spin into angrier and angrier terrain. You have squandered any such authority, and seem uninterested in redeeming it to any degree. Your recent remarks regretting the manner in which the spate of attempted assassinations cut into your "momentum" suggest that you are incapable of viewing the situation in anything but purely political terms.
         It is conventional in this sort of letter to end on an aspirational note, to suggest some remedial course that might lead out of the current impasse. I cannot offer such hopeful thoughts. Full and heartfelt contrition might do something to ameliorate the situation, but you have done such irreparable damage to your own public persona that even in the wake of such confessions you will never be able to lead in a way that is functional and civilly effective. The best and most credible course that you could take would be to resign, as that would be a fitting acknowledgement of the degree to which you have debased the public discourse.
         I do not expect that such action will be forthcoming. I hope, in any case, that you will think about what I have written here, and try to keep these words in mind as you continue to helm our political life.


                                                              Andrew Meyer

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Get Ready for the Kavanaugh Myth

The Republicans are very good at myth-making. Brett Kavanaugh deployed one of their favorite myths during his own remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee- that of "Borking" (the claim that Democrats were unfair and unprecedentedly "political" in their treatment of Judge Robert Bork when he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan). From today forward we will have a new myth, of the "Political Hit on Kavanaugh." Because a few asinine liberal politicians and pundits leapt to conclusions about Kavanaugh and made intemperate remarks, for the rest of our natural lives (and beyond, if there is an afterlife) we are going to have to listen to self-righteous drivel about the "heinous tactics" of the Democrats. 

The fact is that the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh were as credible as those leveled against Al Franken, if not more so. In Franken's case the existence of a photograph corroborating Leeann Tweeden's accusations made the political ethics of his situation very clear: no amount of scrutiny could ever have restored Franken's credibility in a critical mass of the electorate, given the testimony of that image. But even accounting for the compelling force of circumstance, the behavior of the Democrats in Franken's situation (the call of Democratic leaders like Kirsten Gillibrand for Franken to step down, and Franken's ultimate acquiescence) was a model of probity when juxtaposed to the craven and unscrupulous manipulations of the Republicans during the Kavanaugh hearings. 

A very long list of offenses could be compiled: testimony was only heard from two witnesses, an open-ended FBI background investigation was not immediately ordered,  the process was in general rushed and perfunctory, etc. Perhaps the most damning fact is that, though Christine Blasey Ford did not have a photograph to substantiate her claims, her story did put an eye-witness at the scene (Mark Judge), and he was never asked to give public testimony. The fact that the Republicans are expecting the world to accept the cogency of their findings in light of that fact is mind-boggling. That they seem to be getting away with it from the perspective of a large segment of the electorate is horrific. 

None of this is to suggest that the Democrats behaved like angels during the Kavanaugh hearings. Here I do not refer to silly statements by pundits and lawmakers. For every Democrat that accused Kavanaugh's defenders of being "rape apologists" there was a Republican who described Dr. Ford as "pleasing" or who dismissed the alleged assault she described, even if true, as a youthful indiscretion that does not merit present concern. No party had a monopoly on foolishness during this circus.

But the blame for making the process a circus lies principally with the Republicans, however much they bloviate about a "political hit." The one area in which Democrats were culpable was in the timing of the revelation of Dr. Ford's allegations. Senator Diane Feinstein should have provided Ford's letter to the FBI as soon as it came into her possession, so that her testimony could inform the background check that preceded formal review hearings. While it is plausible that Feinstein did not do so out of a desire to respect Dr. Ford's request for anonymity, Republicans may be forgiven for suspecting that Democats held the letter back as a delaying tactic. 

Even if this delay was calculated and deliberate, however, it does not amount to a "political hit." All of the same issues would have arisen if Dr. Ford's allegations had become public in July or August. The behavior of the media would most likely have been identical, and the allegations of Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick might well have emerged if Kavanaugh's nomination had gone forward. The one condition that would have been different under those circumstances was that a failure of Kavanaugh's nomination would have left the White House and GOP caucus with enough time to nominate and confirm a different justice before next month's midterm election. Indeed, under those circumstances it would not have been surprising if Kavanaugh had been forced to withdraw to make room for a new candidate even before testimony was heard, given the camera-shy behavior of GOP senators during Ford's testimony.

If Democrats are guilty, therefore, it is only of forcing the GOP's hand. By using the word "only" here I do not mean to deny or minimize the Democrats' transgression. By timing the revelation of Ford's allegations to achieve partisan goals, they eroded their credibility in the fight against sexual harassment and assault, and facilitated debasement of the urgency of the issue itself in our national discourse. They were willing to risk a miscarriage of justice in Ford's case in order to prevent the GOP from seating a justice on the Supreme Court before November 6 (that is the highest goal toward which they could have been aspiring, because even if Kavanaugh's nomination had failed yesterday there would have been ample time to confirm someone else before the end of the lame duck session), a maneuver that does not speak well of their commitment to women's rights and dignity.

But such a maneuver, however unsavory, does not amount to a "political hit." The vitriolic miasma surrounding Kavanaugh's review was produced by the GOP's resolve to confirm someone to the Supreme Court before the midterm election rather than incur the wrath of their base supporters. If they were truly convinced of Kavanaugh's fitness to serve and determined to prove that to the American people, the GOP caucus could have overseen a full and fair process to investigate Ford's allegations and those of Kavanaugh's other accusers long before the end of the lame duck session. What they have given us instead is a kind of "reverse witch hunt," an airing of just enough of the evidence to demonstrate that 1)Dr. Ford's story is credible; and 2)the Senate (at least its Republican members) and President do not care. If the Democrats transgressed by risking a miscarriage of justice, then the Republicans closed the circle by delivering one in spectacular fashion. 

