Monday, April 10, 2017

Tragedy and Farce in Syria

Airstrikes launched against Syria by the Trump administration on April 6 prove Marx's adage about history transpiring first as tragedy, then as farce. The Obama White House's indecision and passivity in the face of the Syrian crisis were an excruciatingly protracted tragedy. For Obama's "red line" to be enforced by a man who has in all other ways disgraced and discredited the office of the presidency is so absurd that to call it "farce" is completely inadequate.

Those on all parts of the political spectrum who grieve at the damage Trump is doing to our Republic will no doubt be inclined to condemn this new Syria policy.  That inclination will be strengthened by the undeniable fact that Trump's motives are suspect and the politics of this policy malodorous. It is no coincidence that Trump has transgressed upon Russian strategic interests just when he most needs to distance himself from Moscow, and seeks the luster of a "war leader" just as his approval ratings hit historic lows.

That being noted, it is nonetheless true that, like the proverbial broken clock, Trump has stumbled upon the right course of action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. To understand why this is so one need only contemplate the motives of Assad in murdering his own people with sarin gas. There are only two real possibilities in this regard.

The first, a scenario that will be favored by the conspiracy-minded, is that the Assad regime (presumably at the behest of Moscow) launched the sarin gas attack last week to provide Trump with a pretext to "wag the dog." Though appealingly plausible, this scenario is highly unlikely for many reasons. The Assad regime is engaged in a fight for its life, it has little motive to take potentially fatal risks to provide Donald Trump with political cover. The perceived possibility that chemical weapons might be used is a strategic asset Assad would be loath to part with, and any military action on the part of the US will boost morale among the rebels in ways that will materially degrade Damascus's strategic advantage. The same caveats apply when we think of Russia's perspective. Even if we assume that Moscow views Trump as an asset that it wants to protect, Putin has little cause to expend political capital in this way. Moscow faces dissent at home, it can hardly afford to risk being "humiliated" by the US in the eyes of its own people simply to save Donald Trump's bacon.

Occam's Razor dictates that Bashar al-Assad had a different motive in using chemical weapons against his own people. Expressions of disengagement and disinterest on the part of the Trump White House had left the Assad regime feeling that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel leading to a final military resolution of the Syrian civil war. Last week's sarin gas attack was thus a "test balloon," launched in the expectation that it would elicit no response from the US or its allies, and that such a contingency would create terror and chaos among anti-government forces. If the populations among whom the rebels live became persuaded that the Assad regime was about to unleash mass-murder on a scale that even this brutal civil war has not yet seen, the purchase of rebel forces in their current strongholds might become untenable. That was an outcome worth risking blowback from committing such a heinous war crime.

Because this was most likely the motive of Assad's gas attack, it required a response. However minimal the damage done to Assad's forces may have been from Thursday's air strikes, they sufficed to violently commit the U.S. to the proposition that Damascus must not use chemical weapons. Assad understands how politics works- he knows that another gas attack in the future will force the Trump administration to respond with greater destructiveness or risk crippling political embarrassment at home. Therefore, if they have done nothing else of value, the air strikes in Syria have made it highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used again by the Assad regime. Though that is an admittedly tenuous benefit, it is still real.

If Donald Trump's leadership remains true to form, this military action will not produce a coherent or effective policy in response to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the risks entailed by any military action cannot help but make one wish that a steadier hand was at the tiller. Still, in this one instance Trump has achieved an at least minimally positive impact. If he garners unearned political capital from this act, the blame unfortunately lies with President Obama. Obama left open the opportunity for Donald Trump to distinguish himself from his predecessor with this display of "decisiveness."  Though this is bitter farce, it does proffer one clear lesson for those who are paying attention: if and when the White House is again occupied by a leader worthy of the presidency, he or she will have to chart a course between the dysfunctional inaction of Barack Obama in Syria and the reckless adventurism of George W. Bush in Iraq.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donnie and the Nihilists

I cannot believe I was alone in feeling cognitive dissonance while listening to the testimony of former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. As Watts explained:

[T]he reason active measures (viz., Russian hacking and propaganda) have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents...He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claims that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News… all the way up until the election. He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen… So, part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same line.

          Watts was making a point so obvious that it should have been the driving message of every credible political and cultural leader on any part of the political spectrum for the last year or more: America was made exceptionally vulnerable to the narratives fabricated by Russian intelligence because these narratives were broadcast and lent credence by the man who held the nomination of the Party of Lincoln. For it to take a special Senate hearing to give robust voice to this observation seems incredible at first, but on second reflection the reason for this circumstance is clear.

As cynical as we have become, as widespread as disenchantment and malaise have grown, we have yet to encounter a wholly values-free candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Even those who most violently abhor Hillary Clinton, for example, would be forced to admit that one could list a set of values that she consistently at least desires to appear to hold. She has allowed her political ambitions to be constrained by the norms of a larger system, as when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama for the ostensible sake of party unity or the election to Donald Trump in deference to the integrity of the electoral process.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is something new. Whatever norm or value he seems to have upheld in one instance (as, for example, when he said gracious things about his opponent on election night) he has violated in another (for example, tweeting without evidence that his predecessor, the nation's first African-American president, was a felon). Outside the interests of his close family (and even that is something of a gray area), it is impossible to determine what might be truly sacred to him beyond the gratification of his own ego.

Herein lies one of the greatest dangers of the Age of Trump. The checks and balances in our system are robust, but their efficacy ultimately rests upon a minimum threshold of commitment to the principles of our founding documents. Our constitutional order is well-equipped to deal with greed, hunger for power, cravenness, extremism, and other politically dysfunctional proclivities. But it is not well-prepared to confront nihilism. An individual unconstrained by loyalty to the most fundamental ideals of the system or even the most basic institutional imperatives can move unchecked by the infrastructure of the state, because the state is designed to presume a minimal assent to its own legitimacy on the part of its operatives.

It is as if in the transition from Obama to Trump, the laws of physic have changed, dissolving the gravitational forces that hold the Executive together. When, for example, the Acting Attorney General brought the White House Counsel the extraordinary news that the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power, the system was prepared for almost any response from President Trump. Contrition, defensiveness, alarm, evasion- all of these would have fallen within the range of reaction that officials in various agencies and branches of government could understand and engage. Total inertia, expressing a complete lack of concern for both the present crisis and the functional credibility of the White House as a whole, fell completely outside of the institutional logic that animates the machinery of state.

The leak of classified information to the press in the face of this conundrum was an intuitively sensible solution, but one that fell outside of the parameters of the regular operation of government, and that created new opportunities for the derailment of the machinery of state. It has been remarkable to watch the White House complain about leaks and improper surveillance on the one hand while it simultaneously lies about its members' contact with Russian officials and works to undermine the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee on the other. The idiom of the Trump White House persists in a realm light-years beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. It is the language of a topsy-turvy world in which Rhyme and Reason have been exiled and no gnomon of value can be anchored in the shifting sands of obfuscation and distortion.

Much has been written comparing Donald Trump to figures from history. Is he a latter day Mussolini? A reality-TV version of Huey Long? With his observation that shooting someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue would not spoil his image among his supporters, Trump perhaps hit upon the nearest analogue for his political persona in the American past. In his nihilistic disregard for the values and logic of the system he serves, Trump most resembles that other famous New Yorker, Aaron Burr. Indeed, the Trump presidency might be deemed "Aaron Burr's Revenge," in that the same electoral college that denied Burr the presidency has paid out in victory for his historical doppelganger just over two centuries later. Unless an alert citizenry can hold our leaders accountable and defend the integrity of the institutions that are our shared legacy, this time the murder that Burr gets away with may not be that of an individual, but of the system as a whole.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Public Option Now

The embarrassing failure of the GOP caucus to make good on their six-year pledge to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act is an inflection point in the politics of health care. Democrats should, in the words of an old Chinese adage, "take a warning from the overturned cart ahead" and pursue a robust policy that seizes upon the opportunities of the moment. Many on the left are advocating that the Democrats lift a page from the GOP playbook and begin proposing new legislation right away, in the same way that the Republicans held countless "repeal" votes before there was any hope that they would pass a presidential veto. Though there is provisional wisdom in such strategic thinking, it will only be effective if Democrats are able to take the correct lesson from the GOP's debacle.

