Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Kelly's Heroes

Donald Trump and John Kelly

We’re all Civil War re-enactors.  As the most dramatic and consequential chapter in our tortured racial history it compels our concern and provokes our passions. But we seem unable to deal with it maturely. Instead of facing it and learning from it, we succumb to its distortions and lies. Instead of settling it, it unsettles us. We fight it every single day, and it always wins. And on October 30, White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly recklessly threw himself into that fight, responding to a question about Civil War monuments by saying:

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now where it’s different today. But the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand with where their consciences had them make their stand.

But this is monumentally foolish. The entire history of the American republic before the Civil War is one of endless compromises aimed at reassuring the South that slavery would not be disturbed. The precipitating cause of the war was the election of a profoundly conciliatory and compromising president who merely wished to prevent the expansion of slavery into new territories, and promised to leave it alone in the states where it already existed.  We compromised our ideals for decades, but that ultimately proved incapable of preventing war with people prepared to fight to the death to maintain such a monstrous evil. And apparently we need to be reminded that General Lee (who was a gallant soldier, but a brutal slave-master) led an army intent on destroying the United State in the service of that evil.

But why do we need to be reminded? How does an intelligent person like Kelly manage to overlook such glaring truths? The easy answer from liberals is: deliberate racism. In this view Kelly finds Confederate generals admirable because they’re the heroes of white power over black bodies. Maybe he even likes slavery!  But this is cheap and irresponsible; there is no evidence that beneath Kelly’s bland exterior there beats a cold racist heart. Indeed, there’s a better, a more subtle explanation, and it’s the reverse of the liberal accusation. It’s not that Kelly admires men like Lee because of their white supremacy; it’s that he goes easy on their white supremacy because he admires them.  And he admires them because it’s too painful not to. That is, to admit Lee’s evil is to admit American evil and that’s something a conservative can never do. Slavery and racism are central to the American story, and the inability to accept that is central to American conservatism.

And what’s true for Kelly is true for the millions more – in the South and elsewhere – who perceive the Civil War in the same way. Some of them are indeed motivated by outright racism, but most are simply unable to concede that America committed such grievous crimes. It’s probably true that most people in most countries are similarly unable to face up to their own national sins. But Americans find it particularly painful, since we invest such emotion in the view of ourselves as noble and enlightened crusaders fighting for democracy and truth. How can the shining city on the hill have a rotten foundation?  Downplaying American racial sin to preserve American idealistic self-image is older than the republic itself.

Rutherford B. Hayes, who ascended to the presidency
in 1877 by agreeing to a backroom deal that ended the
federal guarantee of the rights of African Americans
It’s because the Civil War presents a direct threat to that self-image that we continue to fight over it so bitterly. And in the period after the war, known as Reconstruction, we dug ourselves deeper. When the South lost it faced a profound moral choice: either concede the horrible wrongness of its war aims, or preserve its self-image by pretending it fought for other more respectable reasons, and by suppressing the ex-slaves as lesser creatures whose rights need not be respected.  We all know what it chose. And, crucially, it asked the rest of the country to share its mythology. Or rather, it demanded widespread acceptance of that mythology as the price for white reconciliation. In effect, southern whites presented northern whites with a choice of their own, “Side with us or with our ex-slaves; you can’t have both.” And we all know what they chose. The mythology became the consensus, and black Americans paid the price.

Kelly, and the millions who agree with him, are still making that same choice. They callously disregard and minimize the death and destruction visited upon black people under slavery, Jim Crow, and even now, all to preserve white unity and white pride. But unsurprisingly, callousness is not a constructive strategy. It’s what impels conservative denial about the continuing harsh reality of black life in America today. It pushes whites toward white identity politics, even white nationalism, even outright racism. Its suppressed guilt makes conservatives bitter, defensive, resentful, angry.  It allows them to be manipulated by malevolent hucksters like Donald Trump. Conservative denial is the very poison that is killing us.

But liberals are immune because they’ve opted out of the old consensus. That’s what makes them liberals! Starting in the 1950’s and 60’s they determined to expand the New Deal economic and social success story – which had until then been limited to whites – to include all Americans.  In effect they rejected the white southern Reconstruction-era choice as a false one and determined to side with everyone.  But southern and conservative whites refused – even at this late a stage – to honestly face their historical and current crimes, and liberals, in frustration and desperation, gave up the project of shared prosperity.  After the Civil War, northern whites reconciled with southern whites and blacks suffered.  But now white liberals side with blacks and reconciliation suffers. We’re all Reconstruction re-enactors.