As I wrote in my last post, Brett Kavanaugh's fitness to serve does not hinge on the truth or falsehood of Christine Blasey Ford's allegations. He disqualified himself as a justice by the rankly partisan remarks delivered to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, and in doing so helped lay the foundations for a myth that Republicans will deploy in the bitter partisan struggles ahead. The delaying tactics of the Democrats and the sheer callous indifference of the Republics have prevented a full and fair airing of Judge Kavanaugh's history. But Judge Kavanaugh himself vindicated all of Democrats' worst fears and suspicions when he delivered his angry screed about "revenge for the Clintons" and "millions of dollars" of "left wing" money. Americans will be obliged to accept Kavanaugh's presence on the Supreme Court if and when he is confirmed to that body today. They do not, however, have to accept the myth that Kavanaugh was the object of a "political hit," and Democrats should fight to prevent such a fable from getting traction.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh Fails the Ben Sasse Test (and so Does Ben Sasse)

In his opening remarks at the beginning of the review process for Brett Kavanaugh's nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Ben Sasse (R Nebraska) gave a lengthy speech about the nature of the Senate's role in judicial appointments, and the ways in which the system had been corrupted. He lamented that though the Congress "is supposed to be the center of our politics," because it had ceded much of its authority to the Executive (short-circuiting the potential for real political debate), "the Supreme Court is increasingly a substitute political battleground." According to Sasse, this state of affairs "is not healthy, but it is what happens and it’s something our founders wouldn’t be able to make any sense of."
       Sasse's proposed solution to this problem was the restoration of integrity to the judicial nominating process:

    So, the question before us today is not what did Brett Kavanaugh think 11 years ago on some policy matter, the question before us is whether or not he has the temperament and the character to take his policy views and his political preferences and put them in a box marked irrelevant and set it aside every morning when he puts on the black robe.
    The question is, does he have the character and temperament to do that. If you don’t think he does, vote no. But, if you think he does, stop the charades. Because at the end of the day I think all of us know that Brett Kavanaugh understands his job isn’t to re-write laws as he wishes they were. He understands that he’s not being interviewed to be a super legislator. H e understands that his job isn’t to seek popularity. His job is to be fair and dispassionate.

         Sasse's remarks went viral in social media. They have been widely admired in conservative circles for their erudition, logical clarity, and rhetorical power. Few could deny that his analysis of the politicization of the Court is sound, and his proposed remedies are at least plausible. Unfortunately for Brett Kavanaugh, if we take Senator Sasse's standards as a guide, the Judge's performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee during testimony on Thursday (September 27) disqualified him from service on the Supreme Court. 
         To be clear, in making this assertion, I am not weighing in on the guilt or innocence of Judge Kavanaugh with respect to the allegations made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Though I find her a much more credible witness than him (given his obvious falsehoods in Senate testimony), the facts of the allegations remain disputable. But in the course of his testimony on Thursday, Judge Kavanaugh behaved and expressed himself in a way that precludes effective service as a Supreme Court Justice, declaring:

This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.

         No judicial nominee in the history of the Supreme Court has ever made remarks that were so blatantly partisan. The bitter perspective expressed here was the antithesis of "dispassionate," the ill logic that underpins these remarks is the opposite of "fair." Brett Kavanaugh has ruined his potential to serve those ends by defining his public persona in such overtly partisan form. If Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, he will join it as someone who has openly declared that he has an acrimonious grievance against one political party and is beholden to its opponents for their support. 
         One might object that, if Kavanaugh is in fact innocent of the allegations brought against him, his angry grievance is organic and flows spontaneously from the assault on his person and his family. To ask him to ignore the attack on his character, so this line of reasoning goes, would be to insist that he maintain a ridiculous fiction. Why should he be expected to pretend that a political hit is not a political hit? There are two problems with this argument.
        The first stems from the fact of what is at stake in Kavanaugh's confirmation. He is on the brink of being confirmed to a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful positions in our government, asking him to retain a demeanor of partisan neutrality, even in the midst and as the target of a very acrimonious political fight, is not too much to ask.  The nation is divided on a host of issues, including that of Kavanaugh's fitness to serve. Demonizing those who oppose his nomination (however much just cause he might have to privately resent the actions and suspect the motives of some, and however vitriolic some might have been in their attacks on him) undermines his credibility as a neutral arbiter with respect to all of the other questions over which Americans are at odds.  
       But even if one reject the idea that partisanship itself disqualifies Kavanaugh, the  blatantly biased nature of his remarks fatally undermines his credibility as an honest "referee." In this regard, the revealing flaw in Kavanaugh's indictment of his opponents and of Ben Sasse's critique of the judicial review process more generally are one and the same. In listing the motives for the Democrats to indulge in a "political hit," Judge Kavenaugh omitted the most proximal and obvious: the Republican Senate's refusal to grant a hearing to Judge Merrick Garland after he was nominated by President Obama in 2016. That, in combination with the Senate's elimination of the judicial filibuster in 2017, stripped the Democratic caucus of virtually all leverage in the process of judicial selection, thus super-heating the climate of partisan rancor surrounding Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. 
        If we grant that Kavanaugh should be allowed to acknowledge the partisan atmosphere in which he is operating, then it must also be right to insist that he be "fair and dispassionate" in assessing its causes. Assigning sole blame to the Democrats in this regard is ridiculous. Why would Kavanaugh fail to acknowledge that Republicans share at least some responsibility for the acrimonious nature of his confirmation hearings, except out of concern for his own reputation and ambition or out of deference to the sensitivities of his Republican patrons in the Senate and White House? Either way, his partiality in this regard fatally undermines any notion of his capacity for fairness in the eyes of at least half the electorate.
         In the final analysis, both Senator Sasse and Judge Kavanaugh were being deeply disingenuous (and/or hypocritical), the former in laying down his test for a judicial nominee and the latter in making the remarks by which he failed that test. If, as Ben Sasse claims, the Senate is solely tasked with asking whether a candidate can be "fair and dispassionate" in judging the law, how could Sasse justify the GOP's treatment of Merrick Garland? Can anyone doubt that Garland, a jurist who had risen to the highest levels of the federal judiciary in 20 years of service (earning the praise of numerous GOP lawmakers along the way), demonstrated enough capacity for "fair and dispassionate" jurisprudence to at least merit a hearing before the Senate? 
         The GOP broke all precedent and refused to give Merrick Garland a hearing for the same reason that some Democratic senators leveled vitriol at Brett Kavanaugh: out of a partisan impulse to influence the balance of the Court. For either Ben Sasse or Brett Kavanaugh to pretend that the Democrats are villains while the GOP are a study in virtue in that regard is ridiculous.  Acrimonious judicial nominations did not begin with Robert Bork. Richard Nixon had two SCOTUS nominations fail for many of the same reasons that undermined the nomination of Judge Bork, and the ugliness of Democratic rhetoric deployed by senators like Ted Kennedy in the Bork case had ample precedent in the antics of Republicans like Strom Thurmond with respect to more liberal justices. Political considerations have always inflected Senate deliberations surrounding judicial nominees, that fact did not start being true during the Reagan era. 
        While politics has always played into the process of judicial selection, any dispassionate observer can see that the politics surrounding court appointments have become progressively more partisan and acrimonious in recent decades. This has happened for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is the polarization surrounding the abortion issue and Roe v. Wade. No one, however, can reasonably argue that a single party is to blame for this incremental slide, either with regard to the process as a whole or in any individual case that has contributed to it. 
          Moreover, the system itself accounts for the political nature of the judicial appointments process in the constitutional safeguards surrounding it, which are themselves political.  Ben Sasse himself alluded to this fact when he noted that Congress, in the exercise of its duty, ideally "stands before the people and suffers the consequences and gets to back to our own Mount Vernon, if that’s what the electors decide." The constitution gives the Senate powers of "advice and consent" precisely because its members will be subject to the sanction of the voters in the wake of reviewing judicial appointments. Even if we grant Sasse's assertion that the Senate is solely charged with asking whether a duly nominated judge has the capacity to be "fair and impartial," it is ridiculous to assert that refusing to ask the question at all gives voters the same opportunity to review their representative's performance as the occasion of a Senate hearing. The GOP caucus did not refuse to grant Merrick Garland a hearing because he was clearly unqualified, but because a hearing would have shown him to be qualified, and the political cost of failing to confirm him in the wake of a hearing would have been too high. 
           Ben Sasse and Brett Kavanaugh have accused many Democrats of deploying unseemly and deceptive rhetoric in the review of the present Supreme Court nomination, and they are no doubt right. However credible Dr. Ford's allegations are, some of the most extreme claims made by Democrats regarding Judge Kavanaugh violate reason (though whether or not any of them amount to an orchestrated "political hit" is dubious). But the mendacity of the Democrats is at least done openly, is accountable for individually, and is thus fully subject to the sanction of the voters. It is thus no more cynical, blameworthy, or corrosive of the integrity of the nominating process than the craven collective silence of the GOP in the face of Merrick Garland's nomination. For Ben Sasse to suggest otherwise is damaging to his public credibility. For Brett Kavanaugh to do so is fatal to his fitness for service on the Supreme Court, as it undermines any notion that he could "take his policy views and his political preferences and put them in a box marked irrelevant and set it aside every morning when he puts on the black robe."

