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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Misunderestimating North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Death and Terror in Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pity the Novelists

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 06, 2018

This is About Race (Whatever Else It Is About)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Daniels and Donald Trumpster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

All, Xi Wrote (Updated)

The news this weekend that the Chinese Communist Party proposed amending the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the office of president, making it possible for current President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely, has predictably occasioned international concern and commentary. Here in the U.S., analysis has focused  mainly on the near-term implications for geopolitical power dynamics. Will this embolden Xi Jinping to deepen the PRC's aggressive posture in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait? Will relations with the Trump administration be further strained by this boost to Xi's power?

Such ruminations embody a deep-seated parochialism that inflects American thinking about China. Americans are animated by an abiding faith in "American exceptionalism," but less aware of the fact that the politics of other nations may be exceptional in unique ways. This problem is especially true with regard to China. Americans are prone to view the PRC as one of the 193 member nations of the UN, and its politics as mutually fungible with that of other "nations" such as Iraq, Iran, Russia, or Egypt. Thus the latest development with regard to Xi Jinping is easily understandable by reference to convenient analogues: Xi is the newest "strongman" in the mold of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Vladimir Putin.

But such comparisons are belied by any realistic accounting of China's unique situation. Even if we take the PRC's structuring as a "nation-state" at face value, the sheer geographic and demographic scale (1.3 billion people dispersed over 3.7 million square miles) on which that status is institutionalized make its internal dynamism incomparable to other similarly constituted polities. Moreover, there is real reason to treat the "national" character of the PRC as mitigated by many factors: its long and complex pre-national history, the hyper-multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic character of its populace, the fragmentation of its terrain. The PRC, as a system unto itself, is an extraordinarily complicated polity subject to the vagaries of an immense array of unique and intricately interrelated variables. When confronted with a phenomenon like the "elevation of Xi Jinping," we are best advised to ask what this might mean in terms of the particular internal workings of the PRC itself before assuming that this can be inferred by comparison to a modular analogue and moving on to questions of how it will affect the rest of the world.

In this latter regard, there are real reasons to doubt whether the current actions by the CCP are creating Xi Jinping as a "strongman" in the classic mold. Rescinding of term limits on the presidency is a step back from moves taken during the 1990's by Chinese leaders to "routinize" the chain of command at the top of the PRC political structure and to rationalize the system as a whole. These may be the product of a "cult of personality" forming around Xi Jinping himself. But even if that is true to some degree, these developments may also be a product of strains upon the PRC political system as a whole, and insecurities about the long-term stability of the regular structure that CCP leaders had been attempting to build. In other words, one reason that the CCP is removing term limits might be a fear that the system is too unstable to survive another transition (or too frequent transitions) of power at the top.

The American commentator whose work may be most relevant to understanding the current moment in Chinese politics is thus David Shambaugh. In a 2015 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Shambaugh famously predicted "The Coming Chinese Crackup," declaring that, "The endgame of communist rule in China has begun, and Xi Jinping's ruthless measures are only bringing the country closer to a breaking point." The past weekend's events will no doubt be seized upon by Shambaugh's critics as a sign that he was wrong, since in that editorial Shambaugh speculated that Xi Jinping might be ousted in a coup. But while Shambaugh might have read the tea leaves wrong in that detail, the removal of term limits on the presidency does add empirical weight to the general argument that the PRC system is weakening and losing cohesion. As I have argued in other posts, American leaders would be well-advised to spend as much time worrying about the internal stability of the PRC as any proclivity it might express for external aggression. As destabilizing as it would be for the larger world if the PRC attempted to project force in Asia or abroad, the international effects would be equally deleterious (or worse) if the PRC deteriorated into internal disorder or violence. The latter contingency, I would argue, is the far likelier one. Leaders in the US and elsewhere should do what they can to circumvent it, and should prepare to respond by way of mitigating the harm (to both China and the world) if it should occur.

