Noah Millman

Trump in a China Shop

My latest column at The Week is about Trump’s phone call with the President of Taiwan, and what it portends:

Responding to the dramatic rise of China is easily the most important foreign policy issue facing America. During the campaign, Trump’s China rhetoric focused on economic matters: charges that China was manipulating its currency and that American companies who relocated manufacturing to China were harming American workers. It was reasonable to expect that, once in office, Trump would seek to renegotiate the terms of our economic arrangement with China, whether bluntly by slapping tariffs on Chinese goods (which would likely be struck down by the WTO, and which would surely trigger Chinese retaliation regardless), or through some more sophisticated negotiating strategy. And if he pursued the latter course, there were indications that Trump had something to offer the Chinese in trade.

For example, Trump questioned the necessity of America’s troops being stationed in South Korea. I’ve argued before that coming to an understanding with the Chinese on the future status of a denuclearized peninsula would be a great place to start building a more cooperative relationship with China on geostrategic matters.

Similarly, the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership was substantially about competing with China for the economic allegiance of many of the same countries. Having aggressively criticized the TPP, Trump may have been signaling to the Chinese that he was less interested in that kind of competition for influence than in securing the best deals for American companies and American workers.

It was possible for the Chinese to imagine that a Trump administration would take a firmer, more nationalist line on America’s economic interest, but would be less concerned in preventing China from pursuing its security objectives or expanding its influence in its region.

That interpretation is now somewhat less plausible, to say the least.

Last Friday, the president-elect received a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, the first contact at that level since America suspended formal diplomatic relations with the island in 1979. Contrary to initial reports, it now appears this was a planned contact arranged months in advance and aimed at letting the Chinese know that America was going to be more assertive going forward.

China’s response has so far been measured, though as Trump’s rhetoric has escalated, so has the Chinese rhetorical response. But the primary reason for that still-measured tone is that the Chinese still do not really know what the intentions of the new administration might be for bilateral relations. If China concludes that Trump is serious about deepening or possibly even normalizing relations with Taiwan, that would likely lead to a direct clash with Beijing, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

But it is also plausible that Trump is playing his pro-Taiwanese advisers like Stephen Yates for chumps, and using Taiwan merely as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes game of poker. Trump may be trying to create a crisis precisely in order to resolve it by trading away a harder line on Taiwan in exchange for concessions elsewhere — presumably on matters of trade. In that case, the biggest risk is that the Taiwanese — or any American allies in the region — take Trump’s promises to them seriously.

A Taiwanese declaration of independence, for example, would likely prompt a Chinese military response. Would America support Taiwan in that circumstance? It’s hard to imagine we would — but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t suffer badly from the fallout. In 2008 the Georgian president launched a campaign to oust Russian troops from rebellious regions of his country, believing he had American backing. Instead, his country suffered a humiliating defeat, and Russian-American relations were poisoned for years to come. The consequences of abandoning Taiwan in comparable circumstances would be far more severe and wide ranging.

The great unknown, and the key to answering any question about the future of U.S.-China relations, is a true sense of how Trump understands the rise of China within the context of the current system of global security that he has been so critical of.

At TAC’s recent foreign policy conference, the primary point of contention among the panelists was over what our China policy should be. Jim Webb argued for a stepped up military deployment to deter and contain a newly assertive China. Andrew Bacevich argued that staying the course of maintaining our alliances was the best way to preserve stability in the western Pacific. And Christopher Layne argued that we are indeed in the middle of a power transition, and that we need to be more accommodating of China’s rise. China is the most important foreign policy question we face, and it is one that divides the TAC family. We need to talk about it more — especially but not only during campaign season.

One other thing to think about as we contemplate the President-elect’s actions: The Bush Administration also came into office also spoiling for a fight with China. 9-11 put any such plans on the back burner, but what we’re seeing now may be a resurgence of that kind of zero-sum primacist thinking. And it’s resurfacing in part because some of the same people are making many of the same arguments. Before the election, I argued that this kind of testicular Jacksonian conservatism was the real heart of Trumpism in foreign policy. It’s far too soon to draw any conclusions, but I do not relish the prospect of being proven right on this score.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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Trump’s Cabinet

I was working on a run-down of Trump’s appointments so far, when I saw that Robert Verbruggen did an exemplary job of it already. So I’ll just add my two cents to his.

On foreign policy, right now, there are two important players and two bit players. It is very hard for me to imagine that Nikki Haley will have any influence as U.N. Ambassador, and I suspect that Mike Pompeo, like Governor Haley, was chosen primarily for political reasons; he’ll be in charge of preparing intelligence briefings that Trump refuses to read. So right now it’s Mike Flynn at the NSC, who strikes me as a deeply disturbing crank, versus James Mattis at Defense, who I find reassuring on multiple levels.

The balance depends on who Trump picks as Secretary of State, and whether that appointee tips the scales in favor of extremism or in favor of sobriety. Bolton or Giuliani would tip it decisively in the former direction. Corker would be somewhere in the middle, but I suspect might prove to be a weak player. The main risk with Romney is that he will prove a pure opportunist; since he has neither background in foreign policy nor the trust of the President-elect, his influence will depend on being able to undermine other players, which is a terrible dynamic. So there are a lot of bad choices, but they are not all bad in the same way. I am trying not to get too hopeful about rumors that Trump is expanding the circle of inquiry, and specifically considering John Huntsman, who would make an excellent choice for the job.

On economic policy, Wilbur Ross is a known quantity and promises to be among the most influential Commerce Department heads in history. I expect whoever Trump picks as Trade Representative to be a similarly forceful character. But the big question is what Steve Mnuchin wants, or believes, which is something nobody really knows. If the answer is “nothing much” — which is very possible — then we can expect a Trump administration to rubber-stamp whatever Paul Ryan delivers him. But it’s also possible that Mnuchin has actual views on subjects like tax policy, budgeting, and monetary policy. At this point, it’s a mystery.

It is worth noting in this regard that Mnuchin is somewhat different from Wall Street corporate honchos (and Goldman alumni) Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson in one important respect. Mnuchin made his initial pile at Goldman, but then left to pursue his own entrepreneurial ventures, whereas Rubin and Paulson climbed the greasy pole to the top. Mnuchin never rose to the level where his core concerns were the kind of macro policymaking issues that Treasury Secretaries deal with — but he’s also played the finance game outside of an investment banking context, with his own capital, which is what real businesses have to do. I will be interested to learn how these differences affect his perspective on Federal policy towards the financial system, if they do at all. I will also be very interested to learn whether he reaches out to people who actually know what they are talking about on subjects where he is a novice — which is most subjects under his purview. I’m not holding my breath — but I am watching.

