Thursday, July 18, 2019

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump, 


          I was horrified to see you encouraging chants of "Send Her Back" at your rally in Greenville, North Carolina. This kind of nativist rhetoric echoes the vilest dogma of the political past. Whatever rationalizations you might offer for these expressions, there can be no doubt that they are intensely encouraging and exciting to the white nationalists and Neo-Nazis that inhabit the lunatic fringe of our politics.

          We have seen how this plays out before. On May 7, 2018 Jeff Sessions gave a speech announcing a "zero tolerance" policy at the border. Following that were family separations, tweets about "infestation" and MS-13, troops at the border...a steady series of escalations and incitements, driving white nationalists into a rising crescendo of manic excitement. On October 27, 2018 Robert Bowers walked into Tree of Life synagogue and killed 11 people, citing Jews' support for Latin@ migrants as his motive.

           When you came to console the congregants at Tree of Life you pleaded innocent of any intent to stoke hatred and violence. I cannot open a window into your heart, and thus I would concede that you must be given the benefit of the doubt on that score. But with your recent racist campaign of provocations and agitation, you are stirring the same passions and leading us down the path to the same end. You cannot claim ignorance of the consequences of your actions a second time.

           If you lead us to the point that tragedy strikes again, there can be no doubt that you share in the guilt. You may travel to the point where the needle you have set spinning comes to rest and play the mourner, but nothing will be able to dispel the stench of rank hypocrisy. No one can be consoled by that kind of "sympathy". As an American and a Jew I plead with you, stop! For the sake of your daughter, her husband, and their children, stop!

           This is a moral imperative that transcends politics. You are not simply stirring the tensions between "right" and "left," you are slashing at the very communal fabric that makes us human beings. If you do not desist, there will be mortal consequences, and you will not be able to reject any responsibility.


                                         Sincerely,


                                          Andrew Meyer

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

America Must Grow Up (Or Else...)

Donald Trump's greatest legacy may be having generated need for more words in the English lexicon than any other president. His recent comments (online and in real time) to the effect that Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib "should go back to the places that they come from" begs the use of epithets that do not quite yet exist. Trump's presidency had long ago become a "disgrace", but that word does not quite capture the toxicity and moral malignancy he embodies right now.

It is not just the president himself who has produced this profane miasma, but the cowardice, ignorance, or complicity of his supporters. The fact that anyone seriously entertains a debate about whether Trump's comments are racist is phantasmagorical. We have shown ourselves to be a nation of children, unworthy of the legacy of freedom and prosperity painstakingly built by our forebears.

It is long past time to grow up. Indeed, if we do not, the infantile hurricane of malice and nihilistic bigotry that centers on the West Wing will sweep away the foundations of the Republic. We have talked like children, thought like children, and reasoned like children. But we must put aside childish things, or be left with nothing at all.

Children persistently protest that their intentions exonerate them. "I didn't mean it!" Adults understand that meaning well does not absolve one of responsibility. Yet we continue to bicker about whether Trump's words are racist or not on some speculation about how he "really feels" in his heart.

Let me ask this of his defenders- WHO CARES? As a candidate (and still occasionally as POTUS) Trump routinely complained about the state of American government, culture, and society. He accused the former president of having spied on him without a shred of evidence. He impugned the competence, probity, and intelligence of lawmakers, judges, military leaders. None of that made him (in his own estimation, and that of his supporters) other than patriotic and loyal. But the criticisms of duly elected representatives who happen to be women of color makes them traitors and ingrates. What other conclusion can one draw except that white men possess rights and privileges in this nation that others do not? That is white supremacism in a nutshell.

The idea that Trump's supposed ignorance or the warm fuzzy feelings he might harbor for any individual or group is in any way relevant to ANYONE is ridiculous. It does not matter how many African-American friends Trump has or how many people of color serve in his cabinet. He has used the "bully pulpit" as a bullhorn for racism. He has broadcast that the leader of the free world deems people of color less American than whites, that they deserve fewer privileges, freedoms, and protections than whites. People in positions of responsibility and power (or those who want more responsibility and power, like the "alt-right" marchers in Charlottesville) have heard his message, and it will reverberate to the detriment of millions in ways big and small. You could only give a fig for what Trump feels or thinks "in his heart" if you are not in the path of this freight train.