The "repeal" dimension of GOP legislation was always going to be much easier than the imperative to "replace" the ACA. Though united in opposition to "Obamacare," when tasked with formulating a policy of their own Republicans were hounded by the same divisions that beset Democrats in 2009 when the ACA was being formulated. Just as some portion of the opposition to the ACA has always been comprised of progressives who do not feel that the bill went far enough in extending coverage and reducing costs, the Republican effort was scuttled by the division between moderate conservatives worried that "Trumpcare" took coverage away from too many people and Freedom Caucus partisans angry that it did not take health insurance away from even more.

The big takeaway from this battle is thus that the bill that can be passed with a unilateral partisan coalition will inevitably be one distorted by ideological wrangling, and therefore unfocused and ineffective as policy. Democrats who are getting ready to propose the institution of a "single payer system" (Medicare for all) are failing to read the lesson of the moment. Such proposals will open up the same kinds of rifts in the Democratic coalition that nearly sank the ACA, and will galvanize energies on the right that have been otherwise neutered by the failure of the "Trumpcare" vote.

Democrats should undertake to move the ball forward from where it sits now, rather than trying to reinvent the field from scratch. The Republicans have declared that the ACA is in peril, and have failed to muster their own coalition to effect a "repeal and replace" rescue. The Democrats should thus respond with a moderate proposal to fix the system as it currently stands. If private insurers are unwilling or unable to offer policies serving the markets created by the ACA exchanges, the federal government should create a "public option" plan to do so.

Ideological opposition on the part of Republicans and conservative Democrats to the creation of a "public option" has been rendered moot by the failure of Trumpcare. If Americans' health care is at stake (and I believe it is), and the GOP cannot summon the political will to act, it naturally falls to the Democrats to step into the breach. Democrats should craft and propose legislation to create a public option immediately and invite their moderate colleagues from across the aisle to join them in a bipartisan initiative to repair the ACA. In the best case scenario the passage of such a law will materially improve the health care of millions of Americans. In the worst case scenario, the proposal of such legislation will put the Trump White House and the GOP on the political defensive for the next four years (and beyond).

Having failed to "repeal and replace" the ACA, the GOP will no doubt try to make the "death spiral" of Obamacare a self-fulfilling prophecy by de-funding key parts of the program and withdrawing institutional support from structures that maintain the working mechanisms of the law. Democrats must move to prevent Republicans from capitalizing on such a strategy by broadcasting that there are reasonable and moderate fixes to the system that could be effected with a modicum of bipartisan compromise. In this way, even if the GOP succeeded in eroding the efficacy of the ACA in the short term, Democrats could run in 2018 and 2020 on the platform of offering the American people a workable alternative rather than more obstruction, dysfunction, and malaise.

The drive for a public option is an imperative that transcends even the urgent chaos of the Trump implosion. Indeed, at this point President Trump is largely irrelevant to Democrats' strategic thinking on this issue (and most others). Even discounting the prospect that Trump may have committed treason and be facing ultimate impeachment, he has so disgraced his office that he can no longer be taken seriously by anyone on any side of the political aisle, in any arena, foreign or domestic. His is now effectively a "zombie presidency," and his political opponents may plan long-term strategy without regard to his preferences or likely actions. If Democrats managed to pass a bipartisan "public option," Trump might veto it in an attempt to pander to his more radical supporters or, conversely, he might sign it into law in a desperate attempt to alleviate the cloud of suspicion and disgrace that is steadily engulfing his administration. The hole into which he has dug himself is so deep that neither stratagem would lift his political fortunes for very long, and in either case the winner in the long term would be the American people.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

Watching Donald Trump stand next to Bibi Netanyahu yesterday was an exercise in dizzying optics. However much I vehemently disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I grudgingly respect his political acumen and the sacrifices he and his family have made for the state of Israel and the Jewish people more generally. It thus did not surprise me to see Bibi laugh when, during his joint press appearance with Donald Trump, the President answered a question about his commitment to a "two-state solution" by declaring, "I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." Perhaps I am projecting my own feelings (and giving Bibi too much credit for his own), but I sensed a Pagliacci-esque melancholy in that laugh, as if the Prime Minister could not believe that his long and distinguished career had landed him in the middle of such a farce.

The lead headline in many of today's newspapers is, predictably "The US Appears to Back Away from Two-State Solution." This is understandable, but is also ridiculous. That is to say, the situation as a whole is inherently nonsensical. For the President of the United States to say something so simultaneously consequential, irresponsible, and utterly incoherent is fundamentally absurd. It is an existential non sequitur, a circumstance that defies logical response.  

The most obvious and perhaps least vexing absurdity about the situation was the failure of anyone in the room to immediately produce the necessary follow-up question: "Which one-state solution do you mean?" For Donald Trump to speak as if there was a single "one state" alternative to the "two-state solution" made as little sense as declaring that one would be happy with either flavor of ice-cream, chocolate or the other one. There are at least four possible "one-state solutions": 1)the one in which Israel's Jewish inhabitants are killed or driven into the sea; 2)the one in which the residents of Gaza and the West Bank are killed or driven into exile; 3)the one in which Israel annexes Gaza and the West Bank but denies its residents citizenship, embarking on a career of apartheid; 4)the one in which everything from the Jordan River to the sea becomes one state of coequal citizens, transforming Israel into the binational state of Israel-Palestine. Which of these "one-state" solutions would the United States find acceptable, and under what conditions would the U.S. acknowledge that "both parties like" it?

The most charitable reading of the situation is that Donald Trump simply did not know what he was talking about, and that he was extemporizing rhetorically as has been his habit all along. As David Brooks has written, "Over the past weeks, we’ve treated the president-elect’s comments as normal policy statements uttered by a normal president-elect...But this is probably the wrong way to read Trump...His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear...Trump is not a national leader; he is a national show."

The problem, of course, is that now that he has been sworn in, all of Trump's maladroit dicta issue forth with the weight and authority of his office. It does not matter that he is a clown, his words are still heard as those of the President of the United States, and thus cannot fail to do tragic damage. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank who have been quivering in messianic fervor since the election, for example, can only be further inflamed by hearing the words "one state" come from Donald Trump's mouth. There is only one "one state solution" that they care about, and they are not likely to have heard Trump's caveat about what "both parties like" (or to pay it much mind if they did).

I would say that we are through the looking glass, but after almost four weeks of the Trump presidency that Carollian metaphor is too one-dimensional to serve. More aptly, we are falling down a rabbit hole that seemingly has no bottom at all. I began this blog out of dismay at the decisions that led us into the Iraq War, and coined its motto, "Politics can not be conducted in ignorance of the history and culture of other nations," in the conviction that such a deficit of knowledge had derailed our foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. My dismay deepens on seeing that, even as the problem of ignorance becomes more and more obvious, the will to redress it recedes ever further.