As for the rest of domestic policy, Trump’s appointments are entirely unsurprising and reflect the campaign that Trump ran. Do I think Ben Carson will be a good head of HUD? No — I think he’ll be completely ineffectual. But I also had no reason, based on the campaign, to think that a Trump administration would have any particular plans for HUD. By contrast, it was clear from the campaign that Trump intended to spend a bunch of money on infrastructure, and it turns out Trump appointed someone for Transportation who is eminently qualified for the position. Appointing Betsy DeVos to Education is an indication that Trump has no particular plans for that department, and is happy for it to become a conservative ideological playground, whereas appointing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is an indication that he intends to follow through as much as possible on a purely law-and-order approach to questions of policing, immigration enforcement, etc. Verbruggen describes this as Trump choosing by issue whether to tack in a movement-conservative or populist direction; I’d say he’s picked people who matter for departments he cares about, and for departments he doesn’t care about he’s chosen people who don’t matter.

The big domestic policy question mark is whether Trump intends to keep his respective promises to repeal Obamacare and to protect Medicare and Social Security from cuts. Paul Ryan wants to help him keep the first promise and break the second. By appointing Tom Price, Trump has put Ryan in a position where he has no basis for complaining about lack of support for doing exactly what he wants. Which, I think, means that Ryan owns both questions, and owns whatever backlash comes of getting either issue wrong, either by cutting popular programs or failing to act expeditiously on his promised agenda. I suspect Ryan will come to rue the invitation to jump into that particular briar patch. But we’ll see, won’t we?


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Trump’s Conflicts

I have no polling data to back me up here, so in my latest column at The Week I engaged in pure speculation about why Trump’s actual and potential conflicts of interest aren’t getting more traction than they are. (And, to be fair, they are getting some traction.)

The opportunities for corruption and self-dealing are manifest — and the evidence so far suggests that Trump is blithe to the problem. So why was this never a material issue in the election? And why isn’t there a public groundswell demanding that he divest himself completely of his assets before taking the oath of office, however painful and expensive such a transaction might be?

Pure partisanship is undoubtedly part of the answer. Trump’s opponents are far more concerned about the potential for corruption in his administration than they were about the potential conflicts of the Clinton Foundation, and vice versa. But that surely isn’t the entire explanation. After all, there was plenty of coverage of the Clinton Foundation as a potential source of conflicts, and not by any means only in the conservative media. And Trump’s potential conflicts really are on an entirely different scale from anything we’ve seen before.

Moreover, given that a large part of the rationale for Trump’s candidacy was that he was incorruptible because he had already made his money, you would think that this would be a point of particular concern to his supporters. But that does not appear to be the case. Why not?

Well, consider how the problem looks to someone inclined to empathize with Trump.

Here is a man who, over the course of a lifetime, built a vast and complicated business. Yes, he started out with many advantages; sure, he may have cut some ethical corners and played hardball more often than not. But at the end of the day, he built a business. It was his work, his risk, his reward.

Now you’re saying that because he decided to serve his country, he has to destroy it? It’s not enough that he remove himself from its operations; he has to take this beautiful thing he built, and sell it at a fire sale price, so that we can be satisfied that he won’t use the office of president to make even more money?

That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

It seems even less fair when you consider the contrast with politics-and-moneymaking as usual. The numerous former elected and appointed officials who have parlayed time in government into lucrative consulting, lobbying, or speech-giving have given voters every reason to suspect that their decisions while in government were corrupted by the prospect for post-public-service buck-raking. It’s probably more than a little puzzling to understand why Trump’s ownership of a Washington, D.C., hotel — which foreign diplomats will undoubtedly stay in as a way of showing respect — is worse than earning millions for speeches to industries you (or your wife) hope to regulate. At least Trump actually built the hotel.

In fact, I suspect to many, Trump’s situation seems less disturbing precisely because it is so much more narrowly personal, whereas garden-variety corruption feels more systemic.

The column goes on to talk about the risk of systemic corruption under a Trump administration — the risk, basically, that Trump could abuse the power of his office to reorient the American economy around regime-provided rents.  The thing is, this risk has very little to do with Trump’s conflicts of interest from his business. The scale of his operations and their opacity makes it considerably easier to exact a toll from any business seeking a more favorable regulatory climate, but plenty of foreign kleptocrats have set that kind of operation up without having started out as oligarchs.

Anyway — read the whole thing there.

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My Favorite Trump Nominee So Far

I have to dissent from Daniel Larison’s negative view of Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Defense. I consider this the best nomination Trump has made so far.

First of all, we should set the bar in the proper place. Some people who supported Trump were under the impression that he intended to pursue a more restrained and less-interventionist foreign policy. I never believed that. On the other hand, I fully expected Trump to staff his administration with third-rate hacks, has-beens and cranks notable mostly for their loyalty. And he’s done some of that — most alarmingly by choosing Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor.

General Mattis, though, is both a sober, serious man and, crucially, a man who both knows and speaks his own mind. Trump badly needs people like that in his administration. He especially needs them in foreign policy, where his own knowledge base is nugatory and his instincts are incoherent.

Some are concerned about the fact that Mattis is a recently-retired general, and that his selection bodes ill for civil control of the military. In general, I would agree with those concerns. But I would make an exception now. At this point in history, I am acutely concerned about the alienation of the services from their civilian masters. We have been pushing the military incredibly hard on a mission of decreasing comprehensibility. Institutionally, the military needs to know that its civilian leadership understands the toll that has been taken.

There are civilian leaders who could provide that — Jim Webb comes to mind — and there are recently-retired military leaders who probably wouldn’t. But there are few individuals I can think of who would do a distinctly better job of that than Mattis. And at this moment in history, I just think that is more important than whether he’s a good bureaucratic in-fighter or the right guy to wring more efficiencies out of procurement.

Larison has highlighted his concerns about Mattis’s hawkish view of Iran. And it’s fair to call him a hawk. But it’s also fair to call someone like Jim Webb an Iran hawk — after all, he opposed the Iran deal. Heck, Rand Paul opposed the deal; so did Gary Johnson. The key question is not whether Mattis sees an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran but whether he is going to be actively looking for ways to get into conflict with them, or, worse, advocating policies aimed at regime change. I don’t think he is — and that fact is enormously important, because there will be other people advising Trump who will want to get into such a conflict, including his likely Secretary of State (whoever that turns out to be). Moreover, Mattis has been abundantly clear that the Iran deal is here to stay — something Trump himself seemed to understand earlier in the campaign and then gave up in favor of a cheap applause line. You were never going to get an Iran dove in this cabinet (nor, had she won, in Clinton’s). I feel confident that, relatively speaking, Mattis will be the voice of sanity, and that because of his personality, his voice will be heard more than some other sane voices might.

Finally, there’s this. Which of Trump’s nominees so far seem like the kind of people who one could imagine resigning if they felt that was the only way to preserve their integrity? This is not a trivial question with someone like Trump as President. And which of Trump’s nominees seem like the kind of people that it would be a political problem for Trump to fire? Again, not a trivial question with someone like Trump as President. I can’t think of anyone more likely than Mattis — and other than Attorney General, I can’t think of a more important cabinet position to have someone with that kind of integrity and reputation installed in.

From my perspective, this is a clear win.