 After more than two-hundred and forty years, our society seems yet incapable, in aggregate, of appreciating the ingenious logic and inherent fragility of the system in which we live such free and prosperous lives. Our Constitution distributes power through a complex of institutions and offices held in mutual tension with one-another, so as to prevent the tyranny of any one individual or group. But in order for this system to continue to function, the people inhabiting it must adhere to the rules that govern it, and that requires them to minimally respect the rights and dignity of one-another.

The situation might be compared to a game, the kind that helps children learn basic life lessons. As long as everyone respects the rules and treats one-another fairly, the game can continue to everyone's enjoyment. Though one or more players might temporarily gain an advantage by ignoring the rules or mistreating opponents, this will eventually cause the game to end, depriving everyone.

Comments like the ones Trump has been braying attracted less censure a century ago because people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals were systematically barred from the "game" of politics. Long struggle and great sacrifice redressed that injustice. Now the game has expanded, and Trump's call to "Make America Great Again" is basically an exhortation to bring back that earlier exclusionary time- to narrow the game so that people of color, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ citizens need not be given the respect and deference of full participants.

But what Trump and his supporters do not realize is that this is not a call to change the game, but to end it. "Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrendered their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it." If the right of full participation can be taken away from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Ilhan Omar, or Rashida Tlaib, or Ayanna Pressley on the basis of race or origin, it can (and will, in the long run) be taken away from anyone else on equally arbitrary criteria. Once that levee has been breached, the flood will never be contained.

Among many other things, Trump is a perpetual child, and his leadership has infantilized us as a society. He is incapable of or refuses to learn the lesson at the heart of the game set in motion by our Founders.  Like the petulant whiner who, dissatisfied with the rigors of play, threatens to take his equipment and go home, he shows his contempt not only for our history and principles, but for us personally as individuals and a community. For the sake of ourselves and posterity, we had better grow up and recognize his bigotry for what it is.


Thursday, May 02, 2019

Lessons of the Kaifeng Jews

        I had heard about the Kaifeng Jews before ever thinking to learn Chinese thirty years ago, and because I am Jewish, I have been asked by friends, family, and acquaintances about the Jews of Kaifeng ever since. The need to have ready answers quickly drove me to learn something about them. Sitting down to study them firsthand taught me that much of what I had been told (and that remains conventional wisdom) had been wrong.
            The standard line on the Kaifeng Jews goes like this:
            A group of Jews emigrated to imperial China during the Northern Song dynasty (960 C.E.-1127 C.E.), where they settled in the city of Kaifeng, which was then the capital. They built a synagogue and thrived for a time, but because they were not persecuted in China as they had been elsewhere, they quickly adopted Chinese culture. Eventually they lost their Jewish identity through assimilation and passed into history.
            It is true that a group of Jews (probably merchants from Persia) settled in Kaifeng some time before 1127 C.E. It is also true that their descendants thoroughly embraced Chinese culture, and eventually gave up Jewish traditions. It is not true, however, that they lost their Jewish identity to assimilation.
            If we look at the written records the Kaifeng Jews left behind, we can see that they saw no contradiction between being good Jews and loyal subjects of the empire. Many of the leaders of the Kaifeng community sat for and passed the Confucian examinations to become high officials of the Ming dynasty (1368 C.E.-1644 C.E.). Stone inscriptions that they erected outside of the synagogue in Kaifeng alternately quote the Hebrew Bible and Confucian classics as equivalent sources of sacred wisdom. The leaders of the Kaifeng community deliberately practiced a form of Judaism that could thrive in a religiously plural and vibrantly multiethnic empire.
            This cosmopolitan Judaism proved very durable. The Kaifeng community was small, never numbering more than two-thousand people. Yet they continued to maintain Jewish traditions for more than six hundred years. In the end, it was not assimilation, but the crisis of the imperial state and society with which they had become thoroughly integrated, that caused the Jewish community of Kaifeng to disintegrate. Wars and natural disasters eroded the coherence of both the imperial state and the Kaifeng congregation. The cataclysmic Taiping Rebellion (1850 C.E.-1864 C.E.) dealt the final blow to the religious institutions of the Kaifeng Jews.
What can we Jews here in the U.S. learn from the experience of the Kaifeng Jews? The recent surge of antisemitism has challenged American Jews to decide which threat is more dangerous, that from the “left” or the “right.” From the left, critics invoke old antisemitic stereotypes in attacking the Jewish community’s support of Israel. On the right, racist groups, encouraged by rhetoric coming from the Oval Office, demonize Jews as the architects and beneficiaries of a pluralism white nationalists despise.
If the historical experience of the Kaifeng Jews is any guide, the security of the Jewish community here in the U.S. is best safeguarded by the continued coherence and dynamism of the democracy in which we live. The Kaifeng Jews did not persist by being aggressively exclusionary or parochial, but by integrating their Jewish communal life into that of the larger Chinese empire. In the same way, Jews here in the U.S. have thrived because we have been full participants in a political system that not only guarantees our rights, but those of all our neighbors and compatriots regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity.  If we want to know which form of antisemitism poses the greatest danger, we need only ask: “which is the greater threat to democracy?”