But that’s partly because liberal reluctance to surrender American unity has turned into wild-eyed enthusiasm.  Liberals are happy to see themselves as the good guys, the protectors and allies of black people, and even happier to see conservatives – particularly southern white conservatives – as the embodiment of all American evil. Increasingly, liberals see America itself as so essentially compromised by racial evil that anyone would be foolish and naive to bestow upon her any hope or loyalty. But liberal racial sanctimony, like conservative racial denial, is really about unresolved guilt, about attempting to remove oneself from American sin. Conservatives childishly pretend it doesn’t exist; liberals face it but project it entirely onto the political Other. Conservatives hold onto American idealism by denying it’s less than ideal, liberals hold onto it by psychologically and politically removing themselves from America. The liberal response is more forgivable, of course, since they do face the truth, and they do hold onto their idealism. But they do so at the cost of alienation from their own country, that is, from themselves. And that detachment makes it too easy to indulge the darker aspects of that idealism and go crusading against conservatives like Puritan ministers railing against Satan. But unsurprisingly, shaming is not a constructive strategy. But it is an inevitable one when you’ve concluded that the only way to hold onto your idealism is by rebuking your own country.

And that’s how we’ve hardened into our two sad, familiar camps, defined by our respective dysfunctional reactions to the horrible contradiction between our national ideals and our national crimes. But callous denial and aloof sanctimony are not our only options.  The only hope, and it’s a slim one, is for liberals to see the damage they do when they so fundamentally deplore their fellow countrymen. Liberals, as the conscience of America, must be the more mature party here. If they can face up to American sin, can’t they face up to their own? It’s true that many conservatives are still outright racist, but most are not, and calling them all racists and labeling them as essentially evil does enormous harm to our national life. It degrades the discourse and increases mistrust and resentment, it hardens people in their resistance.  It confuses the symptom, racial resentment, with the disease, national pride, and it angers people who simply want to believe in themselves and their country. It plays into the hands of white nationalists and unscrupulous politicians. Conservatives have foolishly conflated believing in America with believing America has never really done anything wrong, and they badly need to educate themselves on the distinction. Many, out of stubbornness or animus or ignorance, never will.  But many could, and liberals need to give them the space to do so.

And as liberals, the only effective way we can educate is by example. We can do all three things at once: hold onto our ideals, squarely face our country’s sins, and honestly accept that they’re our sins, that we’re inextricably American too. Honest judgment of American history will never get a fair hearing if it’s not joined to a deep commitment to America itself, since no one will hear criticism from someone they don’t trust. And we can be a little more forgiving of those who find it so difficult to hear.  If liberals cannot transcend their own misunderstandings, if they cannot graduate to a more mature and constructive engagement with our terrible history, if they can’t accept that redeeming America means redeeming actual Americans, and if they can’t meet them as equals and as fellow Americans – if they can’t do all this they won’t be honestly addressing our deepest problems; they’ll only be perpetuating them. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Staying True

The Oval Office emptied for cleaning

Donald Trump is not President of the United States.  Legally and technically he is, of course.  And O. J. Simpson is legally and technically innocent of murder.  What’s legal and what’s true are not always the same thing.  And it’s not just because Trump failed to win the popular vote.  As ridiculous as the Electoral College is, it is our accepted mechanism for choosing the president, and it did so in keeping with law and tradition. But even though he lacks the democratic legitimacy we demand of every other elected official – even dog-catcher and county judge – that’s only the beginning of what’s missing in our present presidential vacancy.  Things have felt very strange since Inauguration Day, and it’s a feeling of something disordered, something uneasy, and – most strikingly – something lost.  America no longer has a leader. 

American presidents nurture and protect the institutions of American democracy. This one attacks anyone or anything who dares hold him accountable or constrain his power. He calls the media the “enemy of the American people”; he pressures CNN to remove some of its anti-Trump commentators; he accuses the intelligence agencies of acting like those in “Nazi Germany”; he attempts to delegitimize a federal judge (appointed by George W. Bush) by calling him a “so-called judge”, and blames in advance the entire federal judiciary for any terrorist attacks yet to come.  When Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King and was brutalized by racist policemen, criticized Trump, Trump characterized him as “all talk”.   There seems to be no democratic or moral authority he respects.