Friday, July 27, 2018

Before Helsinki, There Was Treason in Singapore

In the new issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica T. Matthews (formerly of the State Department and NSC, now a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) provides a thorough post mortem of Donald Trump's Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. She notes that, contrary to Trump's claims, absolutely nothing of substance was achieved. Indeed, in the aftermath of the event the United States has irrecoverably lost significant leverage in the struggle to disarm North Korea. These are broad points of consensus among informed observers. The question they raise that remains unresolved is Trump's degree of culpability in this error. On this score, Matthews offers two possibilities:

[E]ither President Trump...genuinely believes he accomplished something in Singapore...[or] the president knows that he got nothing. In that case, when he bragged on his way home that 'this should have been done years ago' and later tweeted 'There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,' he was simply being fraudulent in the way that works so well for him at home...Which is more dangerous- someone...who doesn't try, or someone who doesn't care about the actual outcome as long as he can sell a short-lived story of personal success and move on?

Both of the scenarios that Matthews lays out are very damning, but a close look at evidence would suggest that the truth is a great deal worse than she allows. Donald Trump is very conscious of his reality TV image, he consistently projects the persona that viewers feel they know from The Apprentice. This makes Trump's intellect and cognition seem so limited as to make "didn't try" or "doesn't care" plausible as the absolute range of possibilities in assessing his performance at the Singapore summit. However, though Trump is obviously quite ignorant and too lazy to give much thought to complex problems, he is just as obviously not nearly as daft as the character he plays on TV. He was almost certainly confidently in control of everything that happened in Singapore from beginning to end, and thus went into the summit knowing that he would be trading away American leverage in exchange for nothing, and determined to lie about it in the aftermath.

How can we infer this? The first indication is his surprise announcement of the cancellation of joint US-South Korean military exercises after his "conference" with Kim Jong-un. Trump is obviously not the expert negotiator that he claims to be, but neither is he in the habit of giving anything to anyone for free. The cancellation smacks of a quid pro quo, and since Trump made the announcement without openly consulting any of his military or foreign policy personnel, the quid pro quo in question must likewise have been made outside of the public eye. What did Trump get in exchange for this concession?

The answer is in his subsequent tweets. Trump has persistently bragged about the fact that there have been no more tests of nuclear devices or missiles since the scheduling of the Singapore summit. Just as Trump is not in the habit of giving away anything for free, he is also generally smart enough to refrain from making boasts that can or will be dramatically undermined. He obviously went into Singapore knowing that a deal had been brokered (most probably by Michael Pompeo, behind closed doors in Pyongyang): Kim Jong-un's regime agreed to refrain from nuclear and missile tests while Trump is in office (and perhaps agreed to other concessions unrelated to disarmament, like the return of the remains US servicemen) in exchange for the staging of a summit and the cancellation of military exercises. That is the entirety and the essential substance of the "Singapore" entente, there was never any good faith effort toward negotiating disarmament.

