Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump, Abortion, and the Law

The furor from both sides of the aisle concerning Donald Trump's call yesterday that "some form of punishment" be instituted for women who seek an abortion is a rare window onto one of the most distorted dynamics in American political discourse. This flap may do more damage to Trump among Republicans than all of his prior intemperate statements combined, stretching back to his first attack upon John McCain as a "loser" who let himself be captured by the Vietnamese. The reasons for this outrage are illuminating, both about the nature of Trump's candidacy and the politics of the larger discourse concerning abortion and reproductive rights.

On the surface, Republican anger is centered on the degree of ignorance and phony pandering revealed by Trump's words. Trump, a public figure who until very recently supported reproductive freedom, has obviously not done the least bit of study or reflection upon the principles and theory of the "pro-life" activism he now claims to espouse. His words betray a total ignorance of the current consensus among mainstream GOP politicians.

But if ignorance and pandering were enough to spark outrage, Donald Trump should have been in much worse shape long before now. Trump's evasions and vague ramblings have repeatedly revealed how little he knows about issues of foreign and domestic policy on which the GOP has been campaigning rigorously for decades. This case is unique because, speaking as the GOP frontrunner, Trump has done material damage to a rhetorical position that the Republican party had long taken for granted as safely established.

In calling for women to be punished, Trump has done what no "pro-life" advocate is ever supposed to do, and left the GOP once again exposed to accusations of waging a "war on women." But if Trump's discomfiture is on some level deserved, his crime is also arguably one of undue candor.  The move to criminalize abortion inevitably raises the issue of enforcement, and the idea that enforcement could avoid punishing women, directly or indirectly, is absurd.

This is made plain by the strained retraction issued by Trump's campaign short hours after his comments broke. Women seeking abortion would not be punished in a Trump administration, we were told, only their doctors, because a woman in such an instance is a "victim." This is in line with the current position of "pro-life" activism, but is incongruous from a campaign that has repeatedly decried "political correctness."

What but political correctness (and latent sexism) could consign half of the population to "victimhood" if they are complicit in an act deemed the moral equivalent of murder? This is to deny the agency and autonomy of women, to insist that they need special protection, not only from their doctors, but from themselves. It is especially clear in the case of a woman who, as in the dark days of caustic chemicals and wire hangers, attempted to administer an abortion to herself. Trump (and "pro-life" activists in general) would presumably also deem such a woman a victim. But this makes the "pro-life" position strangely identical to that of the defenders of reproductive freedom. Moreover, if she is a victim, then by driving her to self-mutilation instead of the care of a doctor the "pro-life" legal regime would punish her as surely as if it had clapped her in jail.

These types of logical and rhetorical problems are rarely brought to the surface by our national discourse on reproductive rights, because partisans on both sides of the issue are content to cleave closely to scripted talking points and avoid all discussion of the principles underpinning the issue. Democrats and Republicans assume that the degree of support for either position is "baked in" to the political demography, thus there is never any need to educate or persuade. In this respect, Donald Trump has done us a favor by inducing a moment of rare probity into a routinely rote and anemic discourse. It would be wonderful if the debate of these issues could remain as robust through the fall, but as Trump's opponents in both parties exhaust the political points that can be scored from this gaffe, the conversation will most likely revert to being as insipid as usual.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vladimir Putin Can See Sarah Palin From His House

The recent surprise announcement by Vladimir Putin that Russia will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria is reminiscent of Sarah Palin's decision to leave the governorship of Alaska before her term was done. In the same way that Palin justified her decision by characterizing it as a courageous refusal to "go with the flow," Putin has declared victory as if his current withdrawal had been his aim all along. The main difference between these two cases is that in the latter instance, many people are buying it. The strange cult of Putin as some kind of strongman/strategic genius seems to have inexhaustible legs in American political discourse, thus it is easy to find examples of pundits praising this most recent development as a bold gambit.