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Do The Democrats Have To Move Right? Or Left?

Ross Douthat’s latest column asks whether the Democrats have the capacity to move to the right in response to the election results:

That kind of movement is often part of how political parties recover from debilitation and defeat — not just by finding new ways to be true to their underlying ideology, but by scrambling toward the center to convince skeptical voters that they’ve changed. It’s what Democrats did, slowly but surely, after the trauma of Ronald Reagan’s triumphs; it’s what Bill Clinton did after his 1994 drubbing; it’s what Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean did, to a modest degree, on their way to building a congressional majority in 2006. And it’s also what Donald Trump did on his way to stealing the Midwest from the Democrats this year — he was a hard-right candidate on certain issues but a radical sort of centrist on trade, infrastructure and entitlements, explicitly breaking with Republican orthodoxies that many voters considered out-of-date.

If the idea of moving rightward seems distinctly strange to today’s Democrats, it’s partially because until this month’s rude awakening, much of liberalism was in thrall to demographic triumphalism: Convinced that the party’s leftward drift under President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton was in line with the drift of the country as a whole, and confident that with every birth and death and naturalization and 18th birthday their structural advantage would only grow.

Because Trump won without the popular vote, a version of this theory is still intact — but it shouldn’t be. The Democratic coalition is a losing coalition in most states, most House districts, most Senate races; the party’s national bench is thin, its statehouse power shattered, its congressional leadership aged and inert. It has less political power than it did after the Reagan revolution and the Gingrich sweep. To repurpose an aphorism often applied to Brazil: It has the majority of the future, and if current trends continue, it always will.

So the incentives are there to look for issues where Democrats might plausibly move rightward, back toward voters they have lost. And so are the issues themselves. The Democrats have ceded a lot of territory in their recent gallop leftward, and it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with a revised version of the (again, Bill) Clinton playbook suited to the present time.

He then proposes four areas where Democrats could move rightward and thereby improve their standing with voters:

  • Declare a “culture-war truce” that explicitly validates institutional pluralism and dissent from the regnant socially-liberal set of values.
  • Focus on earned benefits and stress the importance of work as a buy-in to the social safety net.
  • Acknowledge the importance of borders and the legitimacy of immigration as a topic of democratic debate.
  • Add efforts to reduce crime and respond to the “spike in lawlessness” to the existing agenda of sentencing reform.

Douthat’s conclusion:

But these shifts would require asking both identitarian and populist liberals (and the many-if-not-most liberals who identify with both strands) to compromise some of their commitments, to accept that open borders and desexed bathrooms and a guaranteed income and mass refugee resettlement will remain somewhat-radical causes rather than simply and naturally becoming the Democratic Party line.

This is a hard ask, since even modest shifts require compromising deeply held (if, in some cases, recently discovered) ideals. And it’s made much harder by the fact that liberals spent the last four years telling themselves that such compromises were not necessary anymore, that they belonged to the benighted 1990s and need trouble liberal consciences no more.

If Douthat will forgive the characterization, I’m afraid he’s sounding far too much like a dismal member of the centrist elite here. That’s not to say I think the Democrats shouldn’t move on some of these matters. It’s to say that “we need to compromise our principles to expand the coalition” is the wrong way to get there. Rather, the only way to get there is through principled argument. And the only way to have that argument is to let people who genuinely favor change — not as a matter of compromise but as a matter of principle — into the debate, and then have the debate.

Let’s start with Douthat’s first idea: a culture war truce. I believe, personally, that this would just flat-out be a good idea, because I believe in principle in institutional diversity. The difficulty for liberals is articulating the boundaries of that principle: how can you say “freedom of association for dissenters from the sexual revolution” but not “freedom of association for dissenters from the civil rights revolution” without saying, in so many words, “gay people’s rights matter less than African American people’s rights?”

I put that out there not as a way of saying, “there’s no solution to that problem,” but as a way of saying, “this is the problem, now let’s solve it” in such a way that threatens neither the rights of gay people, nor the rights of African-Americans, nor the rights of religious traditionalists. But “let’s solve it” requires that gay rights advocates and civil rights advocates and traditional Mormons and Catholics be in the same room under the same tent, trying to solve it. A workable solution can’t be dictated to either side, nor even concocted by some central committee and then sold as a compromise. It has to emerge as a compromise between advocates with differing views.

Similarly with immigration. I agree as a matter of principle that borders are important and that immigration is a legitimate subject for democratic debate. But a compromise that is going to work has to emerge from an internal debate that includes people who advocate a more open immigration policy and people who think mass immigration is causing real harm. Same thing again with crime and sentencing reform.

The version of compromise that Douthat articulates is a marketer’s version: how do we repackage the product to make it more appealing. But the Democratic Party shouldn’t be a product. A party’s job is to represent the people of the country. To do that, it needs to actually represent the people of the United States. Pulling a coalition together that does represent the people surely requires compromise, but that compromise needs to be negotiated between those groups — and each side has to want to compromise so that they can work together on common goals.

And what are those common goals? Well, if they are economic, or if they relate to the distribution of power, or the degree to which people feel they have control over their lives, then there’s plenty of evidence that the Democrats have room to move left rather than right. After all, Donald Trump won the Republican primary and the general election running on being tough on Wall Street, massive spending on rebuilding our national infrastructure, and renegotiating trade deals to bring back manufacturing jobs. You can doubt whether he’ll do those things (I do), and you can note how he ran as a conventional right-winger — or even an extreme right-winger — on other issues. But on those issues, which were central to his campaign, he ran to the left not only of the Republican party but arguably of the Democratic nominee.

Am I just saying that the Sanders populists are right and the “identitarian liberals” are wrong and should shut up? I don’t think so — I’m certainly not saying “shut up” to anyone; quite the opposite. I’m saying that the only way out of this is to give up the idea that anybody is obliged to shut up. I’m saying have the argument — and that to have the argument, you need to have people who disagree in the same tent disagreeing with each other. And the way you get them in the tent isn’t by saying “here’s our new product — we designed it for you” but “we want your help designing our new product so that it best meets your needs.” Or, better, “we’re not just here for your vote; we’re here to stay.” Because if you are determined to stay, you will figure out how to get along, and how to compromise.

And, funny thing, you might even discover that you win some of those arguments by actually convincing people.

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Who Normalized the Word, ‘Normalize?’

Matt Yglesias has a smart piece up at Vox about how the opposition to Trump should stop focusing on his “violation of norms” and focus on the issues:

Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues.

But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, what his opponents need to do is practice ordinary humdrum politics. Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people’s work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.

Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners. His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.

Even serious allegations of corruption will not have the effect that opponents hope:

Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton political scientist who recently published an excellent little book about authoritarian populist movements, finds that Trump supporters’ indifference to Trump’s corrupt leanings is actually rather typical. Even when clear evidence of corruption emerges once an authoritarian populist regime is in place, the regime’s key supporters are generally unimpressed.