When Trump told everyone to sleep well at night because the nuclear threat from North Korea had been allayed, he was not doing so out of ignorance of history or indifference, but as part of a deliberate and calculated confidence game that had been his strategic aim from the very start. Trump knew exactly what had been negotiated before and during the Singapore summit, thus he had a clear sense of what he could sell to his own supporters for maximum political advantage. He knew that he could tell people the problem had been solved because he had assurances that Pyongyang would comply in maintaining appearances to corroborate that claim. He likewise knew that the problem was in fact not solved, and that in making his boasts he was foreclosing the possibility that he or any future US president could use diplomatic means to do so. Why should China or Russia ever again sacrifice profits to join a sanction regime against a threat that the President of the United States has declared neutralized?

It is thus clear what Donald J. Trump did in Singapore. He irredeemably traded away vital strategic capital of the United States government and military in exchange for an entirely phony and fraudulent (but desperately needed, in the face of the mounting allegations of the Mueller investigation) political victory. There is a word for that species of act: treason. I am not a lawyer, so I do not know whether the president's actions would meet the legal definition of treason in a court of law. But in every meaningful sense: moral, ethical, and institutional, Donald Trump betrayed the United States in Singapore and forswore the duties of his office in pursuit of personal gain. Given that the betrayal in Singapore was then compounded by an equally egregious act in Helsinki (where the president gave aid and comfort to a foreign adversary while undermining his own intelligence services and law enforcement agencies), there is no longer any real question but that the president can and should be impeached.

The Mueller investigation may indeed provide more evidence of the president's malfeasance, but if so that will only corroborate what millions of people have already witnessed with their own eyes. Donald Trump is a serial traitor to the United States, and should not serve as its president. By failing to even minimally acknowledge that fact the Congress is negligent in its duties as laid out in the Constitution.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An Open Letter of Apology to the People of the World

Dear Fellow Citizens of the World,

      I write to apologize for the accession of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States. I would not presume to apologize for all Americans, though I do believe that all Americans, to one degree or another, owe you an apology. But I am only a single private citizen, thus I extend my personal regrets for the responsibility I bear in this ongoing tragedy.
      Donald J. Trump is in all ways- intellectually, temperamentally, cognitively, and morally- unfit to serve in the office he holds. This is not only proven by his many transgressions against proper order, good taste, basic decency, and the greater good (for example: his travel ban, family separation policy, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and the disarmament treaty with Iran, to name only a very few), but was clearly evident from the very beginning of his campaign. We the American people knowingly elected a pathologically narcissistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic ignoramus to the highest office in our Republic. It is certainly among the greatest miscarriages of civic responsibility in the annals of democracy. 
      My personal culpability is admittedly limited- I did not vote for Donald Trump. But if I ask myself honestly whether or not I did everything I could to prevent his election, the answer must be "no". Given the enormity of the consequences involved, anyone who did not exhaust muscle and marrow in the effort to prevent the Trump presidency must acknowledge some failure of civic duty.
      To be clear, I do not write out of guilt. Laboring you with such petty concerns would add insult to injury. I extend this apology because I understand something that many of my compatriots seemingly do not: in committing this grievous error we have squandered your trust. In the wake of WWII, the United States helped build a set of institutions that, with admittedly varied success, fostered order, stability, and peace on a global scale. Through negligence or malice, Donald Trump is now dismantling those institutions and undermining that international order.
       Many Americans believe that this is simply a temporary phase. They fail to realize, however, that participation in the global system that the US helped build (which was not limited to allies of the US, but extended to neutral nations and even enemies) was predicated, in part, on a faith in the commitment of the US to respect certain norms of diplomacy and international politics. Now that we, the voters of the US, have elevated a man who told us that he would not respect those norms, the international faith that once animated broad participation in the post-WWII global order may be irrecoverable. How can you trust us, moving forward, never to elect a reprobate like Donald Trump again?
        This is a question of more than academic interest. Even someone as feckless as Donald Trump takes the durability of the post-WWII order for granted. It is why he is comfortable fawning over Vladimir Putin or threatening to rain "fire and fury" on Kim Jong-un. Where is the danger in such rhetoric? We live in a world in which great-power conflicts no longer happen, right?
       Except that as Trump and his supporters (and many other Americans) fail to grasp, since the US has now squandered the trust upon which the post-WWII order was, in part, based, the order itself cannot be taken for granted. Unless the US can reclaim some part of the world's trust, we are in danger of slipping back into a world prone to grand geostrategic conflicts. This is a horrifying prospect, because of course, in a nuclear-armed world, the next geostrategic conflict will be the closing act of human history.
        So it is not as a salve to our consciences that Americans should apologize, but to broadcast our recognition of the scope of our error and the depth of what is at stake. Unless the US can regain the trust of the world, the international order that has helped maintain the peace may be irrecoverable, and if that proves to be true, we all may suffer collectively. So once again I say, I am sorry. I understand how disastrous the election of Trump was for everyone on earth, and I am determined to do everything in my power to see that it never happens again. I hope that most of my fellow Americans will join me in that resolve.


                                       Andrew Meyer

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Warning to My Fellow Jews

The images of families being separated at the border in recent weeks were horrifying at a very basic human level, so much so that it was initially difficult to think critically about the ideological principles underlying such an egregiously sadistic policy. Part of the motivation seems to have resided in a rather facile political ploy: by blaming the crisis on the ostensible legislative inaction of the Democrats, the Trump administration hoped to force the opposition party to allow passage of funding for a border wall and other signature legislative initiatives that would fulfill promises of the 2016 campaign.

But above and beyond these short term goals, the family separation campaign amplified the explicit racist message that has been at the heart of the Trumpist movement since the president famously rode down the escalator of his eponymous tower and warned of Mexican "rapists." By pushing its supporters into defending the removal of children from their parents in retribution for a misdemeanor crime, the administration effectively assigned the migrants at the border a lower moral status. This is the modus operandi of racism. The family-separation campaign thus both appealed directly to the already overtly racist elements of the Trumpist coalition and served to more deeply implicate more mainstream Trump supporters in the logic and morality of racist policy.