None of this is to imply that US leaders should be overly tolerant of aggression or complacent about the persistence of one-party (or one-man rule) in the PRC.  One-party rule is at the root cause of instability, and foreign aggression by the PRC is one of its detrimental symptoms. But all policy toward China on the part of the US and its allies should be formulated with a sensitivity to the domestic drivers of Chinese foreign affairs. Expansionist provocations in the South China Sea, for example, are in large part undertaken for the media consumption of Chinese citizens, as an appeal to the nationalistic passions that are among the last intrinsic interests of the Chinese people that the Party is systemically competent to serve. Over-strident responses to such provocations on the part of the US or its allies only serve the Party's underlying motives and strengthen its hand. European and American leaders would be well advised to worry less about the PRC's building platforms in the ocean and more about the prospect of rising instability in China itself, as such instability will only exacerbate Chinese aggressiveness and place whatever strategic interests are genuinely at stake in places like the South China Sea in further jeopardy.

There are, of course, limited things that the US can do to foster stability in the PRC or encourage it to move away from one-party rule. Avoiding trade war is one of them, as economic distress will only hasten any decay of the PRC system. Getting America's own house in order is another crucial measure. Dysfunction and entropy in the US strengthens the opponents of necessary reform in China. The worst thing that American leaders can do is to make participatory democracy look like a poor alternative by comparison to oligarchy and dictatorship.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Zionism After Trump

The radical shift in policy charted by the Trump administration with regard to Israel-Palestine (the movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the withdrawal of funds from UNRWA, the United Nations agency that provides support to Palestinian refugees) will likely prove to be a transformative crisis, not just for US-Mideast relations but for the global Zionist movement as a whole. Writing in the New York Times Michelle Goldberg has already asked if, in the wake of Trump's presidency, liberal Zionism is dead? By "liberal Zionism" she means the Labor Zionism of figures like David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin that had once been the mainstream of Israeli politics. Whether her most dire outcomes are realized or not, there seems little doubt that both the internal politics of Israel and its orientation toward the international community will be permanently changed by current developments.

Donald Trump sells his new policies as obvious course corrections never attempted by his predecessors because they lacked his bold vision and freedom from conventional restraint. He knows that his core voters will admire these moves as characteristic of his strength as a "disrupter" of politics-as-usual. Moreover, there will be very little downside for him politically because, like him, his supporters are not likely to pay attention to or care much about the long-term consequences of his actions.

Trump is operating from a conventional overestimation of U.S. power that is likely to make intuitive good sense to most of his core supporters. By "taking Jerusalem off the table" (that is, by backing the notion that occupied East Jerusalem will forever remain Israeli territory, despite the fact that the Israelis themselves have never gone as far as claiming to have "annexed" it) and by refusing funds to support Palestinian refugees, Trump claims to be forcing a peace resolution in the face of Palestinian intransigence, but none of these gambits will work to that end. Few countries will follow the U.S. in relocating embassy missions to Jerusalem, and Islamic nations or private donors are likely to make up the shortfall in funding for UNRWA.

Rather than creating a show of US strength, Trump has created a show of US bias. The US funded UNRWA, for example, not because the Palestinians were dependent upon US largess, but because doing so helped foster the appearance that the US could serve as an impartial broker between the Israelis, who on a per-capita basis receive many more dollars in aid from the US than any other nation, and the Palestinians, whose own aspirations for sovereignty wait upon a peace settlement with Israel. By asking why the US should give the Palestinians money "without getting anything in return," Donald Trump is effectively declaring that what the US "wants" is peace on Israel's terms. The same logical inference arises from Trump's claim to have "taken Jerusalem off the table".

Michelle Goldberg and others are no doubt correct in asserting that this shift in the dynamism of US-Israeli-Palestinian interaction undermines the forces, already weakened by years of stagnation, that might lead to a two-state solution. As Palestinians abandon the hopes of a two-state solution in the face of explicit US obstruction and as right-wing Israelis, emboldened by Trumpist encouragement, pursue policies of quasi-annexation, the goals and principles of liberal Zionism (the maintenance of a state that is both majority-Jewish and a liberal democracy) will become ever-progressively attenuated. Donald J. Trump may well have finally put a stake through the heart, not only of a two-state solution, but of the Zionist ideal of Herzl, Weizmann, and Ben Gurion.