American presidents make informed decisions, consult with experts and vet policies through appropriate agencies. This one signs amateurish executive orders composed without legal expertise, with no outside consultation of Congress or federal departments, and implements them carelessly, with predictably confusing and chaotic results. He rarely attends national security intelligence briefings, and may not be paying attention even when he does!  He doesn’t read and requires information be brought to him in small, easily digestible bits, with lots of charts and maps.  He believes everything he sees on pro-Trump conservative media like Fox News, or right-wing propaganda sites like Breitbart; and he irresponsibly passes on their stories, including those unsupported by evidence or reason.

American presidents take clear policy positions and stand behind them.  This one changes his positions weekly, daily, hourly. He’s even been all over the map on his signature issue: controlling immigration.  On healthcare, he ran on the promise of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with “something terrific” that would cover more people and cost less. But at one point during the campaign he expressed support for the Obamacare individual mandate, as well as other provisions of the law, such as coverage for those with existing conditions. But once elected he called for abolishing the individual mandate, while inconsistently promising “insurance for everybody”.  And now he has finally spelled out principles constituting the vague outlines of an alternative plan, though hardly a terrific one, since it would cover fewer people at higher cost.  At the same time the White House is failing to endorse a Congressional Republican replacement plan based upon exactly those principles!  And only now, nearing the end of this very long process, has he suddenly discovered what every remotely informed person has known for years: that health care policy is “very complicated”. Was he aware of any aspect of healthcare policy before this earth-shattering insight?  Is he aware now?

American presidents are confident and articulate, able to communicate and persuade. This one spews word salad, and whines about negative coverage.  He exposes his staggering, pathetic need for approval in front of the Washington press corps and the entire world, as in his embarrassing meltdown of a press conference on February 16, humiliating himself in what one commentator called a “seventy-seven-minute emotional striptease”.

American presidents disclose their business dealings by, for instance, publicly releasing their tax returns. This one, during the campaign, claimed his taxes were being audited by the IRS and he could not release them until the audit concluded, though the IRS denied there was any legal constraint on releasing them. He promised that he would make his taxes public after the audit finished, but after the election he (through an aide) simply denied he had any obligation to do so, and, of course, he hasn’t.  He’s denied he has any business connections in Russia, for instance, but such connections are well documented. It’s reasonable to wonder if he doesn’t release his taxes because either they would reveal the depth of his financial entanglements with the corrupt Russian oligarchy, or they would reveal he pays little or no taxes.

Receiving delicate national security information in public
American presidents don’t use their power and connections to profit themselves financially. This one uses the presidency to expand his hotel empire in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia.  He pressures department stores to stock his daughter’s clothing merchandise.  He frequently stays at Mar-a-Lago, his own private club in Florida, which is now charging higher prices for customers hoping to buy access.  American presidents put their business interests in a blind trust, so their positions and policies won’t be influenced by the desire for profit. This one put has put his interests in a trust administered by his own immediate family, doing nothing to eliminate conflict of interest, and probably violating the Constitution’s Emoluments clause.

American presidents protect the democratic process from interference by hostile foreign governments.  This one has done nothing in response to Russian disruption of last year’s election.  His campaign was awash in connections to Russia and its unscrupulous leader Vladimir Putin, and his administration is as well. But multiple American intelligence agencies have concluded that during last year’s election technical experts with Russian intelligence hacked Democratic Party computers, found information there embarrassing to the Democrats, and released it through willing accomplices in Wikileaks, and certain sections of the FBI, with the intent of helping Trump win.  And all that occurred while his advisors kept ongoing communications with Russian intelligence, and while the candidate himself publicly called on the Putin government to release additional damning information they had on his political opponent. He has eased some of the punitive sanctions his predecessor recently applied to Russia in response to their election interference, and may ease other sanctions against them.  Reasonable people can be forgiven for wondering if there was any direct collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, though such collusion would be tantamount to treason.  But these worries aren’t exactly allayed by Trump’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge that Russia hacked the election, or to voice even the slightest criticism of Putin or his government (though that may be changing), or to call for an investigation of this mess.

American presidents have a mature understanding of how the world works. This one indulges in the most baseless and laughable conspiracy theories. For years he indulged fever dreams about Obama’s place of birth.  In office, he has claimed that Obama is behind his administration’s constant leaking; that as president Obama personally ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower; that he only lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants voted against him; that anti-Trump protestors are paid Democratic operatives.