Jews should take note of these developments and be concerned. Modern antisemitism is a form of racism. Indeed, racism as an ideology is so inextricably intertwined with antisemitism that the realization of any policy program on racist principles will, given world enough and time, redound to the detriment of Jews. Evidence of this can be seen in the rhetoric of Trump's apologists, who consistently describe the children of migrants as "bargaining chips" or even "weapons." This is effectively identical to the rhetoric of modern antisemites, who consistently paint Jewish reproduction ("interbreeding") as part of a program of "world domination." The effect in either case is the same: to strip even childhood or family life of any semblance of innocence, and to open the community thus charged to the application of otherwise unimaginable cruelty.

Many American Jews are confused on this score, because so many of the figures around the president, even key advisors instrumental in the implementation of the family-separation plan, are Jewish. But these latter figures are playing with forces that they either do not entirely understand or are foolishly confident that they can control. The more central racism becomes to the policy agenda of the Trump administration (as opposed to its messaging, where racism is already more central than in the case of any White House since the 19th century), the more traction antisemites will gain in actual positions of power and influence. We can already see this trend at work, in the capture of the GOP nomination by several white nationalists and antisemites for the upcoming Congressional election.

Racism is key to the Trump administration's cultivation of political capital, and that tendency will accelerate if and as the continued pursuit of racist policy garners success at the polls. The midterm election will be a watershed. If the president emerges from that contest with his party still in control of both houses of Congress, it is likely that he will double down on the racist elements of his agenda. Further draconian measures against Latin@ migrants would probably be key to such a strategy,  but the clear warning sign would be the expansion of aggression against groups that as yet have only been verbally antagonized, such as American Muslims.

If that should happen, Jews should take note. The history of the last two-hundred years shows that that sort of political trajectory ends in only one place. It might not happen while Trump himself is in office, given the nature of his family and inner circle. But he is not a young man, and will not be in office forever, no matter what should occur. If the racist elements of the Trumpist coalition succeed in effecting state capture to a greater degree than they already have (and their power is already distressingly substantial), the United States will not remain safe for Jews very long. Such a development would likely spell the doom of Jews everywhere, as Israel would not be able to provide an effective shield against global antisemitism outside of its alliance with the US.

This is obviously a very dire picture, and many reading it will no doubt object that it is unprecedented and unlikely. Such observations, of course, were routinely made about the prospects of a Trump presidency itself not so long ago. We live in strange and unsettled times. We should think carefully about our history as we navigate the turbulent political waters of the present day.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Misunderestimating North Korea

As Donald Trump lands in Singapore for his historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, there is reason for concerned citizens around the world to be pleased. What a few months ago looked like imminent war has (for the moment) been averted, and the Trump administration deserves credit for charting a new, bold course in US-North Korea relations. Though there are obvious risks in the kind of unprecedented high-level direct diplomacy that Trump has undertaken (quite precipitously and with little preparation), those risks arguably pale by comparison to the disappointments and injuries of the last seven decades of bi-national deep freeze.

All that being said, little real progress can be expected to come from the current summit. This is foreordained by the terms in which Trump has cast his understanding of North Korea and the kinds of joint policy that might potentially be pursued with Pyongyang. Trump views this relationship in the same kinds of transactional terms in which his life as a rentier has taught him to assess all associations. He thus is confident that he travels to Singapore with a very strong hand to play. He has repeatedly declared the ease with which a "deal" can be arrived at with Kim Jong-un, because in return for whatever concessions Kim is asked to make, Trump can guarantee that "his country would be very rich."

Trump's confidence is easy to understand when one looks at raw economic numbers. The GDP of North Korea (according to the CIA World Factbook) is $28 billion US (at the official exchange rate). The US could thus double the size of the North Korean economy for about half of what it expects to spend on the war in Afghanistan during 2018 alone. If the North Korean leadership are one-tenth as motivated to bring economic prosperity to their country as Donald Trump thinks they are, coming to a mutually advantageous deal should be a piece of cake.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump is absolutely wrong. North Korea did not become one of the poorest countries on earth accidentally. It became so through the establishment of a complex of repressive institutions that, though economically crippling, serve to keep a narrow and ideologically malignant oligarchy in power. The best literary analogue for the North Korean regime is a story by Stanislaw Lem, the "Eleventh Voyage" of the Star Diaries. In that tale Lem's intergalactic Sinbad, Ijon Tichy, is sent undercover to a planet of sadistic robots, in which it is the custom to constantly torment small animals and subsist on a diet of hot motor oil, ruled over by a tyrannical government that keeps its citizens constantly vigilant for infiltration by soft-hearted "mucilids" (human beings). Tichy endures this life for a while before finally discovering that all of the other inhabitants of the planet are likewise human beings costumed as robots, who have become outwardly avid animal-torturers and oil-drinkers through social pressure.

The Pyongyang regime is a similarly draconian house of cards, made more volatile by the near proximity of South Korea. Trump constantly compares the two regions of the Korean Peninsula, offering the prosperity of the South as a tantalizing incentive to the North. But this overlooks a key weakness of the Pyongyang regime. Trump (like many Americans) assumes that the political division of the Peninsula is an indissoluble fact, but both North and South agree that Korea should not naturally be two countries, but one. Much of the ideologically perverse nature of the Pyongyang system thus flows from the proximity of one Korea to the other. On the one hand, the Northern regime must keep itself systemically distinct from that of Seoul in order to justify its own existence: why would the Peninsula need two governments unless one of them was fundamentally wrong? On the other hand, the North must keep a total lockdown regarding information about the outside world, otherwise word of the great success of the South would lead to political instability in the regions controlled by Pyongyang.