Donald Trump is ignorance personified. Were it not so, it would be impossible for him to be so unaware of how little sense his statements of yesterday made, much less how potentially damaging they could be to the cause of peace. The only circumstance more shocking than his political malpractice is the negligence we the American people have displayed in electing him. The fact that Donald Trump knows nothing and cares less has been on display since he began his campaign last August, but we nonetheless elevated him to the office of Washington and Lincoln. Moreover, despite the egregious incompetence he has evinced, Trump still enjoys an approval rating of roughly 40% in most polls, suggesting that he would still win the Republican primary if it were held today. For so many citizens to be content to place the immense wealth and power of the United States into such ludicrously feckless hands feels like national hubris. I hope, for the world's sake as much as our own, that error will not bring about repercussions reminiscent of ancient myth.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trumpty Dumpty or Trumplestiltskin?

As the second week of the Trump presidency rolls on, the struggle ensues to make sense of the herky-jerky motion of the administration in power. So much frenetic activity has transpired to so little discernible constructive purpose that it is difficult to place the current political moment into a comprehensible framework. Two general pictures have begun to emerge among observers grappling with the problem of "Trumpology."

David Brooks of The New York Times exemplifies one side of this analytical divide. He sees the Trump administration as "incompetent" and worse than "amateurs." In his view, "the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done." Brooks does not completely acquit the Trumpites of bad intent. He calls them out for their ethnic nationalism and bigotry. But he attributes the chaos they have sown to inadvertent malpractice rather than nefarious design.

Though this view is eminently plausible, it is understandably contested by those who view Trumpian entropy with an even more jaundiced eye. This latter perspective is embodied by Yonatan Zunger, who blogs at Medium. Taking together all of the actions and statements of the Trump administration's first week, Zunger asks if they should be read as the trial balloon for a future coup against the democratic institutions of the U.S. government (funded by a recently acquired 19% share in Russia's state oil company).  Where Brooks sees amateurism and incoherence, Zunger sees a "tight inner circle" that "is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power." All of the provocations (what Heather Richardson calls "shock events") of Trump's first days are not, in this view, arbitrary or unplanned, but are deliberate attempts to gauge the reactions of various federal agencies and to induce "dissent fatigue" in the wider public.

It is easy to see why Zunger's view is persuasive. It is difficult to believe that the denizens of the Trump administration, having risen so precipitously to such heights of power, could possibly be as incompetent as the tenor of their first weeks would suggest. If one eliminates that possibility, then fitting the observable facts into a pattern of malignant intent is the next natural choice.

Zunger's read cannot be dismissed as entirely far-fetched. Nor, it must be emphasized, are the two scenarios outlined by Zunger and Brooks necessarily mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that the Trump administration (or different parts of it, to varying degrees respectively) are simultaneously deliberately anti-democratic and incoherently maladroit. Time and circumstance will tell which of these two Trumpological analyses is more accurate. Two things are clear from the outset, however.

The first is that, whether they are blundering or scheming, their penchant for callousness and cruelty (and the pain they inflict) remains the same. Whether his travel ban order was a botched attempt to make good on a polemical campaign promise or a clever ruse in pursuit of unconstitutional power, Donald Trump knew it would cause misery and hardship to hundreds of people, and he did not care. However one slices it, Trump's politics incorporate a degree of sadism. His claims to political efficacy all revolve to one degree or another on the promise to make the "right" people (that is, the "wrong people" who don't hold the privilege of being deemed "real Americans") hurt.

The second clear imperative of the Trumpian moment is the urgent need for citizenship. In the end it will not matter whether or not Donald Trump's actions were taken with an eye toward unlimited power. The damage this mode of governance will do to our democratic institutions will be similar in the long run in either case. Citizens on all sides of the political spectrum must stand up and demand that Donald Trump govern in a way that does not sow anger, fear, and chaos, and that the rest of our government (the House, the Senate, the courts, the governors, the state legislatures) hold him accountable to that constraint. In the end, only our vigilance and active civic engagement can insure that our Republic will survive the length of Trump's tenure in office, whatever the truth may be about his intentions and competence.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump Travel Ban: Reading the Splatter on the Wall

President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries (Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria) is among the strangest and most shameful chapters in our history. As families are separated, travelers are detained, and federal agencies scramble to understand how the ban is to be enforced, the rest of the world is left trying to make sense of this action. What clear and present danger to the security of the United States has arisen, the urgency of which is so acute as to trigger the sudden roll out of a policy so vaguely articulated and slipshod in execution that it has resulted in institutional chaos?

As policy, this ban simply does not make sense. There have been no recent terrorist attacks on US soil perpetrated by citizens of or travelers from the affected countries. Very stringent protocols are already in place for the vetting of visa and green card holders. Even the refugee communities that are affected by the order are already subject to very thorough security procedures that have been continually updated and reinforced, there is no case to be made (as there was in 2011 when the Obama administration paused refugee processing to review its procedures after the admission of Waad Ramadan Alwan in 2009) for the necessity of a radical overhaul.

As strategy the order makes even less sense than it does as security policy. While it is true that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups hostile to the United States are active in the affected countries, this does not argue for the wisdom of Trump's ban. A total travel ban (extending even to visa holders and legal residents of the US) is a contingency that a nation adopts in a time of war. Thus with his order President Trump has signaled that the U.S. is effectively at war with all the people of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria, a move that can only help the recruiting efforts of anti-US forces operating in those countries. 

This order can not be coherently read as policy, but must be viewed as pure politics. Donald Trump promised his supporters a "Muslim ban," and as Rudy Giuliani admitted, this order is effectively an attempt to make good on that promise. It is designed to create the impression that Trump is making up for laxness on the part of his predecessor. As policy it is a solution in search of a problem (even more, it is a solution that can only exacerbate problems we already have). But as theater it is an effective way of broadcasting to Trump's supporters, "now we are finally getting tough."

This is distressing for several reasons. The fact that the President would jeopardize the security of the US and its armed forces in pursuit of political advantage would be bad enough. But any assessment of the situation is made even worse by the real doubt that the political advantage to be had from this action is itself in any way meaningful. Despite having been sworn in more than a week ago the President seems to still be in campaign mode. That is strange, and is made stranger by the fact that the next election is almost two years away.

However the optics of the current moment might favor the President among his recent voters, the effects of this policy will have a very long time to percolate through the dynamics of our foreign and domestic affairs before their political impact is felt at the polls again. Have the President and his advisors really thought out the long term impact of this move, even in political terms? If not, and the ultimate political fallout of this order predictably works to the detriment of the administration, then we are faced with the very real possibility that the President and his team have sold out the safety and security of the United States for less than nothing. If that is the case, and the Trump administration will ultimately be shown to have shot itself grievously in the foot, one can only wonder at what future mistakes may be in the offing. If the Trump team proves as inept at political strategy as the current mess would seem to indicate, how competently will they conduct strategy in realms where the security and welfare of the United States are genuinely at stake?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump's First Test?

Last Friday the Serbian government sent a train emblazoned with the words "Kosovo is Serbia" to the border between Kosovo and Serbia, where it was stopped by Kosovan security. In response the Serbs amassed a force of 60,000 soldiers on the frontier and have pledged to invade Kosovo if any Serbs are attacked. They have failed thus far to move the train across the border, but the standoff continues.

Though Serbia has never acknowledged the independence of Kosovo (a stance in which they are joined by Russia, China, and other nations), the border between these two countries has been relatively peaceful since the conclusion of the Kosovo War of 1998-99. The motivation for the Serbs to stir up unrest now can be nothing other than the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Belgrade's strongest ally and patron has been Vladimir Putin of Russia, and  no force contributed more to the independence of Kosovo than the NATO soldiers led by General Wesley Clark. Thus President Trump's affectionate talk about the former leader and musings about the obsolescence of the latter alliance are the simplest explanation for why the Serbs would feel that this was the opportune moment to be bold.