Is there anything that can be done? Trump's diplomatic ineptitude is facilitated by the fact that few Americans, even among the Jewish community, understand the history and situation of Israel-Palestine any more than he does. Labor Zionist policies and goals are not given robust voice in American politics because (for reasons that I discussed in a previous post) all of the organizations that coordinate lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel (like AIPAC) are much more in sympathy with the ideology of Likud and parties even further to the right on the Israeli political spectrum.

If, in fact, Liberal Zionism is dying, it is in part because it lacks robust and institutionalized representation in the US, Israel's staunchest ally. One potential countermeasure to Trumpism might thus be a campaign of sustained outreach on the part of liberal Israeli political parties among Jews in the US. American Jews need to be better educated about the political differences between Israeli parties and leaders, and they need to be organized to impose political costs (or bestow political rewards) upon US leaders that obstruct or foster policies conducive to a two-state solution.

The imperative for this sort of coordination between American Jews and Israeli leaders is intensified by the possibility that, in fact, a two-state solution has been rendered untenable. If Israel-Palestine will eventually be united as a single commonwealth, demographics will not allow that new entity to be the majority-Jewish state that Theodor Herzl envisioned, but it can and  should still be a true democracy. Such an outcome can only be guaranteed, however, if  activism and leadership in both Israel and the US protects the rights, liberties, and security of all residents living on either side of the "Green Line." For such a process to be safeguarded, it is important that liberal Israeli leaders create channels of dialogue now that can garner the support necessary to mobilize public opinion in the US, whatever shape the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may take moving forward in the wake of the Trump presidency.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Count Me A #NeverOprah (#NeverClooney, #NeverStewart, #NeverYadaYadaCelebrity) Democrat

The brief frenzy set off by Oprah Winfrey's Golden Globes speech is a distressing bellwether of American politics. The notion that the Democratic Party might "fight fire with fire" by nominating a TV celebrity to oppose Donald Trump in 2020 speaks to how far down the rabbit hole our entire political culture has fallen. This is not to suggest that Oprah Winfrey is not far superior to Donald Trump in many respects. She is more articulate, more knowledgeable, more basically decent than the current president. But we must remember what a shockingly low bar that is.

The greatest problem with Ms. Winfrey is not any aspect of her character or intellect, or even her lack of experience in government. It is the raw fact of her celebrity and her career in entertainment. This should be an object lesson drawn from the fate of Al Franken. When the photo of Mr. Franken mock-groping Leeann Tweeden went viral, his apologists argued that we should discount it because it was done when he was a comedian. But they misread the moral of the story, which was not that we should forgive our senators their sins as comedians, but that we should not elect comedians to the Senate.

Much moreso than in the days of Ronald Reagan, our media culture is pervaded by a transgressive "shock and awe" sensibility that invariably causes celebrities to make gestures and statements that are impolitic- that are provocative and tolerably controversial in the context of "infotainment" or gossip but that would be execrably divisive coming from an elected official. Al Franken became the poster child for this phenomenon: a person who is going to wield real power over questions of sexual harassment and discrimination can not be on record as joking about such issues, as it fatally undermines his credibility, both in the eyes of the people hoping for his protection and the people who may be the target of his censure. Oprah Winfrey, if she stepped into the political arena, would be even more freighted with these liabilities, because she has enjoyed a much higher public profile for much longer than Al Franken. One need only briefly peruse the strident postings under the "#NeverOprah" tag on Twitter to see that her long record of public pronouncements is a goldmine of easily-taken-out-of context statements and distortion-prone provocations.

Beyond these admittedly instrumental cautions, we need to forswear celebrity candidates to cultivate our own integrity as an electorate. We have become so vapid, so intellectually lazy as a country, that we are no longer willing to learn anything about a person with whom we have not already been made familiar in a non-challenging medium. "The Apprentice" bottled Donald Trump for millions of voters so that they felt they knew him better than Marcio Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Hillary Clinton. Al Franken was a familiar face from late night television and book jackets. I myself fell into the trap of endorsing a petition asking Jon Stewart to run for my local congressional seat. The Tweeden affair was my come-to-Buddha moment. That way lies Idiocracy.