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Collusion Continues

The Mueller Report has arrived, and according to Attorney General Barr, it does not contain sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to warrant an indictment. That should come as no surprise. Given the scale and the importance of the "active measures" attack they waged against the U.S. during the 2016 election, it would have been very foolhardy of Russian intelligence operatives to invest any degree of strategic trust in an ally as foolish and unreliable as Donald Trump and the confederacy of dunces surrounding him, who could have undermined the effectiveness of the attack with one errant tweet or offhand remark. But we should be very clear- the fact that Trump did not criminally conspire with Russian intelligence does not indicate that he is innocent of colluding with Russia's attack on American democracy. Indeed, quite the opposite is true.

This truth is so obvious that it should not need explaining. What was the ultimate goal of the Russian attack? To divide Americans against one-another and undermine their faith in democracy. What has been the effect of Donald Trump's response to the Russian attack?  To divide Americans against one-another and undermine their faith in democracy. In every aspect of his conduct since news of the Russian attack first broke, Donald Trump has failed in his duty, not merely as President, but more basically as a loyal citizen of the United States.

The President and his enablers act as if mistrust of the executive was first invented when Donald Trump was elected. But some portion of the electorate has been suspicious of every president since (and including) George Washington. It is the right of Americans to be wary of their leaders, our nation was founded on suspicion of government power. Under those conditions it has always been incumbent on responsible leaders to act in ways that defuse suspicion and actively cultivate trust. All presidents have failed to some degree in those efforts, but even Richard Nixon upheld this principle when he resigned on realizing that he could not redeem the trust of a critical portion of the electorate.

In the history of this political dynamic, Donald Trump is unique and unprecedented. Given the clear evidence that Russian intelligence attacked our election in support of Trump's candidacy, there was only one reaction open to a responsible president of the United States: to unequivocally condemn the attack and to call for a complete and transparent accounting of what had happened, no matter how unflattering it might be to Trump and his campaign. Trump's reaction has been the polar opposite. He has persistently denied the facts of the attack, the responsibility of the Russian government, and the need for an accounting. He and the people around him have repeatedly lied about their contacts with officials of the Russian government and members of its ruling oligarchy, and viciously inveighed against anyone trying to investigate the facts. In this way he has set one half of the country angrily against the other over basic questions of security and civic duty that should be a ground of consensus (i.e. that an attack by a hostile power is a serious threat, and must be redressed). In other words, he has thrown gasoline onto the very fire of civil discord that was the original aim of the Russian attack from the outset.

With the release of the Mueller Report, ironically, the collusion continues. The Special Counsel's investigation has provided us with the most thorough account yet produced by any US agency of the Russian attack on our election. Yet despite the fact that Trump claims to have been "totally exonerated" by the investigation's outcome, the President has denounced it as "an illegal takedown that failed" and that must itself be investigated. Thus even in ostensible "victory" Trump is undermining Americans' defenses against the Russian attack. He refuses to fulfill the duties of his office, protect the American people, and strike a note of unity rather than discord.