This all might blow over without producing so much as a footnote for future history books. But this could materialize into a crisis that sets the trajectory for the rest of Trump's term in office. We may find out in dramatic fashion just how much truth there is to the rumors that Donald Trump is a Russian lackey. If we don't achieve clarity on that question, we will at the very least be treated to our first test of the feasibility of Trump's reality-TV mode of communications. The Serbs will be listening very closely to every word said by Trump and his delegated spokespeople. If they get the sense that the Trump administration will not oppose an invasion, a forcible redrawing of the map may be attempted.

If that should happen, the long-term effects cannot be good. The extinguishing of Kosovan independence would be a restructuring much more radical than any of the recent Russian adventures in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, in that it would entail the dismantling of a territorial power that the US and its allies had recognized as sovereign. Allowing the Serbs to destroy such a significant geopolitical construct that so much NATO blood and treasure had been expended to effect will neuter the Alliance for good and all. Once that has happened, all of the boundaries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States will be in play. Radicals will be incentivized to pursue dreams of "Greater Russia" at the expense of neighboring states, with war and chaos potentially being the final result.

Back in September I wrote that Donald Trump "disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself" which stood "in such stark breach of the political norms of our system," that he could not "reasonably fill the office of President." At the time I thought that the Baltic states, where Trump had expressed an unwillingness to foot the bill for our commitment to our NATO allies, would be the flashpoint where his words were likeliest to catch up to him. But the entire world has been listening closely to Donald Trump's "America First" rhetoric, and there are myriad local grievances and scores that aggressive actors will be tempted to settle if they get the sense that the US will stand aside. Unless Mr. Trump can gain in clarity and coherence quickly, we may be treated to an object lesson in the dangers of loose took very soon.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to President Barack Hussein Obama

Dear Mr. President,

       I write to thank you for your eight years of service to our country. Though I have disagreed with you on some issues, particularly with regard to foreign policy, I have never flagged in my admiration of the dignity, erudition, eloquence, and dedication to principle with which you have fulfilled your office. Your stewardship of the economy and the reforms you oversaw to our health care system and financial markets were all landmark achievements. Many of the speeches that you gave are models of depth, insight, and probity that will be studied by and edify students and scholars for generations to come.

Though there is the chance that many of the policy initiatives you have overseen will be rolled back or reversed in the near term, I am confident that your work will have a lasting impact on the historical trajectory of our great Republic. You have presented us with a model of what a president can be, and that will continue to inspire citizens as debates over the shape of government and society continue. Moreover, I know that you will remain actively engaged in public life, and I look forward to continuing to benefit from your efforts and leadership. God bless you and your family, and thank you again for your all your good work.


                                                    Andrew Meyer

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Trump, Meet Mr. Godwin, or Mr. Pot, You Must Know Mr. Kettle

Watching our president-elect compare our intelligence agencies to Nazis on Twitter and at yesterday's press conference must have produced feelings of vertigo in many observers across the political spectrum. It is not unprecedented for presidents to come to loggerheads with the intelligence community, but for our elected executive to go full Godwin nine days before being sworn in must set a new record for speed of descent. The only thing more dizzying than the event itself has been the cloud of commentary surrounding it, especially from those who have risen in the president-elect's defense.

It is true that the privately produced dossier leaked by Buzzfeed that occasioned Mr. Trump's remarks is an ethically and journalistically dubious document. But, after he campaigned on the "facts" that Senator Cruz's father had assisted in the assassination of JFK, or that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims had celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11, or that "millions of people" voted illegally on November 8, et cetera, anyone who could listen to Mr. Trump declare that "it's a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public" without feeling some degree of nausea has a seriously skewed sense of plausibility.

This is not meant to excuse Buzzfeed or the media more generally by appeal to some perverse notion that two wrongs make a right. But however ill-used Mr. Trump may have been in the recent media fracas, little can change the fact that he came to the table already sorely bereft of the moral authority necessary to respond to the situation, and proceeded to make matters worse in his usual fashion. A politician who had, in all other ways, behaved in impeccably statesmanlike manner, who then compared the intelligence services to Nazis in the face of this crisis would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public and the political establishment. That otherwise serious commentators feel enabled to defend Donald Trump in this instance arises only from the fact that we have been conditioned to expect so little from Trump through long exposure, and that is a problem.

Presidents routinely come under gratuitous, libelous, and insulting attack, and are occasionally compelled to respond. President-elect Trump has so debased his own public persona and so squandered his own credibility that he comes into office completely destitute of the type of political capital needed to defend the dignity and standing of his office in the usual manner. Moreover, with each new crisis he digs the hole in which he is trapped even deeper. The contrast between his response (for example) to libelous attacks on Ted Cruz ("you can't knock the Enquirer") and on himself ("are we living in Nazi Germany?") reinforces the by now deeply-ingrained impression that nothing matters to Donald Trump apart from his own interests and position. To compare your own momentary discomfort to the worst genocide in history, especially when it arises from practices in which you yourself have frequently indulged, is to declare to the world, "For me, nothing is sacred....apart from myself."

Those of us who have opposed Donald Trump are looking forward to four years of pleas and accusations centered on the general theme of "giving him a chance." While it is true that he is the President-elect of the United States, and that to be a patriotic citizen requires that we all give Donald Trump a "chance" to succeed in office, we should be clear about what such a chance entails. Mr. Trump comes into office under a cloud of disrepute of his own making. He has profaned the principles on which our Republic is founded and forsworn the trust of the electorate he is charged to govern. He labors under an onus of redemption, and unless and until he atones for his many political transgressions by dint of long effort and restraint, he can not expect to receive any normal level of respect or deference from anyone, much less from his political opposition.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Of Strait Talk and Dangerous Bluster

You cannot truly understand cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei until you have visited the Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Memorial Hall on Taiwan. The monument is dedicated to the Nationalist president of China who fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Communist rebels in 1949, and is one of the most magnificent structures of its kind in the world. It consists of an enormous white marble ziggurat topped by a blue-ceramic-tiled octagonal roof, set in a beautiful 120-hectare garden entered through temple-style gateways. The Hall stands 70 meters tall and contains a 21.25 metric ton bronze image of Chiang himself. The elegance, beauty, and sheer size of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial dwarf the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., or indeed any of the architectural tributes to past American leaders.

To anyone familiar with the modern history of China and Taiwan, the splendor of the CKS Memorial cannot help but evoke a feeling of dissonance. Though Chiang's legacy will no doubt be hotly debated for many years to come, there can be little question that he was by any terms a deeply ambivalent figure in the broad terrain of Chinese politics. If nothing else, his having been defeated and driven into exile would make the raising of such a grand structure in his memory smack of "the government doth protest too much." An equivalence here in the U.S. might be if the single commemorative structure on the National Mall as large as all others combined were dedicated to Richard Nixon.

This overcompensation is explained by the particular career of Chiang and his Nationalist (Guomindang or GMD) Party on Taiwan. When Chiang first became President on mainland China Taiwan was a Japanese colony, having been ceded to Japan by the Qing Empire at the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Taiwan was repatriated to China at the end of World War II. The military governor dispatched to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek was so corrupt and oppressive that on February 27, 1947, the Taiwanese rose up in rebellion and declared themselves an independent Republic. On February 28 Chiang ordered military forces to respond with horrific brutality, eventually killing as many as 30,000 people, including an entire generation of Taiwanese artists and intellectuals.

Repression continued after the remnants of the Nationalist party and its military took refuge on Taiwan in 1949. Until 1987 the island was kept under martial law, in thrall to a system that concentrated economic and political power in the hands of mainland emigres and afforded native-born Taiwanese only token participation in the management of their own affairs. The CKS Memorial is a relic of that history. It strives to sanitize and beautify early Nationalist rule of Taiwan, as if the sins of history and the inequities of the political economy could be redressed in art and architecture. Only a regime as insecure as that of the Nationalist Party on Taiwan could have deemed the scale and magnificence of the Memorial as plausible or necessary.