“The perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them,’” he writes, “hence it is a pious hope for liberals to think that all they have to do is expose corruption to discredit populists.”

I’ll be writing more about why charges of corruption, or fears thereof — which are most assuredly legitimate — are not getting much political traction. For now, though, the important thing for the opposition party to internalize is that they have to defeat Trump on the merits, on some combination of “he not doing what he promised,” and “he’s doing what he promised and it’s having a disastrous impact on people.”

But I want to make another point. What is this word “normalization” and when did we start using it? And can we please stop?

A norm is a generally-understood requirement of proper behavior. It’s a social concept. Norms emerge organically from patterns of behavior that get entrenched. It was a “norm” that American presidents didn’t serve more than two terms — Washington declined to run for a third term, and that precedent was understood as one to be respected. FDR broke that norm — and afterwards, Americans decided that the norm was important enough to restore that they turned it into a law, by amending the Constitution.

“Normalize” is, historically, a word from international relations. When we normalized relations with Cuba, that means we returned to “normal” relations with the island, the kinds of relations that, by default, we have with most states. But how does that concept apply to a Trump presidency? If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.

I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work. Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.

And haven’t we learned already the dire consequences of substituting virtue signaling for politics?

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Giving Thanks For Trump

My latest column at The Week is a belated Thanksgiving-related bit of musing:

This being the season for such things, I spent last week looking for reasons to be thankful that Donald Trump won the presidential election. It was a tough quest.

It’s not that there are no elements of Trump’s program that I think might be worth pursuing. I have long argued that we’re overdue for a serious rethinking of American foreign policy, something that Barack Obama has partially begun and that Hillary Clinton looked likely to reverse. I’ve come to conclude something similar about our approach to free trade — which isn’t really free at all, but managed to favor the interests of America’s most profitable industries like finance, software, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, and agriculture — another area where it seemed less likely that Clinton would be readily open to new thinking.

But while these might perhaps be reasons to be hopeful, they aren’t really reasons to be thankful yet. And with appointees like Michael Flynn advising President-elect Trump on foreign policy and advisers like Stephen Moore instructing him on economics, even hopefulness feels more than a bit optimistic.

I could perhaps be hopeful about other aspects of Trump’s transition — his self-professed “open mind” on climate change, his willingness to reconsider his embrace of torture, or his lack of interest in pursuing prosecution of the Clintons. But even if I am ultimately thankful that Trump doesn’t manifest the worst expectations based on his promises during the campaign — and it’s far too soon to say whether that will be the case — that’s still hardly a reason to be thankful for his election.

There is one thing I can be thankful for, already, even if President Trump lives down to my worst reasonable fears about corruption, incompetence, and disregard for democratic norms.

Trump has forced me to reckon with reality — specifically, the reality of what democracy is.

It is remarkably easy to remain deluded about that question, and to think that democracy is a system for choosing the best leaders for our country, or for expressing the will of the people. But plenty of organizations need to choose the best leaders, and rarely do they do so democratically. Certainly neither the military nor corporate America does so. As for the will of the people, how can it be determined other than tautologically, as read from the result of the election itself?

Populists may be the only ones who truly understand what democracy really is for, and that is, fundamentally, for expressing dissatisfaction. Elections force leaders to turn to the people and say: How am I doing? — and to accept the people’s verdict if the answer is: Not so great.

For a large swath of the country, the answer has been “not so great” for quite some time. This year, they rendered their verdict.

With every appointment and announcement via Twitter, it becomes clearer that there is little if any reason for hope from the actual conduct of a Trump administration. But populists are rarely if ever any good at governing, or achieving any concrete and positive achievements for their voters. One can still hope that something good may come of the mess the country is going to go through, if it forces rethinking on the part of the elites seeking to regain the people’s confidence. Meanwhile, both the likely shape of the mess and what that rethinking will require are topics that are going to occupy all of us for at least the next four years.

So, thank-you very much, I guess.

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Foreign Policy: The Story So Far


Last week, TAC held its annual foreign policy conference. Pretty much everyone there had expected to be talking about what President Hillary Clinton is going to do wrong; instead, the room was heady with possibility.

And with apprehension. I was encouraged by the fact that very few people there had any real confidence that Trump would pursue the kind of foreign policy that they favored. Rather, there was a sense that there was a chance that he might, and an eagerness to remain open to that chance, coupled with relief that they wouldn’t have the spend the next four years in predictable battles with a Clinton administration.

As for the views expressed, the big point of contention was over China. There was a general consensus that relations with Russia needed to be reestablished on a more institutionally secure basis that could relieve the wild swings, resets and ratcheting tensions that we’ve observed over the past decade. There was similarly a consensus that the terms of our engagement with Europe needed to be renegotiated on a more equal basis.

China, and East Asia more broadly, was another matter. Senator Jim Webb occupied one pole, advocating a sustained military and diplomatic effort to contain a rising Chinese threat. Christopher Layne occupied the opposite pole, seeing China’s rise as part of an inevitable “power transition” with the greatest risk being conflict arising from America’s unwillingness or inability to accommodate that rise. (I situate myself in between these two poles, in the camp of Graham T. Allison, who argues that managing that power transition is an exceptionally difficult and important diplomatic task that neither containment nor accommodation nor a “perfect balance” of carrots and sticks can achieve, because a successful, non-violent transition requires active cooperation between the rival powers rather than merely proper management by the status-quo power.)

Do I think there was — or still is — an opportunity with Trump to see the kind of break with the foreign policy consensus that many at TAC have sought? Personally, I have always been skeptical, partly because of my views of Trump’s fundamental character, partly because I think Trump’s personal conflicts make it more difficult rather than easier for him to pursue such policies as a reset with Russia (whereas he would have more running room to seek a stable modus vivendi with Iran, if he so desires, which I doubt), and partly because of my conviction that the institutional GOP will mostly get its people into key positions. Since personnel is policy, the policy will hew closer to an ultra-hawkish line than not, if it has any coherence at all.

In the week since the conference, a couple of appointments have been announced that should give further reason for pessimism.

Lt. General Michael Flynn is going to be the National Security Advisor. I admit, Flynn is a bit of a puzzle, since all the evidence prior to 2014 is that he was an exceptionally astute officer, and all the evidence since he was dismissed from the DIA is that he’s a raving lunatic. I can’t imagine a normal President even considering someone like Flynn for any post of consequence, much less one for which he seems especially unsuited like head of the NSC. But Trump clearly views as a positive the kind of vocal extremism that I find abhorrent. Now we’ll have to see what exactly that outrageous talk is indicative of.

Rep. Mike Pompeo is going to be the head of the CIA. I know very little about Pompeo except that he is extremely well-regarded for his intelligence and that he is a very partisan Republican. His appointment should demonstrate the degree to which conventional Republican views on foreign policy have a place in a Trump administration, and the degree to which people with those views will in no way be a heck on the most alarming possibilities of a Trump administration in the foreign policy arena.