Why has Trump colluded with Moscow in this way? I do not pretend to know. Perhaps it is out of vanity, or stupidity, or some bizarre calculation of political advantage. The Mueller Report suggests that it was not done at the direct order of Vladimir Putin. But this does not mean that Donald Trump has not colluded with Russia, only that we do not know why he has done so.

Many questions remain unanswered. We may (thankfully) be confident that Trump did not criminally conspire with Russian intelligence (though the published emails of his son suggest that his campaign was willing and eager to do so). But this does not settle the question of whether the President is in some way compromised by or beholden to Russia. We still do not know why he fawns so obsequiously on Vladimir Putin, to the point of taking the Russian despot's side over that of his own intelligence agencies. We do not know why Trump has been so reluctant to enforce sanction measures against Russia, or so weak in his response to Russian aggression against the Ukraine, or so accommodating of Russian strategic goals in the Middle East and Europe.

The Mueller Report suggests that Trump is not being blackmailed with proof of a conspiracy to get him elected in 2016. But to suggest that this closes the issue of Russia and the Trump White House is like declaring a stabbing pain to the abdomen harmless because appendicitis has been ruled out as a cause. The President and those around him continue to lie about their ties to Russia, they continue to pathologically defer to Russian interests, and they continue to assist the active measures being deployed by Russian intelligence against our democracy. Having eliminated one possible explanation for these strange phenomena, others need to be explored.  Are the president's finances structured in such a way that make him indebted to Russian interests? Does he have business dealings that promise him profits from Russia or its allies? The American people are entitled to answers to these and other questions.

The Mueller Report itself would be a good place to begin looking for them. Given the robust powers assigned to the Special Counsel's office, Robert Mueller was in a better position than virtually anyone else to explore Donald Trump's enterprises and commercial interests. His report might contain information that would help us make sense of the President's strange and destructive behavior- it should be made available in its entirety to the voting public. Beyond this, we should finally see the President's tax returns, as he promised they would be revealed more than two years ago. Donald Trump claims to have been "completely exonerated," but this is a sham: by continuing to duck and hide, he persists in aiding Russia's campaign against the U.S. The only escape from that condition lies in the transparency that Americans have demanded and had a right to expect from every other president. Until Trump provides us with that transparency, he is not merely a man acting as if he were guilty, but will remain (for motives unknown) guilty of collusion with Russian intelligence in undermining our democracy.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

An Open Letter to Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D MI) and Ilhan Omar (D MN)

To the Honorable Representatives Tlaib and Omar:

            As a fellow American and Democrat who is also a Jew and a Zionist, I write to you out of a concern for the atmosphere of tension that has  attended your election to Congress. Both of you achieved historic "firsts" in the House of Representatives, the occasion of your taking office should be a moment for all Americans to take pride in the fulfillment of our highest ideals of inclusiveness and empowerment. It is thus regrettable that what should be a happy occasion has been marred by political squabbling.

            I realize that some of this acrimony is political artifice. There are always opportunists on either side of the partisan divide ready to trade in stereotypes and fearmongering. It was inevitable that your election would be met with alarmist rhetoric, no matter what you did or said upon taking office. You were going to be (and have been) the subject of unfair scrutiny, exaggerated accusations, and ugly abuse because of who you are, rather than what you stood for.

           That being said, however, any fair assessment must acknowledge that you have made mistakes and missed opportunities. Some of the furor that has attended your political debut can be put down to partisan bluster and bigotry, but not all. Representative Tlaib's association with activists that broadcast hateful rhetoric has raised doubts, and Representative Omar's recent statements on Twitter have aroused fear and concern.