The proof that this dynamic is at work may be found just over the Yalu river, in China. In 1980, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party began a series of free-market reforms that have famously engendered a virtuous cycle of explosive economic growth. In 1980, the per capita GDP of China was a staggeringly low $195 US. By contrast, the per capita GDP of North Korea was $639 US. After almost four decades of reform, the per capita GDP of China is now $6152 US, while that of North Korea is lower than it was in 1980, at $583 US. Some of that degradation is the result of politically imposed sanctions, but nothing changes the fact that the current economic situation of North Korea embodies a deliberate choice: at any time in the last 38 years Pyongyang could have climbed aboard the reform train set rolling by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. North Korea's patrons in Beijing would have been happy to welcome Pyongyang into its circle of reform and shared prosperity. Vietnam has followed the Chinese model and has seen substantial economic gains.

Why did Pyongyang avoid the course charted by China and Vietnam? The answer lies in the example of East Germany. Participation in the Soviet-led programs of perestroika and glasnost steadily eroded the foundations of the repressive East German regime (the nearest analogue to that of North Korea to be found, historically, geographically, or structurally), until it finally collapsed and the East was absorbed into the West.  Kim Jong-un and his fellow oligarchs fear that economic liberalization will induce the same process on the Korean Peninsula as occurred in Germany, and that if and when such an outcome arrives the leaders of the North will be held to account for their crimes against humanity.

This is the inherent situation as Trump arrives in Singapore. He comes to this summit with much less to offer than he imagines. Pyongyang itself has put out messages to encourage Trump's misconceptions, most famously a video of Kim Jong-un ostensibly weeping over the poverty of his people. Some of these sentiments may be sincere. Pyongyang would no doubt like access to more resources, and might even like to ease some of the direst economic distress of its people. Malnourished men and women make poor soldiers and workers. But no one should be under any illusions about the temptations of economic prosperity to North Korea's elite. Kim Jong-un and his ilk will live like kings no matter how bitterly his people suffer. Meanwhile, they understand that any scenario that begins with KFC's opening up on every street corner in Pyongyang will end with Kim and his cohort suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi or Nicolae Ceaușescu. 

The North Koreans have given Trump many reasons to feel that he is playing a very strong hand. This is always a good negotiating tactic- making one's counterparts overconfident is a means to ensure that they will be disoriented and pliable once they are forced to adjust their expectations. If Donald Trump wants to pry significant concessions from the North he had better bring more "art of the deal" than he has heretofore displayed as POTUS, because he has very little to offer that Pyongyang will find tempting. By opening up a new diplomatic channel Trump has, barring some major mistake or misfortune, contributed to progress in the politics of the Korean Peninsula. But he is not likely to achieve more than that basic foundation, given his misunderstanding of the dynamics at play.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Death and Terror in Gaza

The killing of 60 people in Gaza on Monday should be met with horror and outrage by anyone concerned about the fate of Israel. The Likud government rationalizes such violence by the need to "protect Israel's borders," but such rhetoric is ghastly in its absurdity. Any brief application of logic to the situation reveals that claims to "self defense" on the part of Israeli leaders must be disingenuous.

There is no doubt that Hamas staged deliberately provocative demonstrations, mobilizing innocent people to transgress the fence running along the "Green Line" between Palestinian Gaza and Israel. But Israel and the US courted controversy over the location of the "border" when they opened a new embassy in Jerusalem, a city that the Israeli government itself acknowledges does not fall entirely within its sovereign territory. Indeed, the new US embassy itself straddles the "Green Line," the integrity of which was supposedly at issue in Gaza.

The Israeli government (along with its US allies) knew that it was launching a new provocation in the decades-long struggle over territorial sovereignty in Israel-Palestine. By moving to efface the boundary between East and West Jerusalem, Likud deliberately incited a response from the Palestinian side. The "fence rush" in Gaza was an obvious and predictable reaction to the opening of a US embassy in Jerusalem. It is ludicrous to suggest that the Israelis did not anticipate such a contingency or prepare for its occurrence.

The slaughter of sixty people that transpired on Monday, therefore, must have been planned and strategic. It was meant to broadcast a message to Palestinians and the world: the current Israeli government respects no authority concerning the boundaries of Israel but its own unilateral fiat, and will accept no legal, moral or ethical constraints on its exercise of that prerogative. In other words, the killing of sixty people by the IDF was an act of state terror.

The malicious folly of such a policy cannot be overstated. Rhetoric about "protecting Israel's borders" will win assent from those who are ill-informed about the history and parameters of the Israel-Palestine question. But this act in Gaza will fatally undermine Israel's position among informed observers of the conflict, even those most sympathetic to Israel and its founding mission. As an example, a non-Jewish colleague, one who has visited Israel on more than one occasion at the invitation of the Israeli government and is very sympathetic to the cause of Israel in particular and the Jewish people more generally, referred me in the wake of the Gaza killings to Bernard Avishai's essay in the New York Review of Books calling for a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian Confederation to replace a moribund "two-state solution." This is where Likud is leading Israel: a point at which all of the political capital necessary to maintain support for the Zionist project among even its strongest advocates and allies has been squandered.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have sown the wind, and many are poised to reap the whirlwind on their behalf. As Bernard Avishai suggested, it was difficult if not impossible to see how a two-state solution could be redeemed in the wake of the move of the US embassy. After the killings in Gaza the questions surrounding Israel have become even more dire. If the Likud government continues to pursue such an irredeemably sanguinary strategy, not merely the security of a two-state solution, but that of the Jewish community itself, in Israel and the world at large, must eventually be compromised.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pity the Novelists

Listening to President Trump announce the joint air strikes against Syria last night, I could not help wondering about what his effect will be on the literature of the United States in years ahead. His characteristically mixed message- that the strike was in the furtherance of a vital national security interest, but that the Middle East is a "tragic place" which the U.S. should leave well alone- was a study in incoherence to rival his announcement that America might rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a trade alliance he had previously characterized as "raping" the US). What kind of character is Donald Trump? How will auteurs of future generations recast him in fiction?