American presidents sometimes lie; sadly, it’s a job requirement. But this one lies all the time!  He lies about pathetic things, like the size of the crowds at his inauguration, the size of his Electoral College victory, or how many times he’s been on the cover of Time magazine. And he lies about important things, like how many non-citizens were detained under his travel ban, whether rescinding the ban would allow refugees easy access into the country, whether he offered to send American troops into Mexico or yelled at the Australian Prime Minister.  He’s lied about crime statistics, New York Times subscription rates, cutting spending on military aircraft, Obamacare coverage numbers, etc., etc., etc. Et freakin cetera!

The dishonesty deserves particular consideration, because the dishonesty is at the heart of the Trumpian madness. It’s not just that Trump and his underlings lie promiscuously and indiscriminately. It’s not even that they lie without the slightest compunction or accountability, though that is deplorable.  It’s they have no respect for even the notion of truth; to them, the truth is whatever they want it to be. They just say whatever will help them win. And ultimately it isn’t even winning that matters to them, it’s appearing to win. All the other pathologies flow from this essential dismissal of reality for the sake of appearances.  The disregard for democracy, competence, dependability, consistency, transparency, public-mindedness, patriotism, maturity, the truth – it all comes from one simple position: that no principle can distract from the overwhelming, unquenchable need to appear to be always winning.

But the American president should care about democracy, competence, dependability, consistency, transparency, public-mindedness, patriotism, maturity, and the truth.  Obviously many presidents have failed to sufficiently defend these principles. But most cared deeply about them.  And the ones who didn’t still made great pains to pretend they did. That is, they understood that we, the American people, care deeply about them.  It’s the widespread popular commitment to those principles that has made American democracy work for so long.  And we shouldn’t accept as president a strutting ego-on-stilts who flagrantly flouts and mocks them, who clearly doesn’t give a damn about them.  It’s not clear if he even understands them!  In its open contempt of those values, the Trump presidency represents a clean break from our past. And even if we never have another president like him, he very well may do them permanent damage. 

And that’s why it matters that Trump is incapable of “being presidential”.  When he steps up to the microphone and lies, and whines, and accuses, and equivocates, and rants, and brays like a jackass, he’s betraying what’s best in America. It may seem that his demeanor isn’t important, but it reveals who he is and what’s missing in him. Being presidential doesn’t just mean conforming to outdated notions of propriety or formality. Approaching the job with sobriety and circumspection shows that the president takes seriously the grave responsibility of leading America, of protecting and shepherding our republic through our very real troubles. The president has the power to build and the power to destroy, and the nation and the world are right to expect that power to be in the hands of someone of maturity and responsibility.  That this needs to be said at all reveals the depth of our crisis. 

It has fallen to us, the honest citizenry, to hold our democratic values tight. We take our lives and our children’s lives and our country’s future very seriously, even if Trump’s every utterance proves he does not.  We need to keep our standards high, we need to keep loudly criticizing Trump when he violates those standards, and we need to keep reminding those of our fellow citizens who have momentarily forgotten, just how vital those standards are. That’s how we stay who we are.  A rather strange set of circumstances has landed Trump in his current job, but he is simply not worthy of it, nor worthy of us, and all the Electoral Votes in the world cannot make him so.  And our duty as honest Americans for the next four years is to keep that firmly in mind.

Friday, December 2, 2016

College Education

Electoral College votes tallied in Congress, January 2013

It’s become quite obvious that American politics is broken.  And not just because a malign and ignorant huckster has been elected president, though that is certainly the most glaring symptom of a disease that’s been worsening for decades.  And the real source of our debilitating political dysfunction is our profound ideological polarization.  We’ve split into two roughly equal and mutually hostile camps, with seemingly incompatible instincts and visions of America.  But a well-designed institutional framework might have channeled those deep disagreements into constructive compromise, or better represented them in government such that consensus or conciliation might be reached.  But our Constitution seems utterly incapable of handling or moderating our deep disagreements.  Consider how, in the Obama Era, the dubious notion of Separation of Powers actually exacerbated that deadly polarization, leading to such excesses as the government shutdowns, the debt limit crises, the Obamacare wars.  And consider that an incredibly polarizing and dangerously incompetent extremist has become president without even winning a plurality of the votes cast.  That quite undemocratic outcome occurred because our system for choosing the president is hopelessly overcomplicated and confused, and sitting at the heart of that confusion is that embarrassing constitutional relic, the Electoral College.  The Electoral College is our institutional dysfunction come to life.