Many of the other names being floated for offices like State and Defense, like Mitt Romney and General James Mattis, feel similarly. I’d certainly rather see Romney at State than John Bolton, and I’d rather see Mattis at Defense than Senator James Cotton, possibilities that have also been floated. But last week’s conferees were clearly hoping for some evidence from appointments that Trump meant to steer in a new direction, and at this point the only encouragement they can take is that the worst has not yet come to pass.

Towards the end of the conference, there was a bit of a Webb-boosting boomlet that managed to make the news. I would have been very happy to see Webb at Defense, particularly if balanced by someone like Jon Huntsman at State, particularly in terms of Huntsman’s views on China. But this is a fantasy version of this administration that is unlikely to correspond to reality at any point, and certainly not at the outset.

The rosiest-case scenario from my perspective at this point is that the rhetorical excesses of both Trump and some of his leading advisors don’t translate into policy in any meaningful way, and that, in fact, they are a kind of substitute for bellicose action — a kind of “shout loudly but don’t actually hit anybody with your stick” policy. I’d expect a policy like that to result in a lot of failure as rivals learn that they don’t actually need to show us any respect so long as they give our President some symbolic victory to brag about, but that kind of failure is better than catastrophe. Unfortunately, “not a catastrophe” feels like hope to me these days.

Meanwhile, what I do remain encouraged by is that the folks at the TAC conference, howsoever they might have been more hopeful than I am, were equally committed to opposing this administration if it disappoints them.

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Guilty Pleasures, Iceland Edition


Apologies for my absence for a while, but I spent the past four days in Iceland, one of my wife’s favorite places on earth, celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary. We had a delightful time, traveling by super-jeep into the interior to visit the sanctuary of Landmannalaugar, hiking across a glacier, soaking in the ubiquitous geothermally-heated pools, and generally relaxing. The only thing we didn’t do that we hoped to was see the northern lights — they’re temperamental performers, and they didn’t feel like showing off for us I guess.

It’s a wonderful place, like nowhere else I’ve been — and I would encourage everyone to go and see it for themselves.

But I’m not sure I should.

When we were last in Iceland, in 2009, on a longer trip, the country was already on the tourist map. my wife remarked at the time on how much the country had changed since she had first been there in 1980, when there was virtually no tourist industry to speak of. But nonetheless, it still felt like a land ripe for discovery. We were there in late June and July, tourist season, and yet there were plenty of times that we felt like the only people there.

This year, an estimated 1,500,000 people will visit Iceland. That’s five tourists for every native — and a threefold increase in traffic since our last visit. Over a third of Iceland’s export dollars are now derived from tourism, outpacing both fishing and aluminum smelting. The country is building hotels as fast as they possibly can, and the employment mix is changing rapidly. Iceland’s natural beauty is not yet in danger of being displaced (not by tourism anyway; climate change is another matter), because the sheer scale of the country can absorb large numbers of visitors. But the country’s culture and way of life is another matter. If the tourist boom sustains itself, Iceland may cease to be a place unto itself, and instead become a place dedicated to self-representation to outsiders. If the boom ends abruptly, Iceland will face a very painful economic adjustment.

I do want to stress that the rustic old Iceland is still very much present outside of Reykjavik. The week we were there, we were the only two people crazy enough to schlep across the frozen wastes to Landmannalaugar; we had its hot springs entirely to ourselves. The ferry from Norway to Seyðisfjörður has not seen the massive increase in traffic that Keflavik airport has. But our guide on the glacier hike told us that only a few years ago they’d have one or two groups a day during the summer, and now, in November, we passed over a dozen other groups tramping across the ice. (And the ice is melting so quickly now that it will likely be gone in 20 years.)

So I’m torn. I want everyone to have a share in the beauty and sublimity of this very special place. But everyone is too many. And rationing access would turn Iceland into a playground for the wealthy (which is also already happening).

I’ve perseverated on this subject before, from the opposite direction, wondering about whether acting to preserve the experience of the kind of tourist who “gets it right” from my perspective impinges unreasonably on the experience of people who really live in the world that people like me are just visiting. Now I’m worrying about whether not acting to preserve that experience, and to limit it to a reasonable number, inevitably transforms the world being visited beyond recognition.

I wish I knew the answer.

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Donald Trump: The Political Equivalent of the Financial Crisis

My latest column for The Week is all about how even folks who knew better — like me — still missed what happened Tuesday:

Before 2009, I worked on Wall Street, where I had a front-row seat for the financial crisis. I watched as a business I’d helped build — and that we thought we had approached with real concern for investor well-being — collapsed in the face of the financial equivalent of a 100-year storm.

It was what former risk analyst Nassim Taleb famously termed a black swan event, a highly improbable disaster that revealed everyone’s faulty assumptions. But I can assure you: Everybody I worked with knew, on some level, that such a storm was possible, and more likely than anybody acknowledged. We knew the ways in which credit quality was deteriorating. We knew that the ratings agencies allowed themselves to be arbitraged. We knew that the financial entities that insured the bulk of various banks’ portfolios were thinly capitalized, and that their assets were highly correlated with one another. We’d joke about extreme risks out on the tail of the distribution, risks that couldn’t really be quantified but that didn’t correspond to anything we’d actually observed, saying, “well, if that happens, we’re all dead anyway.”

We knew, but we didn’t want to know. And so we did what we knew how to do — as well and as conscientiously as we knew how to do — and battened down the hatches when we saw the storm brewing. And then watched our business get swamped when the storm hit anyway.

The same is true of the possibility of Donald Trump becoming president. For the political class, the possibility was inadmissible because it meant that all their knowledge was worthless: Anything could happen. For the journalistic class, the possibility was inadmissible because it would mean that their efforts to inform and influence were worthless: They were less trusted than Donald Trump of all people.

Some knew even less than that, but their ignorance was also deliberately chosen. The hedge fund managers in the film The Big Short made a killing betting on the collapse of the mortgage derivative market. How did they decide to place that bet? They read the offering documents. And they went and visited some of the properties that were being mortgaged, and talked to the owners and the lenders. That was all it took. With just a little bit of research, they learned what reams of historical data couldn’t tell them — that the market was built on sand.

How many of the pollsters and aggregators and political journalists attempted to measure, in advance, the likely voting propensity of the people who put Donald Trump over the top? Plenty of articles referenced the potential importance of non-college-educated white voters in the Midwest. Who seriously tried to answer the question of whether the various polls’ assumptions about that propensity were right?

All of that ignorance, meanwhile, fed the growth of the very risk that ultimately undid the system as a whole. That’s the difference between a black swan in zoology and a black swan in finance. Literal black swans exist or don’t regardless of whether we look for them. But if you undervalue the risk in the tail of the distribution, you create an incentive to pile up risk there, which drives the probability of that extreme event up and up. And If you don’t try to value it at all, then you are surely undervaluing it. And if you don’t collect the information that might have told you that the risk out there was increasing, then you’d never know to value it. Similarly, if you don’t ever try to turn qualitative pieces about potential Trump voters in western Pennsylvania into quantitative analysis, how will you know the likelihood that the polls will be wrong?