 Today conditions on Taiwan are very different. During the "Taiwan miracle" of the 1980's and 1990's, the Taiwanese economy prospered with the development of new high-tech industries, and the government gradually transitioned from a single-party autocracy into a vibrant participatory democracy. But the passions and resentments of past injustices linger.

When I was a student on Taiwan in 1990, during the first administration of a native-born Taiwanese leader on the island, President Lee Teng-hui (a GMD partisan), Taiwanese citizens and leaders were in the early stages of organizing and militating for expanded political freedoms. That winter Huang Hua, a leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (or DPP, founded in 1986) declared "Long live the Republic of Taiwan" at the funeral of a colleague. Such an utterance was made in defiance of both the "one China" principle of Beijing and the official stance of the Taipei government, which to this day still deems itself that of the "Republic of China." Then as now, many DPP members felt strongly that Taiwan should and must be its own nation- that decades and centuries of mainland exploitation had nullified any bonds of kinship between Taiwan and China, and that in any case the ethnic, linguistic (most people on Taiwan are most comfortable speaking Taiwanese, a Sinic language as distinct from Mandarin Chinese as French is from Spanish), and historical characteristics of the Taiwanese people constitute a nationality unique and distinct from that of the Chinese.

The attendees at the funeral were arrested, and DPP partisans descended on Taipei to protest. The natural site for such a demonstration was the CKS Memorial, symbol of mainland oppression. A friend and I went to the south gate of the Memorial, where the demonstration had been planned to convene. Police had forced the protesters to disperse, and the DPP had organized light trucks to ferry people from the south gate of the Memorial to the west gate, where a protest site had been erected before police could be notified of the change. As my friend and I climbed on board one of the trucks a DPP organizer leaned out on the sideboard and waved at us, shouting in English, "Long live the Republic of Taiwan!"

Multiple free and direct elections for the legislature and presidency have been held on Taiwan since that time, and the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is a member of the DPP. She is the second DPP partisan to hold the post. The first, Chen Shui-bian, briefly renamed the CKS Memorial the "National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall," infuriating Beijing. It reverted to being the CKS Memorial when the GMD regained power after Chen Shui-bian's second term. Though not all DPP partisans favor Taiwanese independence, there is still a strong faction in President Tsai Ing-wen's party that fervently supports Taiwanese nationhood, and is prepared to pursue that goal at any cost, even war with mainland China.

Unfortunately, though the people of Taiwan have every reason to desire and even expect independence, any formal change in the status of Taiwan to an independent nation would most certainly result in a cataclysmic conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The reasons for this state of affairs are rooted in the history of Chinese nationalism.

Nationalism is, relatively speaking, a very novel force in Chinese cultural history. From 221 B.C.E. to 1911 the Chinese people lived under a succession of imperial dynastic regimes that claimed unbounded and universal dominion. In practice and in theory this meant that all Chinese empires (including those led by non-Chinese houses, like the Manchu Qing dynasty of 1644-1911) assumed that there were gradations of allegiance among their subjects. When, for example, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) wrote an edict to King George III of England commanding him to "tremblingly obey"; Qianlong understood that the British monarch was his subject to a lesser degree than the King of Korea (who sent tribute missions acknowledging the suzerainty of the Qing "Son of Heaven" every three years), who was in turn a Qing subject to a lesser degree than the people of Beijing or Hangzhou.

This norm for conceiving of "China" as a political community changed only gradually over the course of the late 19th century, as faith in and support for venerable imperial institutions was eroded by an escalating series of (retroactively named) "national humiliations 国耻 (the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Arrow War, the Sino-French War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Uprising, etc.)" inflicted on the Qing dynasty by enemies foreign and domestic. By 1903 an 18-year old writer named Zou Rong (1885-1905) was able to galvanize a movement to overthrow the Empire with his tract, The Revolutionary Army, in which he enjoined "You 400 millions of the great Han race, my fellow countrymen, whether man or woman, aged or elderly, in the prime of life, young or child, carry out this revolution (page 126)." This group of "400 million countrymen" was a radical new vision in Chinese politics, an all-or-nothing proposition unlike the traditional imperial concept that variably deemed George III and the King of Korea Qing subjects as a matter of degree.

Of all the "national humiliations" that had created this fissure in Chinese political traditions, the cession of Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (signed in 1895) was arguably the most traumatic and significant. It was not only the largest outright surrender of territory to a foreign power (most other territorial concessions had involved the granting of special rights or powers to foreign governments while still retaining de jure Chinese sovereignty), but entailed the transfer of 2.5 million Chinese subjects to the control of Japan (by contrast, the island of Hong Kong had 7,450 residents when it had been surrendered to the British at the end of the Opium War). For the Qing rulers, operating under traditional concepts of imperial allegiance, Taiwan was not integrally enough tied into their empire to constitute a "core interest." It had only been made a province after the defeat of diehard Ming (1368-1644)  loyalists in 1683, and was inhabited by a mixture of unintelligible southerners and strange aboriginal peoples. Thus, to Qing leaders, surrendering sovereignty over Taiwan was only incrementally more significant than surrendering suzerainty over Korea (the core issue over which the war with Japan had been fought).

For educated Chinese, who by 1895 had increasingly been exposed to the nationalist ideas becoming prevalent in industrialized societies, the Qing willingness to surrender Taiwan was shocking.  Before the cession of Taiwan, support for the Qing among Chinese literati was still fairly robust. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) himself, the eventual leader of the 1911 revolution that would ultimately overthrow the Qing, petitioned to be employed by the Manchu monarch in 1893. After Taiwan was surrendered to Japan, not only the Manchu Qing dynasty, but the whole imperial edifice and ideology upon which it rested, were cast into irredeemable disrepute. This is reflected in the message of Zou Rong's Revolutionary Army. In an attempt to goad and shame his readers into a new perspective, he writes:

Buttonhole a man and tell him: "Your father is not your real father, he is so-and-so." He will undoubtedly jump up furiously and go into the truth of the allegation before the matter is settled. Again, there is a family, with father and son, husband and wife and brothers all living peacefully together. Suddenly ruffians descend on the house, property is seized, and the household enslaved. The whole family will fight to the death to get back their possessions before the incident is settled. As for saying to anyone that he has two fathers and he not getting angry, or the property of a family being stolen without a fight, such people are more dead than alive, mere stiff carcasses and whitened bones. I am particularly amazed that my fellow countrymen will put up with things as a nation which they would not as individuals, they will put up with things as a nation which they would not as a family...The people of Hong Kong set up a memorial to Queen Victoria, with the words: "Her virtue was in harmony with heaven and earth." The people of Taiwan sang the merits of the Meiji Emperor (of Japan) with the words: "His virtue is far-reaching and his magnanimity great."...Because people are not clear about the distinction between their own race and alien races, men act as brigands and women as whores; they shame their ancestors and defile their clans: what else would you expect? (pages 108-9)

When Zou expressed amazement at what his fellow Chinese will put up with "as a nation" he was in fact presenting them with a radically new way of thinking about political identity. If they really thought of and behaved themselves as "a nation," he implicitly asserted, they would not stand for the cession of Hong Kong or Taiwan, but (like the family in his microcosmic example) "fight to the death" to retain their "property." The powerful appeal of this vision was vouchsafed by the final and total collapse of the more than two-millennia old empire eight years after the publication of Zou's manifesto.

This nationalistic paradigm has had a tumultuous career over the last century in China, but through all the vagaries of Chinese politics it has remained a dynamically vital force and driver of historical events. If there has been a significant change, it is that where Zou's intense sentiments were novel and relatively radical in 1903, today they are ubiquitous and virtually hegemonic. The concept of "national humiliation" that Zou employed in such extravagantly polemical fashion has become an ordinary and enumerable touchstone of identity among Chinese citizens today, as intuitively integral to their understanding of their own past as the enormity of "taxation without representation" is to Americans' understanding of theirs.