Do not search for him in the literature of the past. A story built around him (or someone like him) would be too pointless to tell. Picture this: our hero enjoys sex, status, and celebrity but cares and knows about nothing else. He is deeply insecure and craves attention, thus though he has many half-formed opinions and enjoys braying them at the top of his lungs, they change regularly in response to what he perceives will garner the approval of those around him. Living this way has had few consequences, thanks to his possession of vast inherited wealth.

It is a story too shallow to be tragic and too pathetic to be comic, lacking either sound or fury and signifying less than nothing. Any novelist trying to justly capture Trump in prose would be forced to eschew all of the effective potencies of narrative. Such a story would have to lack plot, meaning, or theme; otherwise it would not merely be a fiction, but a dangerously aggrandizing distortion. A work of Pynchonesque incoherence would not be nearly nihilistic enough to capture the complete venality of Trump the man or his Presidency.

It is a challenge for any aspiring literati, and not one likely to win warm appreciation in its achievement. The author that writes the perfect Trumpian novel, a book that distills the current cultural moment for us in deathless prose, will produce a text that rambles and stalls, lurches and drags, stopping at a seemingly random point at which nothing has been resolved because nothing has really happened. The perfect response evoked by such a novel would be a vague sense of shame that one had thought to crack its cover in the first place. If only that feeling had been more common in the non-fictional world, our future novelists would be spared this pitiless task.

Friday, April 06, 2018

This is About Race (Whatever Else It Is About)

News broke this week that Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, has audaciously exploited his post as an opportunity for graft on a colossal scale. He has handed out $30,000 raises to proteges using obscure provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act,  accepted lodging for $50/night in the luxury condo of a lobbyist, and led a first-class junket to Morocco accompanied by a large retinue (one of whom was a salaried employee who has evidently not shown up to work for the several months that she has been on payroll) for the purpose of promoting the sale of liquid natural gas (a mission that does not fall within the brief of the EPA, but which profits one of the top clients of the lobbyist in whose condo Pruitt has been residing).  This is only a partial list of the boondoggles in which Pruitt has indulged, and Pruitt himself is only the top of a very long list of Trump appointees and officials (Carl Icahn, Tom Price, Steve Mnuchin, David Shulkin, etc. etc.) caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Given what is already a matter of public record, once the full word is out on the Trump administration, it seems on a pace to go down in history as one of the most corrupt regimes in American history.

In light of the sheer scale of corruption on display in the Trump cabinet, it is a wonder that the President's approval ratings remain persistently afloat above thirty-five percent. Some of this is explicable as ignorance. Another part of it is surely the product of Oz-like misdirection: the public is too distracted by "scandals" surrounding the President's tweets to pay much attention to the graft behind the curtain. But such factors cannot fully account for the deafening roar of blithe indifference resounding from the President's supporters regarding the swampy misdemeanors of his retinue.

Why, then, do so many of Trump's followers continue to admire him even though they certainly know that he and his cohort are crooked? The answer lies in the reasons that they voted for him in the first place. One must always remember that the steep ascent of Donald J. Trump began when, after coming down the escalator at Trump Tower, he uttered the words (speaking of Mexican migrants): "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." Many factors have contributed to the phenomenon of Trumpism (globalization, automation, terrorism, etc. etc.), but this moment in our politics has always, first and foremost, been about race. 

The election of Barack Obama initiated a panic in a significant portion of the electorate. For decades we had been aware of the changing demographics of the nation: at some inflection point in the not-too-distant future, "whites" will be a "minority" (more accurately a plurality, to the extent that "whites" as a category is at all meaningful, which it generally is not). Obama's election convinced many voters that the electoral impact of that future inflection point had hit sooner than expected.

As depressing as it is to contemplate, this "realization" induced a very tribal calculus in the political mindset of a large part of the electorate. As long as the traditional demographic status quo had prevailed, confidence in the government and care for the scrupulousness of its operations were fueled by a deep-seated intuition that, in a democracy, the federal government was (by and large) the proprietary concern of the "white" majority. But Barack Obama's election signaled the imminent dawning of a new era, one in which all of the coercive and remunerative powers of the government would "belong" to people of color. This apprehension underpinned the appeal of Donald Trump's call to "Make America Great Again," and explains the buoyancy of his approval numbers in the face of massive corruption and graft.

Trump's supporters do not really care about the corruption in his cabinet because, on some very visceral level, they feel that it is natural for white guys to clean out the store before the "others" move in and take over. My stating this is not meant to endorse rhetoric labeling Trump's supporters "deplorable," nor do I believe that anyone who continues to support the administration is overtly and consciously racist. But at least on a subconscious level, something like the perspective I have described above informs the outlook of many millions who continue to give Trump their support, even though (I suspect) many millions of people who feel this way are not aware that it is so and would vehemently deny such sentiments if confronted with them.

My aim in articulating these observations is not to self-righteously condemn or to stoke indignation. Racial panic is deeply woven into the fabric of our shared history and culture, no one can be totally blamed for having come under its influence to a degree. But we should be clear about what is at stake. Our system, from its founding, has been a very versatile admixture of pragmatism and principle. On the one hand, powerful imperatives were progressively built into the framework of our basic law (for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's injunction to afford all citizens "the equal protection of the laws") that have fostered expanding vistas of civil liberty for all. On the other hand, there have always been maneuvers (for example, the provision in Article 1 that each slave would count as "three-fifths" of a person) to divide people by race, class, and gender, and in so doing to secure the dominance of entrenched elites. The system has been preserved because, over time and in moments of crisis (such as the Civil War), leaders have generally chosen to continue to expand the libertarian compact to include formerly dispossessed or disenfranchised groups rather than scuttle the system in favor of preserving the prerogatives of elites. 

We are at another such moment of decision. If we persist in treating the federal government as a proprietary racket that serves the interests of a single "tribe", we will debase the Constitution until it is worth less than the paper on which it is printed. If, on the other hand, we can elect new leaders who will utilize the power of the federal government to ameliorate our current crises (ecological degradation, infrastructural decay, economic disenfranchisement of large populations) on behalf of all people regardless of race, class, creed or gender, we can usher in a new era of confidence in our evolving system, and make our Constitution serve future generations as well as (or better than)  it did generations past and present. 