And what about people who just knew in their gut that something was up? How did they fare? Well, I was one of them.

I’ve spent some time looking back over my commentary on this election cycle. I started with my August 2015 column, “Why not Donald Trump?” that first explored why Trump was different from past flash-in-the-pan outsider GOP contenders. After Trump’s primary victory, I explained how the GOP would adapt itself to Trump’s leadership by adapting him to their policy priorities. Clearly, I knew GOP voters would mostly come home.

Turning my attention to Hillary Clinton, I wrote a series of columns on how she needed to redefine herself for the general election. More pointed was my warning to Clinton of the risks in focusing on adding unhappy Republicans to her coalition, and that she urgently needed to pitch more of her message at Trump’s key constituency of non-college-educated whites if only so she could understand how they were receiving Trump’s pitch.

Reading my own stuff, it’s clear I knew something like what happened could very plausibly happen, even if I wouldn’t have said it was more likely than not.

I still missed it. I didn’t want to believe what on some level I knew.

Speaking of things I knew: a lot of women friends of mine are especially anguished that the revelations about Donald Trump’s appalling behavior towards women didn’t flat-out disqualify him in the minds of voters. Unfortunately, I knew that would be the case as well. From one of my “advice to Hillary” columns back in May:

Let me make a suggestion. Have Huma put up a picture of Marcia Clark on the inside of the door to your Brooklyn office, to serve as a constant reminder of how to lose a sure thing by misreading your audience. Clark, as you no doubt recall, was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She thought she had a slam-dunk case and a jury eager to hear it, having stacked it with women who she figured would sympathize with the victim. She failed to account for the possibility that, as African-American women, they might have split sympathies — and that the more she painted Simpson as a cold-blooded killer, and the more she harped on the innocence of his white ex-wife, the more she was pushing their sympathies in the wrong direction, toward standing up for one of their men against a white woman’s defamation.

The 2016 election could present you with a similar problem — even without the explicit racial polarities. Say you focus your energy on attacking Trump and his supporters for being misogynists. You’ll have plenty of fuel for such an attack — but how will the women whose husbands are interested in Trump react? Are they going to let you get between them and their husbands? Or are they going to rally to their defense, and against this insulting, elitist outsider?

To get inside that defense, you can’t rely on female solidarity, or on women’s issues. Any voter for whom that kind of pitch has a strong appeal is already actively supporting you in the primary, and will certainly be with you in the general election. The women you need to reach are precisely those who are less-amenable to this kind of appeal. They are women who would consider voting Republican — who may have voted Republican in previous elections, whatever reservations or frustrations they might have had with that party. . . .

[I]t isn’t about the issues, or about experience. None of that matters if people believe that Trump is a straight-talking independent man who will put America first, while you are a cosmopolitan insider eager to do the bidding of special interests so as to win and retain power. You need to turn that around, and get people to believe that you’re a flawed human being who went into the business of politics in order to accomplish something, while your opponent is a fraud and a charlatan who has accomplished almost none of what he claims, and will do nothing of what he promises.

To make that case, you need to make an emotional connection, which means a personal one. A revelation of common experience that enables them to trust your judgment. That’s what the reintroduction is all about.

That reintroduction never happened. Instead, her campaign did exactly what I had warned wouldn’t work. And somehow, knowing it wouldn’t, I still convinced myself it had.

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Resistance From the Right, Progress From the Left

Before the election, TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy, argued, in a piece explaining his support for Trump, that while it was possible that Trump would live down to the worst fears of observers like Ross Douthat, “he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.”

That’s as may be — but what I remember from the Bush years was not the success but the utter impotency of that left to affect the course of the Bush administration. And one major reason for that failure was that those on the right who might have shared their apprehensions or alarm feared breaking ranks.

The stakes are even higher this time, both because of Trump’s particular temperament and because of the considerably weaker institutional state of the Democratic Party. So while I expect McCarthy is right about how quickly that opposition will organize, I have little confidence in its efficacy.

That’s why I’m going to be watching particularly for resistance from the right — most especially from those segments of the right that have been supportive of Trump — to any evidence that Trump plans to disappoint their hopes for a more restrained version of an “America first” foreign policy. The battles will start almost immediately, with key nominations for the Defense and State departments, and continue immediately to questions of the authorization (or explicit de-authorization) of our ongoing involvement in Syria, Libya and Iraq, and to whether the Iran deal will be rigorously enforced or peremptorily abandoned. If the likes of Justin Amash in the House and Rand Paul in the Senate do not stand — early and strongly — for prudence and diplomacy, and work with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to prevent the worst, that will speak volumes. I hope I can expect the same from members of the conservative commentariat, including at this magazine.

From the left, I’m looking for something different — for evidence that they understand that rebuilding the Democratic Party will require not only resistance, but also evidence that they place the people’s business at the top of their list of priorities. Donald Trump’s one distinctive economic policy is a more nationalist approach to trade. Just as Newt Gingrich provided Bill Clinton the votes to pass NAFTA, Elizabeth Warren should be open to providing the votes to renegotiate it in a manner more favorable to the interests of American workers. Trump has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare — but he has no deep convictions on the matter, nor is there any sign that he even knows what that would mean. The Democrats should offer an olive branch of reform very quickly, and let the Republicans in the House be the ones to demand total repeal. Infrastructure spending is another area where there is an obvious overlap between Trump’s likely agenda and Democratic priorities.

The risk of handing the Republican president a “win” that makes him more popular is far outweighed by the risks of wall-to-wall obstructionism: that Trump has no-one to negotiate with but Paul Ryan, and that the Democrats get perceived as a purely negative force. The Democrats are not in a position to replicate the GOP’s playbook in 2010; they have a great deal of party building to do, and they need to show that they are listening to the concerns of voters who they lost in order to win their trust to give them governorships and Senate seats in 2018. They should stand on principle where principle is at stake, but they should also take advantage of the fact that Trump owes the institutional GOP nothing, and so can pursue whatever policies make him popular regardless of what his party’s backbenchers want.

Senator Bernie Sanders put it just about right in his statement on Trump’s election. Rep. Amash’s call to “[put] the band back together” is encouraging as well — if the band takes at least as much interest in civil liberties and war powers as it does in taxes, spending and regulation. We’ll see. That’s what I’ll be looking for.

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Dreading the Future

This is going to be relatively brief, as I have little time and am still processing last night’s events. So I will just say this.

I completely understand Daniel McCarthy and Scott McConnell and others who are delighted to see someone promising to upend the bipartisan consensus for an aggressive foreign policy, a liberal trade regime, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. I share many of their views of the first, have come to a greater appreciation over time of the second, and while I am not personally much concerned about immigration I understand why some people are, and I agree with the bedrock principle — which has come increasingly under question — that countries have every right to establish immigration policies that suit their national interests, provided they pursue them in a humane and just fashion.