The status of Taiwan is thus an exquisitely sensitive flashpoint in the collective consciousness of the people of mainland China. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate polling data about political attitudes in China, any survey will show that passions run high on this issue. In a web survey of Chinese public opinion conducted by the Global Times this past April, 97% of respondents considered Taiwan "an inseparable part of China" and 85% favored military action to achieve "reunification." A survey of the general public and "policy elites" done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2013 showed similar patterns:

One survey question asked Chinese respondents what they saw as the most likely source of conflict between China and the United States in the next two to three years. One American elite expressed surprise that even though the question focused on such a short time horizon, most respondents still identified Taiwan, despite the positive state of cross-strait relations at present and the fact that the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, which favors eventual reunification with the Chinese mainland, is in power...One Chinese elite emphasized that the finding shows how seriously the Chinese people take the Taiwan issue. Another Chinese discussant speculated that the percentage of Chinese identifying Taiwan as the most likely source of conflict may have been even higher had this survey been done when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was in power in the early to mid-2000s.

Now that President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party is indeed back in power, tensions surrounding this issue are even higher than they were when the survey was conducted in 2013. What American "elites" do not seem to understand is that the larger culture of Chinese nationalism makes any potential change to the sovereign status of Taiwan an existential threat to the CCP regime in Beijing. A Taiwanese declaration of independence would, in the mind of China's people, be a re-enactment of the great "national humiliation" of 1895. Any government that tolerated such a crime would be as de-legitimized in the eyes of more than a billion Chinese citizens as the Qing imperial court had been in the eyes of Zou Rong back in 1903. Any move by Taipei toward independence would face Beijing with the stark choice between an external war that could quickly internationalize and internal unrest that would undoubtedly make the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989 pale by comparison. These condition, moreover, would not likely change even if we saw a radical revolution in the Chinese political system. If a democratically elected government arose in Beijing one day and Taipei declared independence the next, by day three the new government in Beijing would declare Taiwan in rebellion and launch an attack, or risk falling in turn to another popular uprising.

All of the problems arising from these deep-seated nationalist passions are exacerbated for the present regime in Beijing by its unique liabilities. The radical centralization of the People's Republic and the natural urge of regional interests to seek more administrative and (especially) fiscal autonomy makes the example of Taiwan an especially dangerous one. Beyond this, the lingering aspirations for democratic governance that found brief expression in 1989 are perilously exacerbated by the example of Taiwan's vibrant multi-party democracy operating just off China's southeast coast. For the leadership in Beijing, Taiwan is like a cobra that the Chinese Communist Party is forced to share its bed with, and much institutional focus and energy must constantly be expended to prevent that proximity from becoming fatal.

All of this is to say that President-elect Trump's recent declaration that the U.S. does not "have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," expresses a profound misunderstanding of this issue and its impact on Sino-U.S. relations. For four decades the United States has cultivated a deliberate posture of "strategic ambiguity," to prevent Beijing from launching an attack on Taiwan for fear that we will militarily oppose an unprovoked invasion, while at the same time preventing Taiwan from declaring independence for fear that we will not defend them if they provoke Beijing by seceding. To abandon this fragile homeostasis in search of advantages in commercial or monetary policy is the equivalent of lighting your neighbor's house on fire in the attempt to get a better price for her used car. Such a move would only impel her to forget the sale of her car altogether and do anything and everything to prevent you from committing arson on her house ever again.

Beijing has little room to maneuver on this issue and even less desire to be forced to do so. CCP leaders understand the origins and potency of pro-independence feelings on Taiwan, but understanding such feelings only increases Beijing's perception of their lethal danger. Taiwanese nationalists bravely scoff at the mainland's fury, but no amount of contempt will make that fury any less tragically certain or destructive. The best that Mr. Trump can hope for with his reckless bluster is to destroy his credibility in Beijing, and most likely in Taipei too, because he has already telegraphed his intention to throw Taiwan under the bus in exchange for concessions from China. From there the possibilities become progressively darker, depending on how far Mr. Trump is willing to let the situation roll downhill. If the President-elect insists on calling Beijing's bluff he will quickly find that they are not bluffing. Given how little encouragement the pro-independence forces will need on Taiwan, and how little provocation Beijing is prepared to tolerate (they have passed laws authorizing military force for the mere suggestion of an intention to secede, much less a legal declaration of independence), enough irresponsible rhetoric from Washington could easily lead to a show of force that might quickly spiral out of control. For the sake of world peace we must all hope that Mr. Trump gains wisdom quickly in his conduct of Sino-U.S. relations or, failing that, that wiser heads than his prevail in crafting American policy in the Taiwan Strait.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

#Clownarchy Calling

The moment I realized just how dangerous a Trump presidency could be came back in March, when I watched  a town hall meeting with the prospective GOP nominee moderated by Chris Matthews. In response to a question about reproductive rights, Matthews and Trump fell into a long exchange about the mechanics of a ban on abortion, with Matthews pressing Trump on the issue of how such a ban would be enforced. After several attempts to deflect or dodge the question, Trump finally declared, "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment."

What alarmed me was not the illiberal principles underlying this pronouncement, but the look on Trump's face as he made it.  He looked as if, reluctant as he was to be pinned down on a politically sensitive issue, he was nonetheless sensible of delivering the wisdom of Solomon. His tone said, "Here comes the straight shooter again. Watch and learn, America. This is how it is done."

Only someone who was blissfully and totally ignorant of the state of debate concerning reproductive rights could have projected that air of self-satisfaction. Looking at him in that moment, one could see that the howls of protest that would arise from Republicans across the ideological spectrum, even among his most ardent supporters, would come as a total surprise to Mr. Trump. He had no idea that he had just demolished a carefully cultivated rhetorical position (the insistence that an abortion ban would NOT requires sanctions against women) that "pro-life" advocates had spent years building and defending.

This is the peril posed by the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump is not merely ignorant. His ignorance extends to a complete incomprehension of just how ignorant he is. He in fact knows so little that he is insensible to the danger of just how little he knows.

This problem has been on display since his ascent to the position of President-elect. Whether he is equating the loss of citizenship with a year's incarceration or alleging millions of illegally cast votes without proof, Trump does not seem to have the slightest understanding of how his pronouncements will be perceived or the potential damage they may do to his credibility. His supporters might view such antics as "bold," but for them to truly be bold there would have to be some evidence that Trump understands that they entail risk, and such evidence is missing. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, those risks are real.

The most alarming example thus far has been Trump's congratulatory phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. This was an enormous breach of the protocols of "strategic ambiguity" that have been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait for more than four decades. The Strait is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, surpassing even the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula. Though formally a province of China, since the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to the island at the close of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, constitution, and judiciary. Moreover, there is a large faction in Taiwanese politics that resents mainland exploitation of Taiwan (which began long before 1949) and who would seek a break from China at all costs.

At the same time, the citizens of the People's Republic of China on the mainland harbor deep and painful grievances over European, American, and Japanese imperial aggression against their homeland, the history of which includes the forced cession of Taiwan to Japan as a colony in 1895. Any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would thus be met with massive popular unrest on mainland China to rival the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. No government in Beijing, even one that had been democratically elected, could survive the political firestorm that would follow a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

It has thus been the policy of the United States to keep the peace through a diplomatic balancing act calibrated to maintain the status quo. On the one hand, our government concedes that there is only "one China" and that Taiwan is a part of it. There can thus be no "President of Taiwan," as the island is not sovereign. On the other hand, we maintain close informal relations with Taiwan (through the office of a "trade consul") and provide the Taiwanese military with billions of dollars of advanced military hardware, to dissuade the mainland government from trying to settle the conflict militarily.