This is not to indulge in "he's turning tail and running" machismo. I have very little interest in whether Mr. Putin deserves his "strongman" reputation or not. But the suggestion that this policy on Moscow's part has produced any significant achievements to justify or redeem it is strained at best. Russia has bought some breathing room for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Though this is an undeniable real-world effect, why it is in anyone's interests, including those of Russia, is as yet an imponderable.

When historians many decades from now sift through the evidence of the Syrian civil war there will no doubt be long debates about Russia's role, and one of the key interpretive questions will be whether Mr. Putin ever had a coherent policy, or whether he has been improvising from the outset. I will not play Karnak and predict who will have the better side of that debate. But, barring some miraculous result in the peace negotiations between warring factions in the Syrian civil war, the "he was just winging it" judgment may ultimately be the kindest reading that can be made of Putin's actions.

None of the coherent goals one might posit for Russia's policy meet any basic test of value. Assert Russia's relevance in the Middle East? If that was the object, it was achieved at a steep cost of increased misery to the Syrian people and decreased capacity in the fight against ISIS. Deflect attention from meddling in the Ukraine? The hordes of desperate refugees driven to the sea in part by Russia's machinations cannot produce fond thoughts in Europe.

The most cogent reason for Russia's intervention in Syria is the one that Putin himself gave to the UN, that the fight against jihadi terrorists such as ISIS must depend on the continued persistence of forces like the Assad regime. This, however, is a policy rooted in a view of the Syrian people (and Arabs more generally) so cynically pessimistic and paternalistic as to rival the xenophobic ramblings of Donald Trump. Now that Putin is set to (at least notionally) demobilize his forces with the civil war still raging and ISIS as strong or stronger than when he began, the best that can be said of him is that he has perhaps recognized the limits of Russian military power better than George W. Bush did in the case of America's involvement in Iraq. To anyone who would cite this as an example of Putin's strategic wisdom, however, it would have to be noted (as was true in the case of George W. Bush) that the one thing Putin could have done better than withdrawing "at the right time" would have been to refrain from deploying his forces in the first place.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and Putin's deployment of Russian forces to Latakia both stemmed from the same fundamental mistrust of the people of the Middle East, a refusal to acknowledge that they might effect social and political change on their own initiative. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been hampered by the same dysfunctional mindset, in kind if not degree. Putin's decision to withdraw forces now gives the lie to comparisons portraying him as more "tough" or "dynamic" than President Obama. In the end both leaders were willing to apply comparable levels of force to the Syrian theater. Indeed, President Obama proves the more durable "warrior," as our air campaign against ISIS will continue as Russia draws down.

The relevant comparison between Russia and the US is not over which nation was willing to drop more bombs- that is an effective draw. The real contrast concerns which nation was willing to back its principles with military force. President Obama correctly recognized early on that "Assad must go," that Damascus's use of military force against its own people made regime change (achieved militarily or politically) necessary for stability and peace in Syria. The US has erred in failing to construct a robust policy on that basis, because we did not trust the Syrian people to replace the Assad regime with a government to our liking. Thus we allowed the civil war to drag on and to create a power vacuum conducive to the rise of ISIS. If the US had been as willing to use its strategic power to oppose the Assad regime as Russia has been to support it, the Syrian civil war might already be over, and ISIS might never have existed (or at least might be on its way to defeat).

Those who continue to laud Vladimir Putin are drawing the wrong lessons from history. The consequences of American passivity may be a cautionary tale, but its moral is complemented by that to be drawn from the story of Russia's "dynamism." Though America's failure in Syria demonstrates that correct principles will not be of help if a nation lacks the courage of its convictions, in Putin's decision to withdraw we see that no amount of military power will prevail if the political principles underpinning its use are misguided.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders

To the Honorable Senator Bernie Sanders:

      Like many Americans I am deeply distressed by the incidents of violence that have transpired at rallies for the front-runner in the Republican nominating contest, Mr. Donald Trump. Though you have rightly condemned Mr. Trump for irresponsibly encouraging his followers in these incidents, and have stated that no candidate should welcome or incite violence, you have yet to issue a direct plea to your own supporters to refrain from violence of any kind.