But I admit, I could not feel hopeful about Donald Trump as the standard-bearer for such a movement, and feel only dread about the prospect of his presidency. First of all, I question whether Trump actually believes what they think, particularly on what matters most to me. Consider who he surrounds himself with. Foreign policy is going to be in the hands of the likes of John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. These are the men who will restrain America’s interventionist habit, and put more emphasis on diplomacy? On economic matters as well, there’s a radical disconnect between some of Trump’s rhetoric and the likely policies he’ll actually pursue. For example, Steve Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs is going to run the Treasury. This is the man who is going to reverse the financialization of the American economy?

And then of course there’s the man himself, whom we’ve gotten to know much better than I ever would have wanted to in the course of the past year and a half, and will now get to know even better for the next four years, whether I want to or not. From what he’s eagerly shown, I do not.

I want to be hopeful. But I greatly fear they are projecting onto the leader they have a figure of the man they wish he were.

Myself, I stand more in the general vicinity of Ross Douthat:

retract none of the warnings that I issued about the likelihood of catastrophe and crisis on his watch. I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before. But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite. So we must hope that he has the wit to be more than a wrecker, more than a demagogue, and that his crude genius can actually be turned, somehow, to the common good.

And if that hope is dashed, we must find ways to resist him — all of us, right and left, in the new chapter of American history that has opened very unexpectedly tonight.

To which I will only add — as I know Douthat would agree — that if that “crude genius” can be turned, it won’t turn on its own, but will require real assistance from people who know more about the world and the functioning of our government than the coterie he has surrounded himself with. Even though they thereby risk association with his likely catastrophes, I dearly hope that assistance is forthcoming — from members of both parties — so that the need for resistance doesn’t become a foregone conclusion.

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Democratic versus Procedural Legitimacy: The Case of Brexit

Speaking of questions of legitimacy: how about that Brexit ruling?

If I understand correctly, the argument is that, as the referendum was non-binding, the government cannot trigger Article 50 merely on its own recognizance based on the opinion  of the people as expressed in the referendum. The power to trigger Article 50 is reserved to parliament, which is sovereign. So, basically, the referendum advised parliament rather than the government to trigger Article 50 and withdraw, and now parliament has to vote on whether to take that advice (as they promised to do before the referendum) or to spurn it.

The trouble is not merely that properly informing parliament requires revealing the government’s negotiating strategy (which the government doesn’t want to do), nor that parliament’s debate and vote may wind up binding the government in specific ways that hamstring the process of negotiation (which the government doesn’t want to happen). Nor is it merely that MPs will now have to consider whether they will be punished worse for doing what the people asked (since, if it goes poorly for Britain, they will now be directly responsible for the decision, and won’t be able to blame the government), or whether they will be punished worse for refusing to do what the people asked.

No, the biggest problem is that if the parliament in London has to vote on Brexit then what about the parliament in Edinburgh?

Procedural legitimacy flows from observance of proper constitutional forms, while democratic legitimacy flows from the expressed (or presumed) will of the people. In general, conservatives are the sorts of people holding up the claims of the former against the claims of the latter. But right wing populism scrambles the usual arrangement.

It was ironic to begin with that it took the constitutional innovation of a referendum to make clear to Britain’s major parties that the country opposed their common project of European integration. It will be even more ironic if what ultimately frustrates the people’s will is not the fecklessness of its leaders but the structure of the British constitution that the Brexiters in particular proclaimed their desire to preserve.

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Weird Election Photo Finishes

It’s a two-column week for me at The Week — and this one is just for election obsessives.

Right now, it looks like Hillary Clinton is still significantly favored, and if she wins that the Democrats will likely control the Senate as well. But Donald Trump is clearly gaining ground, mostly because undecideds and Gary Johnson voters are coming home to the GOP. So it is possible that this thing will go down to the wire after all.

What then?

Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” — and if this election doesn’t prove him right then nothing does. Here, then, are three weird photo finish scenarios that are still possible ends to this weirdest of elections.

And then I outline three increasingly unlikely possibilities:

  1. Trump will “win” on Election Day but lose the election because of early voting. In itself, that’s not so weird or even so unlikely — but in my scenario, Trump wins states like Michigan and New Hampshire that currently favor Clinton but don’t have early voting, lending credence to the argument that the electorate “changed its mind” by Election Day.
  2. Trump wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote by a meaningful margin — between 1 and 2 percent. That result is actually likelier than most people realize, because Clinton’s support is “inefficiently” distributed — she’s doing better in large red states like Texas and Georgia than a typical Democratic candidate, but she’s still going to lose these states.
  3. Evan McMullin wins Utah in part because Democrats flock to him to stop Trump, leading to an Electoral College deadlock that throws the election to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

The commonality of all the scenarios is that the losing side has real reason to consider the election illegitimate, with all the possibility for further political instability that that implies.

Read the whole thing there. And have a nice five days!

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A Broken Coriolanus


My latest column at The Week is a review of a production of Coriolanus that speaks to our political moment:

As Shakespeare wrote it, the action of Coriolanus takes place 2,500 years ago, in the early years of the Roman republic, and describes the banishment from Rome of its greatest military hero, who in exile allies with his greatest enemy to wreak vengeance on the city that spurned him. But as conceived by director Michael Sexton, it could have been written this year.

We, the people, take center stage in the play’s first scene, as an angry urban mob — part Occupy Wall Street, part Black Lives Matter — threaten riot. Food is scarce, but the patricians, they are convinced, have ample stores of grain.

They are calmed by the arrival of the genial patrician Menenius, played by Patrick Page as an old school Southern senator in the mold of Lyndon Johnson or Fred Thompson (and it’s incredible how well Shakespeare’s own language suits that tone and cadence), the kind of fellow who has an old saw for every occasion. He tells the crowd a folksy parable of the time the body’s limbs and organs mutinied against the apparently idle belly, not realizing that the belly was responsible for the provision of nutriment to all the body’s members. (We barely need the explication he provides, as the parable is still operative today, used by Wall Street’s defenders to describe banking’s necessary function in allocating capital.)

The mob has begun to soften from Menenius’ gentle jibes, when Coriolanus enters, sneering. A soldier’s soldier and an aristocrat’s aristocrat, he oozes contempt for the common people — and even more for the Senate for having given in to their demands. The people will be given grain gratis during the famine, and furthermore shall be allowed to elect tribunes to balance the power of the consul, who is chosen by the Senate. If he had his way, the Senate would have let him cut the rioting people down as he did any of Rome’s enemies. The rhetoric is not so very different from our own, where one year Mitt Romney reviles the “takers” who are parasites on “wealth-creators,” and another year Donald Trump eagerly supports vigilantism to deal with “thugs” and restore order.