Our whole body politic has suffered terrible injuries under the Trump presidency, not the least of which is the president's breach of a basic article of the unwritten social contract: he was elected after making direct insults to and threats against whole constituencies of the electorate (Muslims, women, people of color) for which he has never apologized or sought redemption or reconciliation. The resulting climate of fear and anger is insidiously corrosive of our institutional order and must be redressed. An Oprah candidacy would only exacerbate the problem where a remedy is needed. Her entire campaign would be freighted with rationalizations ("she didn't really mean that," "she said that as a joke/provocation, but would never govern that way") and her administration, if it ever occurred, would labor under a credibility deficit from which it could never recover. We need politics to become less impolitic. To that end we must stop nominating and electing entertainers.

This is my message to fellow Democrats: don't nominate Oprah (or George Clooney, or Jon Stewart, or whatever celebrity becomes the flavor-du-jour in the next 35 months). If you do, I will not vote for her (him), even if it means that Trump is re-elected. As disastrous as I know a second Trump term will be, it would be the lesser of two evils weighed against the direction our country would be taken by another celebrity presidency following on the heels of the current one.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Dreams of Bedford Falls


It's A Wonderful Life is my favorite film, which is saying something because I've seen lots of films. This year the film seems particularly poignant. In my mind It's A Wonderful Life has always been paired with The Bicycle Thief, both because they are closely contemporary and thematically synonymous. The protagonists of each film, George Bailey and Antonio Ricci, face the same crisis: they become reduced to pieces of capital. Antonio's value is subsumed in his stolen bicycle, George's in the insurance policy he offers to Mr. Potter. 

The Bicycle Thief (Spoiler Alert) resolves tragically. Antonio never recovers his bicycle, the final shot shows him and his son, swept along in a crowd, yielding to the streetcar plowing through the teeming urban masses, symbolizing the inevitable displacement of human labor by machines. It's A Wonderful Life is of course the inverse of The Bicycle Thief, unless one ends the film at the point that George is standing forsaken on the bridge, contemplating suicide- then the two films would be virtually identical. 

A lot of Capra's films seem to work that way- Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington- they build to a crushingly tragic ending that then gets reversed through fantastic circumstance. His quixotic optimism has always felt uniquely American to me. But so has the tragic ending nested within each of those stories. Capra understood that American capitalism, like industrial capitalism worldwide, had the capacity to dehumanize individuals, tear apart communities, and erode families. 

In this respect his message in It's A Wonderful Life corresponds very closely to that of The Bicycle Thief. In The Bicycle Thief, Antonio Ricci transits from one source of support to another in search of aid. He entreats the state, the community, his family, his friends, the spiritual powers (in the form of a local holy woman)...all to no avail. These are all the groups and institutions that George feels abandoned by as he stands on his bridge of sorrow (and all come to his rescue in the party scene at the end in which Zuzu hears Clarence's bell ring). 

There are a number of ways to read the divergence between the two films. One could argue that Capra is shilling for the system- offering people a saccharine fantasy to lull them into complacency about the soulless destructiveness of the market. But that has never seemed persuasive to me. If Capra's goal was to anesthetize, the scenes in Pottersville would not be so jarring or so true-to-life. The most upsetting thing about the juxtaposition is that the people of Pottersville are the same as the residents of Bedford Falls, only organized differently. 

This seems to be Capra's point- we might all wish that we live in Bedford Falls, but we all know on some level that we live in Pottersville. Or rather, each community in America is both Bedford Falls and Pottersville at once. In every city and town there are those for whom state, family and community are working, and those for whom they are not, and the scope of each condition is contingent on the choices we make as individuals and as a society. Moreover, the better choices in that regard *require* optimism. As Americans the freedom our institutions grant us for expression, commerce, and conscience are potentially a blessing, but they also entail peril- pessimism overindulged can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As FDR said, in our liberal democracy the greatest thing we have to fear is "fear itself." 

So that is the message I take from It's A Wonderful Life this holiday season- not that we used to live in Bedford Falls and we are slipping into Pottersville, but that both have been with us all along, and that the duty to work for one and against the other has never changed. Yes, at the moment there are a lot of people (one particularly orange-tinted) out there spreading fear and malaise, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains a wonderful life, and it is a virtue to keep listening for Clarence's bell. Happy New Year's to all. I may run into you in Pottersville, but I'll be looking for you in Bedford Falls.