The Founders created the Electoral College with two principles in mind. The first was the diffusion principle, the desire that the power to pick the president be spread among all the states, even the smaller states that might otherwise be overlooked in a national popular vote.  The second was the aristocratic principle, the belief that a collection of disinterested statesmen would prevent the election of a demagogue or a fool.  But these are practical principles, they weren’t adopted for theoretical reasons, but to satisfy the interests of the various states at the Constitutional Convention.  Many of the founders, including James Madison, the father of the Constitution, would have preferred direct popular election of the president.  Others wanted Congress to choose the president.  The original version of the Electoral College left it up to the various state legislatures to decide how the electors from their respective states were chosen; and for the first few decades some of those legislatures chose them directly, while others allowed their voting publics to decide.  But those electors were expected to make their own decisions, not necessarily rubber-stamp the choices of those that had put them there.  In the early 1800’s, however, as Jacksonian democracy swept the land, all the states switched over to having their populations choose the electors, and law and custom bound those electors to represent the plurality vote for president within their respective states.

And that’s where things stand today.  We’re stuck with this bizarre hodge-podge, an aristocratic structure that tries to channel democratic desires.  But it’s the worst of both worlds, since it can override the national popular vote while – quite obviously! – failing to prevent a demagogue and a fool from becoming president.  The Electoral College has bitterly failed the demands of both democracy and statesmanship, and in doing so it has produced something new in the political world: an unpopular demagogue!

The only remaining remotely defensible rationale for the Electoral College is the diffusion principle, the desire to ensure small states aren’t overlooked when choosing the president.  But the Electoral College does absolutely nothing to force presidential campaigns to address small states.  Instead, it forces them to address battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states which are split down the middle and can easily go either way in a given election.  The campaigns smartly ignore all dependably red or blue states, small or big, such as New York or Kansas.  But there’s no principle satisfied by ignoring those states, while a national popular vote would genuinely spread power to the entire country.  The Electoral College fails the diffusion principle too.

And it’s hard to see why the election within each state should be based on majority rule but not majority rule across the country as a whole.  Why should the democratic principle be so inconsistently applied?   There already is a mechanism within the federal government that gives disproportionate power to smaller states: the United States Senate.  (It should be noted that James Madison and other Founders opposed the undemocratic apportionment of Senators too, but accepted it as a necessary practical condition for bringing into the Union the small states who otherwise would not have joined.)   But Senators represent states, while the president is supposed to be the leader of the country as whole, the leader of the people.  That was clearly the intent of (many of) the Founders, and it was clearly the intent of those early 19th century statesmen who gave the choice of electors directly to the people, and it is clearly the understanding of the present-day voting public.  The president is supposed to represent all of America.

Electors aren’t even apportioned according to population, because each state gets as many electors as it has Representatives in the House of Representatives (which is proportional to state populations) plus two more for its two Senators.  Thus, for instance, Wyoming gets 3 electoral votes (it has one Representative in the House plus its two Senators), while California gets 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives plus 2 Senators).  But California had about 37 million people as of the 2010 census, while Wyoming had only about 564,000.  So California has about 672,000 people for each electoral vote while Wyoming has only about 188,000 for each of its electoral votes.  That means the vote of one person in Wyoming has 3.5 times as much power as the vote of one person in California.  But why should a citizen in Wyoming have so much more power than a citizen in California when picking the one person who is the leader of the country as a whole?  The Electoral College doesn’t protect small states, it disenfranchises big ones!  It’s a failure in every conceivable way.  And it’s clearly failed us this year.

Brilliant, decent, imperfect, practical men, 1787
That’s not to say that Hillary should be president by virtue of winning the popular vote by over 2 million votes (that’s almost 2 percentage points, though with 48.2% it’s still shy of an outright majority).  If we’d had a national popular vote system in place for the 2016 election both Clinton and Trump would certainly have campaigned quite differently, and the popular vote might have gone for Trump.  Still, a lot of people did take the time and effort to vote, even in states that were definitively red or blue.  That is, they must have known their votes couldn’t make a difference in the Electoral College yet they voted anyway; and that deserves respect in a generally democratic society.  It can’t be said that the popular vote means nothing.  And given that the Electoral College system is inherently undemocratic, it’s not consistent to argue that electors are morally bound to obey their state pluralities but obligated to disregard the national one.  Either we respect the wishes of the American people or we don’t.  So it’s not entirely unfair to suggest, as some have done, that the electors reject the state pluralities and deny the presidency to someone who not only failed to win a plurality of the national popular vote but who is also an irresponsible demagogue and a dribbling fool.  In that case both the democratic and aristocratic principles would be satisfied, and that would probably have made James Madison very happy.