        Some admittedly very dishonest pundits on the right are broadcasting a false narrative that asserts a moral equivalency between yourself and Donald Trump, claiming that your supporters are equally to blame for incidents such as what transpired recently in Chicago. Though this is absurd given the context of Mr. Trump's inflammatory behavior, even so, at such a fraught moment in our civic life all political leaders come under an onus to enjoin their own supporters to reject violence.

        You have shown great integrity and sterling leadership, both in Congress and on the campaign trail. Please use that moral authority accrued through long service to intervene positively in the current crisis. A clear plea from you asking your supporters to abjure violence in all forms would work powerfully and urgently to mend our civil discourse and elevate our political life from the depths into which it has fallen. 

         Donald Trump seeks to expose our "politically correct" civic culture as morally bankrupt and materially impotent. Only strong moral leadership on the part of his opponents can defeat his gambit. I hope that you will show Donald Trump, his supporters, and the rest of America that our inclusive democratic politics still claims the allegiance of people motivated by integrity and self-restraint. In any case, I hope this message finds you well and I thank you for your attention on this matter.


                                                              Andrew Meyer

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Trumpocalypse and Rule #1

As a long-time Douglas Adams fan, I found inspiration for basic parenting technique in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Always impressed by the salience and cogency of the motto ("Don't Panic") inscribed on the cover of the book that gives the novel its title,  I presented this to my infant daughter as "Rule #1 of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Over the years it has proven a handy mechanism during temper tantrums, bouts of disappointment, and various and sundry emotional rough-spots.

Viewing the current political scene, it becomes plain to me that the efficacy of "Rule #1" extends far beyond the personal or domestic realm. Like many other observers I am deeply dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump in the ranks of the GOP, and view the prospect of his nomination as a singular political disaster the likes of which our nation has rarely witnessed in my lifetime. But viewing the scenes of violence in Chicago last night and reports of the Secret Service "swarming" to protect Mr. Trump in Ohio today, I cannot help but feel that the larger political response to the threat he poses is being detrimentally impacted by flagrant and tragic inattention to Rule #1.

As I have written in past posts, a Trump presidency would be cataclysmic for our nation and a defeated Trump GOP candidacy only slightly less harmful. As bad as both of these outcomes are, however, there is one that would be worse: if he or his supporters are violently injured in the course of the current campaign. Trump has, deliberately or not, turned his candidacy into an indictment of the legitimacy of our system of government. Nothing will make that challenge more persuasive, lasting, and effective than a violent attack upon him or his supporters. Such acts would "prove" to his supporters (and to neutral observers) that Trump's opponents, those of any party who claim to defend the inclusive, constitutional, democratic order that Trump derides, are moral cowards and intellectual hypocrites. Nothing would do more to undermine faith in our system of government and impede the working of its institutions.

None of this is meant to defend Trump or to minimize the threat he embodies. Whatever demurrals he or his campaign might make, Trump has deliberately fostered a climate of tension and violence at his rallies. The resulting scenes of chaos ostensibly argue for the kind of "strong" authoritarian leadership he claims to offer, thus further enhancing his appeal among the types of voters that have powered his ascent. Though these tactics are reprehensible, responding to them with fear and anger will only add gasoline to the fire.

Expressions of protest against Trump are all well and good, but expressions of rage serve no useful end. Donald Trump's greatest ally is, to borrow FDR's phrase, fear itself, followed closely by anger. To deprive him of that power, anyone dedicated to opposing him must embrace Rule #1- Don't Panic.   Anger only enhances his appeal, and violence used against Trump or his supporters is not only morally wrong, it is the height of strategic folly. The only way that the challenge Trump poses can be defeated is at the ballot box. If Trump is physically attacked he (or his movement, if he is killed) wins, in which case everyone loses.