This homeostasis has been maintained by every president, Democrat and Republican, for more than  forty years. Donald Trump's decision to not only receive a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen but to then tweet his thanks to "the President of Taiwan" is thus an unprecedented move for a president-elect. Politicians and commentators may debate the wisdom of this maneuver (I personally find it incredibly foolhardy), but no one can deny that this is an enormously consequential and risky shift in our foreign policy. If the President-elect did not mean it to be read that way, he did not understand what was at stake. If he did intend some significant statement, his choice of the telephone and Twitter as the media with which to make it (and the tenure of his sitting predecessor as the time to do so) were unthinkingly irresponsible. Either way, this latest gaffe is another in a long string of signs that Mr. Trump does not understand the role of the President or what is at stake in its conduct.

With Mr. Trump we are quickly entering terra incognita in the history of the modern presidency. The response of the Chinese government to this latest provocation reveals a trajectory for our future path. In a face-saving maneuver, they have blamed the incident on Taiwanese "trickery." While this preserves Sino-U.S. amity, it likewise reduces Mr. Trump to the status of an ignorant dupe. This is the inevitable direction in which Trump's presidency will evolve: as more actors cannot or will not take his words or deeds seriously, his persona will progressively transmute  into that of a clown, and the Presidency from a sovereign Executive into a #Clownarchy.

Confucius taught that, "If one conquers oneself and returns to ritual for a single day, the world will return to humaneness (Analects 12.1)." This is a profound insight into the universal nature of civil authority. Civil power relies on the regularity, predictability, and dignity of ritual and protocol. Though personal dynamism and charisma can be effective in performing a role like President of the United States, those assets will be counterproductive if one is unable to subordinate one's own selfish idiosyncrasies to the essential ceremonial parameters of the office. There are occasions when a civil official must simply do and say what protocol demands, a necessity that all of our presidents have acknowledged and successfully fulfilled to varying degrees.  Mr. Trump does not have the ability to recognize what those occasions are or even the shallowest knowledge of what the ceremonial aspects of his office entail. More perilously than that, he does not recognize that this is a problem. The whole world may suffer as a consequence.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The South (or the North, or the West...) Will Rise Again, and Again, and Again: Viewing the Electoral College from the Perspective of Chinese History

On July 20, 1842, during the Opium War, British soldiers and warships captured the garrison town of Zhenjiang, at the juncture of the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal in the Qing Empire's Jiangsu Province. When news reached the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850) in Beijing, he authorized his emissaries to treat for peace. Though Qing resistance up to that point had been robust, the capture of Zhenjiang gave the British control of a fatal fracture point in the larger imperial edifice.

With the Grand Canal blocked, little tax revenue could flow from the southern reaches of the empire to the capital. Two-thirds of the population of the Qing empire lived south of the Yangzi, and the economic disparity south-to-north was even greater than the demographic one. The per capita GDP of the agriculturally and commercially rich southern Jiangnan region was nearly twice that of more arid, sparsely populated northern districts like Qinghai and Gansu. The revenue system of the Qing, which drew tax receipts into the capital on the North China Plain, served as a wealth-transfer mechanism from the wealthy south to the impoverished north. Disrupting that flow for any length of time could  cause the precarious social contract holding the empire together to unravel.

In the wake of the Opium War the worst fears of the Qing government were realized. In Guangzhou (Canton) in 1837, the young scion of a southern gentry family, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) had for the second time sat for and failed the imperial exams that were  the surest route to political, economic and social success. The pass rates on the exams were extraordinarily low throughout the empire, but the odds were made even worse for southerners like Hong by the imposition of quotas favoring candidates from disadvantaged northern regions. His rage and frustration at this second failure induced a nervous collapse: he fell into a feverish state in which he had prophetic visions. After the Opium War he came to understand these visions as a divine calling and began to gather followers. The movement that he began eventually threw the Qing Empire into civil war, with large parts of southern China breaking away to form the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1850 to 1864. Unity was only restored after conflict that left as many as 20 million people dead and the economy of the empire shattered.

The Taiping Rebellion is only one (though admittedly among the worst)  of the many instances of cataclysmic breakdown experienced within the Chinese empire over the 2+ millenia of its history that were, in part, induced by inter-regional tensions and conflicts. Successive imperial regimes struggled to hold together an expansive domain throughout which social and economic capital were unevenly distributed. Though Chinese leaders developed and maintained redistributive mechanisms to offset regional disparities (for example, the quotas favoring northern candidates in the imperial exams), these were not generally elastic and responsive enough to relieve the persistent centrifugal forces driving the component regions of the empire apart. The problem, moreover, remains an urgent concern today, as attested by the recent unrest over Beijing's refusal to allow two secessionist legislators to be sworn in as members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

This history poses lessons for those of us contemplating the issue of the Electoral College in the wake of the most recent election. Not only has the Electoral College subverted the results of the popular vote for the second time in less than twenty years, but the 2016 race has yielded an unprecedented disparity between popular and electoral vote outcomes. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads by 1.7 million votes in the popular tally (a 2.7% lead) and is down by 58 Electoral College votes (a 20% deficit). That the relative differential between the two vote tallies should be so wide understandably creates a sense of profound unfairness- the impression that the democratic will of the people has been effaced by an arcane institution.

Though there will be renewed calls for the abolition of the Electoral College, the historical experience of China should give us pause to wonder at the wisdom of such a course. Like China, the United States is a vast and diverse domain in which social and economic capital are unevenly distributed and the interests of different groups vary widely from region to region. The most recent election has starkly highlighted the regional tensions straining our social fabric, with voters in the industrial Midwest and rural Appalachia mobilizing to deliver an electoral result that radically undermined conventional expectations. Donald Trump would not have won this election unless poor and working class voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin had defected from the Democratic Party in favor of his disruptive campaign, and that movement would not have resulted in a Trump victory absent the auspices of the Electoral College.

This being the case, as predictably as there is and will remain pressure to dismantle the Electoral College, there will be strong resistance to any campaign in this direction. To understand why, it is useful to contemplate what a presidential campaign would look like if such contests were decided purely by the popular vote. Candidates would focus almost entirely on the densely populated coasts to the exclusion of the interior, and on urban centers to the exclusion of more sparsely settled rural districts. By giving disproportionate leverage to more rural and sparsely populated states, the Electoral College forces candidates to wage truly national campaigns and to float policies that can win the votes of more marginalized citizens.

The 2016 election provides an object lesson in these redistributive dynamics. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote tally in California by 2.5 million votes. Thus if one eliminates California's total from the national tally, Donald Trump wins the national popular vote by 800,000 votes. This is a reflection of the fact that the Electoral College weights the popular vote of smaller and less densely populated states heavily, such that a vote cast in West Virginia is worth three times that of a vote cast in California. While that disparity might seem strangely arbitrary, to citizens in West Virginia, which has a per capita GDP of $38,567, it no doubt feels very fair that their votes should count more than those of their compatriots in California, who enjoy a per capita GDP of $61,924. In light of these facts we can see that in the 2016 election, the system as currently constituted has (or at least will be perceived as having) delivered a shocking victory to rural and industrial working-class voters over coastal elites; one that they would never have achieved in the absence of the Electoral College. For this reason, any move to eliminate this institution will be perceived as an attempt at the kind of "rigging" so loudly decried by the more acrimonious rhetoric of the recent campaign.