All the logic, all the theory, all our reason and sanity and common sense suggest the Electoral College should ignore the wishes of the people in the states and obey the wishes of the people of the United States.  Except for one thing.  We all agreed before the election that we would choose our presidents in this bizarre, old-fashioned, ridiculous way.  Or rather, history and convention and expectation have stuck us with this absurd system, and it would just be terribly unfair and destabilizing to change the rules after the fact.  People would be enraged, and rightly so.  As tempting as the thought is of the electors saving us deus ex machina from the Great Orange Disaster, our respect for fair play and democratic norms renders it unthinkable.  No principle is safe if we can’t all rely on the procedures.

But then let Trump supporters stop this dishonest and baseless talk that he has a “mandate”, or he won because “the American people have spoken.”  No, he won because the Elector College has spoken (or will soon).  Or because enough unrepresentative people in enough unrepresentative states have spoken.  Or because we have our heads stuck up our Constitution and can’t create a better system.  Those sentiments don’t make great slogans, but they have the virtue of being true.  At strongest, the American people chose Hillary Clinton.  At weakest, their choice is unclear and muddled, the exact thing an election is supposed to avoid.

And that is the real problem.  This election, like 2000, was a virtual tie, but the technical winners will enact policies the technical losers find frightening and abhorrent. And to add mendacious insult to juridical injury they’ll likely speak and rule as if they had actually won an overwhelming victory.  They’ll claim a mandate to shred the social safety net and distribute huge tax cuts to the rich.  And if you don’t look closely the Electoral College appears to give them some plausible cover for that undemocratic chicanery.  But that will just add to the bitter disappointment of the vaguely leftish half of the country, who now feel, and effectively are, disenfranchised.  For at least the next two years the comprehensively Republican federal government will trample upon their deeply held convictions and damage the institutions and programs they love, even though their candidate essentially tied.  They don’t deserve that.  We don’t deserve that.

But we’ll get it, and that’s because of other imperfections of our system, specifically Separation of Powers and fixed terms in office.  In parliamentary systems, as obtain in most of the English-speaking world and in Europe, the head of government is whoever can lead a ruling coalition in the democratically elected parliament (and many of those parliamentary elections have mechanisms for making sure minority parties are proportionally represented).  If the party in power governs ineffectively or against sustained popular opinion then elections are held and the people get to choose their rulers again, even if the terms of office aren’t close to being over.  And such a unified government makes the ruling party accountable; it doesn’t have independent executive and legislative branches that can blame each other for government failure or inaction.  And it doesn’t permit the constant war between those separate powers that results when they’re controlled by bitterly opposed and sharply polarized factions.

But wait, this is about as academic as an argument can get.  There is as much chance of America renovating its basic constitution as there is of Donald Trump suddenly becoming an expert on 20th century African-American literature.  Though there are ways around the Electoral College that might actually be implemented – and more power to them!  But the Electoral College, ridiculous as it is, is only a small part of what’s wrong.  One doesn’t have to be a Democrat or bitter about Trump’s technical win to see the lesson the College teaches us: Our deeply polarized populace is possessed by rage and vindictiveness, the design of our political institutions prevents a constructive handling of that polarization, and that combination is radically undermining our democracy.  And it will probably only get worse.

It’s not sustainable, and there are really only two ways this can end: the polarization can give way, or the institutions can give way.  It could still conceivably happen that, as seemed inevitable until November 8, the demographics keep moving in the liberal direction, with the older, whiter, more conservative percentage of the populace shrinking.  Or populist conservatism could become widely dominant among the broad middle.  Or populist liberalism.  If any of those things happens then the federal government will be safely held by one party with a clear majority among the people, and that’s a situation the Constitution can safely handle.  (Though, if it’s Trumpian populism it’s not necessarily a situation that liberal democracy can handle.)  

Doing his best to elevate the discourse
But if none of those scenarios comes to pass, then the institutions themselves will erode.  If Congress and the Presidency are held by opposing parties the conflict between them will become even more acrimonious and destructive.  If our present situation continues – with one party that only represents half the people holding complete control of the federal government – then the struggle between feds and locals will become more acrimonious and destruction.  There could be widespread unrest, with irresponsible individuals on both sides even embracing violence.  And all these scenarios end just one way, with a president accruing more and more police power until he becomes essentially an elected tyrant.  And soon after, not even an elected one. 

