Thursday, February 16, 2017

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trumpty Dumpty or Trumplestiltskin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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