The choice is a very stark one, and the consequences will be rapid and irreversible. The horizon for an effective change of course is very short. At the very latest, the election of 2020 will be our last chance to pull out of the current nose dive. But if the Republicans retain control of Congress after the midterm election this fall, the opportunity to preserve the system may be lost.

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Daniels and Donald Trumpster

At the close of the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, the Devil (identified throughout only as a "stranger" who calls himself Scratch), having been defeated by the great legislator and orator, offers to read Daniel Webster's fortune. It is, of course, one last attempt to make mischief before departing the field:
     "The future's not as you think it," he said. "It's dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster."
     "I have," said Dan'l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.
     "It seems almost within your grasp," said the stranger, "but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over."
      "And, if I am, I'll still be Daniel Webster," said Dan'l.

 There is much in the current Stormy Daniels Affair (other than the phonic affinity rooted in the name "Daniel") that resonates with Benet's story. The figures in each case are shuffled in relation to one-another in complex ways that make the derivation of perfect analogies intractable. But both tales concern lawyers, and court battles, and the regretted sale of something that an individual hopes to retain or redeem.

There are strong parallels between Benet's Dan'l Webster and our own Donald Trump. Both are ambitious, belligerent, and vain of their public reputation. Both are men of appetites. Both love to hear themselves talk. Both have a folksy touch and can move crowds with their oratory.

The differences are, of course, considerable. Webster takes on his case against the Devil on behalf of a neighbor, the New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone. Trump has entered the legal arena to defend himself, though against what is not yet clear. Trump's most serious legal jeopardy derives from the possibility that the $130,000 paid for Stormy Daniels' silence might be construed as an illegal campaign contribution. But the facts of the case cast doubt on that motive. The payoff to Daniels was made after the Access Hollywood tape had broken, thus it is unlikely that Trump paid off Daniels to aid his chances at the presidency. How could the news that he had slept with a porn star have done more damage to his perceived worthiness for office than his open admissions of sexual assault on a married woman?

No, the threat that Ms. Daniels (or Ms. Clifford) had posed to Trump at that point could not have been to his election, but to his brand. He feared, to borrow Benet's words, that in the wake of the Daniels revelation he would not be "Donald Trump". It would be touching to think that Trump acted out of concern for his marriage, but his history would suggest otherwise. Rather, it is much more likely that Stormy Daniels has something to reveal about Trump (his habits, his physique) that he feels would damage his image. If we ever find out what that is, it will be chiefly interesting for one reason: we will know what Trump cares about more than being president. One more gauge of his one-dimensionality will be made public.

Whatever that is, we can be sure of one thing: it is at the very apex of Trump's list of priorities. In this respect Trump and Daniel Webster part ways. Like Trump, Benet's Dan'il Webster cared about his persona more than he cared about the presidency, but he cared about something else even more:

     "[The] last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you," said the stranger. "They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die."
      "So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say," said Dan'l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. "One question," he said. "I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?"
     "Not while you live," said the stranger, grimly, "but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke."
     "Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!" said Dan'l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, "be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I'd go to the Pit itself to save the Union!"

    Contrast Webster's avowed preference for an "honest speech" that serves the Union against Trump's behavior. The most recent example is Trump's claim that undocumented immigrants are pouring across the southern border to take advantage of DACA, a divisive lie so grotesque that Benet's Devil would blanch at it, much less his Daniel Webster. But this whopper of a lie is only one in a long litany stretching back to the election, the campaign, and decades of public life beforehand. If there is one point that can serve as a pole star in navigating Donald Trump it is this: he cares about nothing more than the preservation and inflation of his own image.

In the final analysis, the Affair Daniels reveals more about us, the American electorate, than it does about Donald Trump or any other of its individual characters. At the climax of Benet's story, Daniel Webster realizes that he himself is the intended victim of the Devil, that Scratch has come for Webster's soul instead of (or along with) that of Jabez Stone. The trial has been rigged, and the demonic jury before which Webster has been arguing is anticipating the moment when Webster will let loose with rage and profanity, thus damning himself:

     He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he'd fall into their power; he knew that, though he couldn't have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he'd have to wipe that out or the case was lost. He stood there for a moment, his black eyes burning like anthracite. And then he began to speak.
      He started off in a low voice, though you could hear every word. They say he could call on the harps of the blessed when he chose. And this was just as simple and easy as a man could talk. But he didn't start out by condemning or reviling. He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man.
       And he began with the simple things that everybody's known and felt—the freshness of a fine morning when you're young, and the taste of food when you're hungry, and the new day that's every day when you're a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn't a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

  In the end Webster's oratory saves the day. The jury, made of villains from America's past, is so moved by Webster's words that they find in favor of the defendant, declaring, "[E]ven the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster."
    The story of Donald Trump's election unfolded along structurally similar lines. The deck was stacked against him. The party machines, the pundits, and the polls all predicted his defeat. But he talked to us. He talked to us about how Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and about how Islam hates us, and about how Mexican migrants are rapists and thieves, and about how women who have abortions should be punished, about how journalists are evil, etc. etc. And in the end we decided that we should salute the eloquence of Donald Trump.
   Whatever traits the characters of Donald Trump and Dan'il Webster might share, in the final analysis the difference is stark. There has been a lot of pearl-clutching and hand-wringing about the Stormy Daniels case, but can anyone really be surprised? Everyone, both those who supported Donald Trump and those who opposed him, knew he was capable of the behavior that Stormy Daniels has brought to light. Even more than that, all of us could see clearly (except perhaps those who were impenetrably daft) that Donald Trump cares about nothing as much as he cares about his own image. Where Benet's venerable American myth (like so many others) celebrates the virtue of an individual who places Union before self, we have rewarded the ambition of a man who told us time and again that he would place self before Union every day of the week and twice on Sunday. What conclusion is there to reach, if we believe Stephen Vincent Benet, except that the voters of the present have less sense than the damned of the past?