That’s the direction we’re heading if we can’t create a better politics, an understanding of ourselves that satisfies the interests and aspirations of most of us.  America is hurting right now, all of it, the half that lost and the half that won.  And the only way forward is toward some new, moderate consensus that respects us all.  If any good can come from Trump’s win, it will be to force us to question the old rigid ideologies and blind archaic animosities that possess us and make us enemies.  There are fair-minded people on both sides urging tolerance and conciliation and offering constructive and pragmatic solutions.  But conciliation and pragmatism have little hope of being well received in an atmosphere of bitter mistrust, a mistrust happily fomented by special interests, propagandists, ideologues, fanatics, and fools.  But when our institutions fail us, all we have left is ourselves, and our commitments to each other.  There isn’t necessarily a happy ending here, only a chance, a hope that the great reserves of good will, common sense and generosity still possessed by the American people can be marshaled to fight the polarization that is killing us all.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Have We Done?

We're all branded now
This is a disaster.  America has just been dealt a terrible blow, and it’s not clear how we’ll recover.  Donald Trump is as fit to be President of the United States as a rabid gorilla is to drive a school bus.  He’s an ignorant, bigoted, bullying, narcissistic clown, and that personal instability in conjunction with the policies he’ll likely implement (with the eager help of a thoroughly Republican Congress) will do the country, and quite possibly the world, great damage.  In fact, this is such a comprehensive disaster that it’s hard to fully appreciate it.  But let’s try.  Let’s take a stark look at the likely ramifications of America’s self-inflicted wound.  Let’s face up to what we’ve done.

You don’t have to be a liberal to contemplate Trump’s coming presidency with dread, but it sure helps.  Trump ran, particularly in the early days, as a genuine populist, promising to raise taxes on Wall Street, to protect Social Security and Medicare, to fight for American workers – all things economic liberals heartily endorse.  But as time went by he became increasingly co-opted on these issues by the Republican establishment.  Now much of his economic program looks like it was written by Ronald Reagan or – admittedly the same thing – the Chamber of Commerce.  It delivers huge tax cuts that go almost exclusively to the investor class, it relieves 20 million poorer Americans of their health insurance, it removes constraints on the financial markets that delivered us so effectively to the Great Recession.  The plutocracy’s favorite ideologue, Paul Ryan, is even claiming that the now comprehensively Republican federal government has been given a mandate to privatize Medicare!  So much for populism.

Trump has become, in effect, a special case of the investor class’s master strategy for turning populist anger to capitalist advantage.  The typical Republican presidential candidate wins by pointing angry fingers at liberal snobbery, black thievery, and gay buggery; and once elected proceeds to treat the country as little more than raw resource for capitalist ingestion.  But Trump ran against the script, attacking not just racial, sexual, and religious minorities, but Wall Street and big business too!  But the establishment that could not stop him was able to work him.  Usually the conservative populace is duped into supporting an investor-class stooge, but this time the candidate himself was duped.  So much for tough negotiation.

But it would be unfair to say Trump has become completely co-opted.  For the most part he still holds his ground on the issues of immigration and trade.  American workers will be better off if immigration, illegal and legal, is more tightly controlled, and if the American negotiators of trade deals are actually concerned about them.  But collecting up and tossing out millions of immigrants who are here illegally would be a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportion, one that no thinking or feeling person could remotely defend.  That is, the typical Trumpian brainless barbarism spells disaster even on those issues in which he genuinely is looking out for the American worker.  If Hillary had become president, thoughtful patriots of all ideologies might have pressured her to moderate her globalist attitude.  But tempering Hillary with practical concerns would have been much easier than moderating Trump with humanitarian ones.  So much for reasonable policy.

But our new Trump World isn’t just a unhappy place for working people, it’s also not particularly welcoming for blacks, women, Jews, Muslims, gays – basically anyone who isn’t a white Christian male.  The Trumpistas, like good right-wingers, rose to power denouncing the ways that all those non-white-Christian-male types are ruining things for regular Americans.  Black are criminals, Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, Jews are evil conspirators, women refuse to be mere playthings.  It’s true that Trump hasn’t targeted gays, but the restive crowd on his right clearly has no sympathy for the sexually unorthodox.  And that’s the real point: It doesn’t really matter all that much if Trump himself is a bigot; what matters is that he has encouraged bigotry, he’s unleashed it.  It’s hard to judge how serious this particular threat is, but you don’t have to be a minority or a liberal to see real danger here.  So much for equality.