           These doubts and fears cannot be reduced to expressions of prejudice. Why is this the case? Criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause are not uncommon even among American Jews, after all. But two factors make this discourse a fraught subject for Jewish-Americans:

           1)Jews here in the US live constantly with the legacy of antisemitism. Many Jewish-Americans lost family in (or are the descendants of survivors of) the Holocaust. Beyond that, institutionalized antisemitism that denied Jews opportunities or subjected them to harassment and violence is a living memory here in the US. Though the worst aspects of such antisemitism have been ameliorated, latent antisemitism remains endemic in American society (our president's characterization of Nazi protesters in Charlottesville as "very fine people" is only one of many examples one might offer), and criticism of Israel has, in some quarters, become a mode in which antisemitic bigotry may be expressed. It is no longer socially acceptable (as it once was) to accuse Jews of being congenitally miserly or dishonest, but antisemites will seize upon the pretext of Israel to accuse Jews of having divided loyalties or of using their money to manipulate policy. For this reason those who enter the public arena to broadcast opposition to Israeli policy are met with extreme caution, and incite condemnation if they employ rhetoric that raises the specter of antisemitism.

          2)Most Jews here in the US view anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. Here I would apply a very narrow definition of "anti-Zionism": it does not signify mere criticism of Israel or some aspect of Israeli policy, but the outright denial of Israel's right to exist. Whatever theoretical justifications one might give for espousing anti-Zionism, the practical ramifications of Israel's dissolution for the international Jewish community would be so catastrophic that most Jews are not inclined to grant any distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. The Holocaust could not have happened if Israel had existed, and the surest safeguard against a future anti-Jewish genocide is the continued presence of Israel on the world stage. Thus an overt, proactive, and unambiguous embrace of a two-state solution is the minimum threshold that most Jews will demand of any critic of Israel to be acknowledged as dealing in good faith. In terms of US policy, because most Jews understand that the US-Israeli alliance is vital to Israel's security, anyone perceived as advocating a termination of that alliance will be suspect of being anti-Zionist and, therefore, antisemitic.

          These two dimensions of Jewish-American political life have conditioned the response to your actions and pronouncements since taking office. To be sure, much of the invective that has been hurled at you expresses bigotry as heinous and destructive as antisemitism. But some of the criticism you have encountered arises from your (or those associated with you) having trespassed upon concerns to which Jewish-Americans have persistently and understandably been sensitive.

          There are many reasons to regret this situation. The integrity of the Democratic coalition is one. You both deservedly enjoy a high profile in the national image of the Democratic caucus, but it would be a shame for that exposure to cause avoidable disunity in the party. Though Jews are a small community, they have historically skewed Democratic, giving between 70% and 80% of their votes to Democratic candidates in national elections. As a fellow Democrat I would hate to see the GOP make significant inroads in that support, especially in an era that has frequently seen national contests decided by five-digit voting margins.  

         Beyond this, further miscommunication and/or disharmony would represent a tragically missed opportunity for the cause of peace. Few communities are as engaged with the issue of Israel-Palestine here in the US (or the world) as that of Jewish-Americans, and most Jewish-Americans (59%, according to a recent survey) support the creation of a Palestinian state. American Jews are thus a natural audience and a potential resource for those concerned with the struggle for Palestinian statehood, and anyone who approaches them seeking to implement a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine will find many enthusiastic allies.
 
        This stands in stark contrast to another, much larger community deeply invested in the issue of US-Israeli relations: that of American Evangelical Christians. For most Christian Zionists the establishment of a Palestinian state would impede cherished religious goals. Thus those committed to keeping US policy focused on the realization of Palestinian statehood are well advised to cultivate unity and coordination. 

         Yair Rosenberg, writing in Tablet, has stated that the current moment calls for dialogue, not denunciation. He is of course correct, and it is in that spirit that I write you today. If you reach out to the Jewish-American community and are minimally sensitive to its concerns, you will find many eager to work with you on a whole array of issues. If you have not done so already, I am sure that there are many, many synagogues across the nation where you would be very welcome to speak (my own included) and be met with open and respectful engagement. Whatever happens, your election is an exciting moment for the Democratic party and the United States of America. With a little bit of effort, patience, and mutual political sensitivity, it could be a very hopeful moment for Israel, Palestine, and the whole world.
          
          Please forgive anything in this letter that expresses conditions of which you were already aware or ignorance of efforts you have already undertaken. I write as much to express my own desire for amity as to instruct others. I hope in any case that this message finds you both well, and I thank you for your time and attention.

                                                  Sincerely,


                                                  Andrew Meyer

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.


                                                              Sincerely,



                                                              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.


                                      Sincerely,


                                       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.