As votes continue to be counted and Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote widens, anger at the mechanics of the Electoral College will no doubt increase. In contemplating the situation, however, we must clearly understand that the elimination of the Electoral College cannot be taken for granted as an obvious "fix" to a quaintly arcane and obsolete institution. Reversion to the popular vote to decide presidential elections is and would be a drastically radical change to our larger social contract, one that materially impacts the interests of millions of citizens and significantly redistributes power across the political terrain. There are good philosophical arguments to be made against the "unfairness" of the Electoral College, but the historical experience of China demonstrates that there are likewise good practical and even ethical arguments on the other side of the issue. We must acknowledge and account for all of the consequences of changing the current system as we debate the issue moving forward, and undertake any such discussion in a spirit of extreme sensitivity to the interests of all groups that would be affected by any reform.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


The last election leaves the majority of voters facing grave alternatives in responding to the election of Donald Trump. One understandable reaction has been to deny his legitimacy as president-elect altogether, as expressed by the slogan #NotmyPresident. Though there are valid political and moral arguments to support such a stance, it is, as I have written in previous posts, very unwise. We have now been through a series of presidential elections the outcomes of which have been decried as illegitimate by different sectors of the electorate. If this trend continues there is a strong possibility that it will eventually be impossible to convince a critical mass of the populace that the president wields legitimate authority at all, and the system will finally collapse.

This does not mean, however, that we are forced to simply accept the results of the most recent election fatalistically. Trump's transgressions and provocations demand resistance. Thus it is incumbent upon those who recognize the threat that Trump represents to find an idiom of resistance that will produce constructive results. In this regard, it is possible for us to accede to Trump's legitimacy as POTUS but to deny him the power to normalize the aberrant political values and practices that have come to embody "Trumpism."

Such resistance, begins, of course, with the defense of basic constitutional safeguards. If Trump should try to institute genuinely illiberal policies (for example, a mandate that Muslim-Americans register in a special database) opposition must be total and unequivocal: noncompliance and civil disobedience are the only response. But resistance should not and cannot await such blatant provocations. We must begin by opposing subtle shifts in values and practices that, even if Trump should refrain from material assaults on civil rights, would corrode the austerity, credibility, and coherence of our basic institutions. 

Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon to the post of "chief strategist" exemplifies such a shift in standards. Bannon has (or does a credible job of pretending to have) a substantial world view, one that has elements that will appeal to working class voters and even to some progressive activists. But as editor of Breibart News, Bannon has associated with and given encouragement to some of the most toxic elements at the margins of American politics. The excuses he makes for the presence of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes and misogynists among his colleagues can only seem plausible and reassuring to someone who is not directly threatened by such figures. Moreover for someone who approved the publication of headlines such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy," "Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage," "The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield" (about former Representative Gabby Giffords), and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew" to seek broad mainstream acceptance would have been unthinkable even a few weeks or months ago, much less an official position inside the house of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. No conscientious citizen should treat the presence of Bannon in the White House as tolerable, and we must exert relentless pressure on the Trump administration to repudiate him. This is not a call for petty "political correctness," but a defense of the fundamental standards of civic decency and fairness.

Even if we can prevent Trump from warping the gauge of civic virtue, the alteration that he has induced in the climate of political rhetoric will be difficult to redress. When President Obama declared that Mr. Trump was "unfit for office" many of us were (and still are) inclined to agree. But it cannot foster broad confidence in our institutions when, in the conventional course of the "peaceful transfer of power," voters see the same President that had declared Mr. Trump "unfit" reassure them that their future was secure in the new President-elect's hands.  This, moreover, is just an inkling of what we may have in store. When Trump declared his opponent the "most corrupt person ever to run for president" and President Obama the "founder of ISIS" he was a private citizen. When he runs for re-election, what might Mr. Trump say as POTUS, and how completely will it undermine his  credibility when it comes his turn to relinquish power?

We are compelled to concede that Donald J. Trump is legitimately President-elect of the United States. But we are not compelled to admit that any aspect of the values or practices he brings to that office are proper, tolerable or fair. As citizens we have to vigilantly observe Mr. Trump's conduct and ideals, and by word and deed we must make clear that his breaches of procedure, decorum, and decency are #NotNormal, and never will be. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

An Open Letter to President-elect Trump and His Supporters

To President-elect Donald J. Trump and My Fellow Americans Who Voted for Him:

         I write to you out of a concern for the country that we all love. The contest on November 8th was free and fair, and in any ordinary election year it would only be left to congratulate the winner, allow the transition team to work, and await January 20th. This is not an ordinary election year, however.

         Mr. Trump, I wish that I could congratulate you, but the manner in which you conducted your campaign precludes me from doing so. You are the first modern president-elect to have joked about killing journalists. Or to have toyed with the idea of forcing people to enter a special registry because of their religion. Or to have waxed nostalgic about "the good old days" when dissent was met with bludgeoning. Or to have declared a member of the judiciary incompetent to serve because of his ethnicity. Or to have threatened to have citizens' marriages declared invalid. With these and other inflammatory statements you excited the enthusiasm of one-half of the electorate, but in so doing you completely forfeited the trust of the other half. Your defenders might protest that these statements were only bluster, but now that they are the words of the future President of the United States, no one who might be affected by them can view them as amusing or benign. You have squandered the confidence that you will need from the people you hope to govern, and as a result the whole constitutional edifice in which you are about to play a key role is endangered.

        You have expressed skepticism of or derision for the many who have taken to the streets to protest since your election. This is a serious mistake; the fears and concerns of those protesters are undeniably legitimate. Secretary Clinton was right to say that her supporters owe you an "open mind," but the insistent calls of the protesters for fair treatment are the best response that one can expect from an open-minded citizen given the tone of your campaign and the nature of your provocations.

         In all honesty, Mr. Trump, because I have been a lifelong Democrat and oppose many of your stated policy goals, under the best circumstances the most you could have hoped for from me was a posture of "loyal opposition." As things stand, however, we are a long way from the best circumstances. Though I accede the legitimacy of your election and revere the office that you will hold, I cannot offer you the normal deference a citizen owes his or her President before you repudiate the bigotry and illiberality that was the hallmark of your campaign. Unless and until I have been given reason to believe that you will fulfill your constitutional role in good faith, without injury to the rights and freedoms of the groups that you threatened (Muslims, women, Latin@s, people of color, LGBTQ citizens) I must add my voice to the protesters now decrying your election.

        Though, in fairness, you have made some statements that were reassuring, they have not been enough. Your thanking of Secretary Clinton for her service and your televised call for your supporters to refrain from expressions of hatred both showed the proper spirit of reconciliation. But in the same way that you galvanized your supporters during the campaign with audacious gestures, you must find some dramatic signal of your determination to win back the trust of those you have alienated.

         In this regard you have gotten off to a bad start. Your appointment of Stephen Bannon, a man steeped in white supremacist, ethnic nationalist, and anti-Semitic politics, completely undermines the confidence of those you need to win over. A reversal of that decision would go a long way to establishing trust. Beyond this, some political sign of your determination to forge an independent path might force people to reassess their impression of you. If, for example, you were to recommend the confirmation of Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice during the lame-duck session of Congress, this would project a willingness for fair compromise that might ease your opponents' fears.

       To my fellow Americans who voted for Donald Trump, I offer my unreserved congratulations. Your civic activism has garnered an historic and transformative victory, your feelings no doubt resemble my own in 2008 and 2012. I would only ask that you, like President-elect Trump, give serious consideration to the apprehensions of voters like me that were on the other side of the last election. Mr. Trump comes into his office under the greatest trust deficit of any president since the Civil War. It will take careful leadership on his part to insure that he can get around all of the obstacles that he has placed in his own way, and earnest citizenship on the part of everyone else to move the process of reconciliation forward to the point where his presidency has a chance to succeed. Though we are bound to disagree in the months and years ahead, if we proceed in the spirit of mutual respect and open communication, we can ensure the continued flourishing of the constitutional order that is our shared legacy as Americans and in which we are all blessed to participate.


               Andrew Meyer