And the way that Trump has re-legitimated these sorts of hostilities is particularly dangerous.  That is, he’s made white identity politics central to his appeal.  He tells whites that they’re victimized by those other groups, that their primary loyalty is to each other, and that their problems can only be addressed if they understand and act upon their interests as white people. But this is an invitation to levels of racial hatred which we can now only imagine.  If white Americans come to broadly think of their own interests in racial terms then every contentious issue will come to be seen as a zero-sum dispute over limited resources.  America would devolve into constant and bitter infighting, into a war between the tribes, probably leading to greater and greater violence.  Identity politics has been both a miserable failure for non-whites and huge source of polarization and discord for us all.  If whites adopt it too, it could mean the desolation of America.  So much for national unity.

And Trump’s authoritarian sensibility is a dagger pointed at the heart of self-government.  He admires foreign tyrants and autocrats.  He hopes to curtail press freedom.  He threatens political rivals with lawsuits and prison.  He thoughtlessly undermines the democratic process.  He’s unhappy that freedom of expression hampers ardent pursuit of the terrorists.  He advocates torture for its punitive value.  He blithely dismisses the norms that make our system function.  He embodies and encourages the authoritarian trends growing on the right side of America.  You don’t have to a liberal or a minority to find this alarming: A corrupt, amoral megalomaniac has just been given control over our military and our enormous federal investigative apparatus, one that already monitors our emails and phone calls.  And he’s certain to face no resistance from rival centers of power in a Washington completely controlled by a cowed and fawning Republican Party.  So much for democracy.

And he has no character.  He successfully ran for president without any solid convictions, without any knowledge of the issues, with no respect for our democratic traditions, with no compunction about misrepresenting opponents or himself, with no generosity or ideals or compassion.  The American people should have kicked this pathetic man-child to the curb for his impossible ignorance and gurgling malice.  But as payment for his lies and his threats and his ungodly vanity he will get to sit in the office once occupied by Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelt’s and delight in his own true brilliance and awesomeness.  So much for accountability.

And that leads to what’s arguably the scariest aspect of the Trumpian calamity: his instability.  He clearly suffers from something like clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  He has little or no control over his own impulses.  He responds bitterly and vindictively to every slight.  He can’t sit still long enough to read or to learn anything.  He feels no obligation to conform what he says to what actually is.  He casually spreads lies and conspiracy theories.  He feels no responsibility to anything but his own ego.  He’s incapable of reasoning and speaking like an adult.  The combination of authoritarianism and recklessness is particularly frightening.  Is it too far-fetched to worry that he might use official force against political opponents, or impulsively start a war, or even casually employ nuclear weapons?  Maybe it is, but consider that we can’t be sure.  So much for security.

An American flag recovered from World Trade Centre site after 9/11

So much for America.  So much for our hope and our promise and our potential.  Almost everything we admire in ourselves – our commitment to justice and freedom, our generosity, our common sense, our openness, our honesty, our idealism, our optimism – has been besmirched or undermined or threatened by Donald Trump.  In effect, he’s promised to turn America into a shambles and now he’s been given the power to do so.

And now that he has won, there is enormous pressure to treat this as just another election and Trump as just another president.  As if winning excuses all his sins, or makes them irrelevant, or means they’re not indicative of how he’ll govern.  Wishful thinking, respect for the democratic transition of power, and the need to feel the world is safe, all these conspire to lull us into seeing things as not fundamentally changed.  But it’s just not true, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  The disaster is real.  We may not have seen it coming, but we should damn well recognize it now that it’s here.  As Jonathan Chait so nicely put it:

To submit to a world where we say the words President Trump without anger or laughter is to surrender our idea of what the office means.

But what’s threatened by casually accepting Trump’s win isn’t just our idea of what the presidency means, it’s our idea of what democracy, justice, and decency mean.  Of what America means.  Trump did legitimately win and he will be president for at least 4 long years, that’s a fact and we need to respect it and accept it.  But we shouldn’t just treat it as part of the normal course of events and get back to our private lives.  History has taken a terrible turn.  The name TRUMP is being stamped upon us in 10 feet tall gold-plated letters.  We should grieve, deeply. 

And we should fight back!  We should organize and peacefully march and argue and persuade and vote and keep tight in our minds the profound seriousness of our situation.  And we should remember that America is always at its best when things are at their worst.  We need to rededicate ourselves to the best promises of America, while accepting that those promises are now much farther from our reach.  We must fully face the disaster and in facing it find the strength and the determination to fight it.  And one very important way we fight it is by refusing to treat it as anything other than the terrible disaster that it is.