Sexton’s production is careful to make its critical correspondences between then and now promiscuously bipartisan. The two tribunes chosen by the people — Brutus (a condescending Merritt Jansen) and Sicinius (an oleaginous Stephen Spinella) — are corrupt, manipulative figures, resentful of Coriolanus’ contempt and eager to rile the people up for their own cynical purposes. Not coincidentally, they bear some resemblance to political figures from our world, Brutus appearing like a cross between Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Sicinius like a combination of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But the people behind Coriolanus come off as in many ways no less cynical. Political leaders like Menenius and military leaders like the outgoing consul, Cominius (a very winning Aaron Krohn), conspire to hide from the people the true nature both of the man they would elevate to leader and to the program he would enact.

The comprehensive cynicism of the play — the fickleness of the mob, the corruption of the people’s tribunes, the self-serving and self-congratulatory behavior of the patricians — is part of Shakespeare’s strategy for bringing us into sympathy with Coriolanus. His arrogance and contempt should make us hate him in return — much as the people of Rome do. But we see by their actions that everything Coriolanus holds in contempt is, on some level, contemptible.

My conclusion:

Though at one point he dons a familiar red cap, this Coriolanus is not Donald Trump. Trump’s braggadocious and vulgar manner could not be further from the Roman’s. But he is a highly convincing representation of a certain kind of Trump voter. Coriolanus gives us the mental self-image of someone who longs to make America great again, and sees his own greatness as going woefully unrecognized by people whom he holds in contempt — yet who somehow have become more powerful than he is. Is it any surprise he’s in a state of perpetual rage? How many of our soldiers and marines feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated by a society they hold increasingly to be shallow and unworthy of defense?

The representation of Aufidius is the final way in which Sexton’s production brings the contemporary setting chillingly home. Heavily tattooed, hair cut more like a Hun than a Volsci, in white jeans and combat boots, this Aufidius feels like a kind of “alt-right” figure built of punk gestures and outsider anger. These Volscians are not a foreign people, but a kind of martial spirit freed of the restrictions of discipline or the bonds of natural allegiance — a spirit of pure destruction.

Coriolanus spent his life subduing men like Aufidius in the name of empire and order, and he was repaid for his labors with exile. So he dons the death’s-head moth tattoos himself, to make war on that same order, that same empire.

We are now 15 years into our War on Terror, another war to subdue by force the spirit of pure destruction. The battlefield continually expands while the very definition of victory remains elusive. And now we are treated to headlines about enlistment bonuses being clawed back, while Hillary Clinton, still our most likely next president, seeks to step up the scope and pace of war rather than even talk of peace.

Trump is already the overwhelming favorite among our soldiers and marines. What happens if our own defenders begin to sport Aufidius’ tattoos as well?

Please go there and read the whole thing. But more important: if you are in New York, go see the production. I’m biased, I freely admit — I’m on the board of Red Bull Theater, the company mounting the play. But trust me: this one is not for an age but for our time.

Coriolanus runs at the Barrow Street Theater through November 20th.

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New S#!+ Has Come To Light, Man

Somebody needs to get James Comey a white Russian already.

But seriously people: let’s think about this. FBI director James Comey is a civil servant of great integrity, as attested to by multiple people over the course of his career and as evidenced by his behavior across that period of time. (And I will say that I personally know someone who used to work with him who holds him in the highest possible esteem.)

Why does his office need to look into these emails? Because they appear to be pertinent — i.e., they pertain to the prior investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email server. The FBI doesn’t know yet if they are significant because they haven’t seen them yet. All they can tell is that they are likely pertinent, which probably means they know who they are from and who they are addressed to and not much more.

So why did Comey issue his terse letter? Well, consider the alternatives.

He could have said nothing — in which case he would have been sitting on information that was definitely pertinent to the Congressional committee responsible for oversight of the matter in question. That would have been much more blatant interference in the election — and it might have been a violation of his legal duties as well.

He could have said more — framing the news explicitly as “no big deal.” Such a framing might have pleased people in the Clinton camp, but its most likely effect would have been to further undermine Republican confidence in Comey himself. Why, after all, would he need to include such framing unless he were trying to influence their perceptions, and therefore the election? And how, after all, can he know there’s nothing there, until he’s completed his investigation?

It seems to me that he did what he needed to do and no more than that: report the facts. It just so happens that the facts themselves are very thin in this case.

So we’re left to fill in the gaps based on our prior perception of the candidates. If you think Clinton is sloppy and paranoid but not covering up anything in particular, there is literally no reason to change that perception. If you think Clinton is engaged in a sustained cover-up of illegal behavior, then there is no reason to change that perception either. Because there is not, actually, anything particularly new and significant that has come to light.

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Maps Of the Future


My latest column at The Week is about why I think it would be good if Trump wins some traditionally blue and purple states even as Clinton wins some traditionally red states:

[W]hat the country needs is a clear and decisive repudiation of Trump that also demonstrates that his message struck a chord beyond the precincts of Appalachia — a victory for Clinton that also contains a warning about the dangers to come if Trump’s legitimate issues are not addressed, and a loss for Republicans that also points to a more promising future under a different standard-bearer.

For a model of what such a loss would look like, consider not the blowout elections of 1972 or 1964, but the election of 1896.

For the 20 years prior to that famous election, the Democrats had done moderately well for themselves by nominating moderate candidates from the mid-Atlantic states (Samuel Tilden was from New York, as was Grover Cleveland; Winfield Scott was from Pennsylvania). They won some elections, and they lost some elections — and when they lost, it was by the narrowest of margins (indeed, they twice won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College).

But there were unaddressed issues bubbling that threatened the stability of the parties as they stood. In particular, America’s farmers were suffering severely under the prevailing hard-money policy that President Cleveland’s Democrats shared with the Republicans, and there was a pervasive anxiety about how mass immigration was changing both the character of the country and the distribution of the era’s economic gains.

In 1896, the Democrats broke with what had been their winningest formula, and nominated a populist champion, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran on a platform of bimetallism — an inflationary policy that would help indebted farmers at the expense of creditors — and against the banking interests on the East and West Coasts. And he personally represented a notion of what a “real American” was, or ought to be: white, Protestant, and oriented toward the countryside.

Bryan lost — and lost decisively. But he also won states that no Democrat had won since the Civil War — Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado — along with new states like Washington, Montana, and Utah. Bryan gave representation and a voice to those who were losing ground in the era of the robber barons. And while McKinley’s coalition was the coalition of the future, a version of Bryan’s coalition — one that more comprehensively added Northern industrial workers — represented the future of his party.

Today, America’s industrial laborers are in a somewhat analogous position to farmers in Bryan’s day. And while Trump is no Bryan, his explicit appeal to those voters, and declaration that he would be their voice, deserves electoral recognition. Both parties need to be put on notice that there is a set of voters, and a set of issues, that are up for grabs, and that there is opportunity as well as risk involved in courting them.

So if had my druthers, on Nov. 8, the map will look something like this:

Go there to read more about why I think such a state swap would be valuable.

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Election End-Game — And Post-Season Predictions

I watched the final debate, and my impression was that Trump did fairly well when he got to be an angry critic of the bipartisan consensus, and did terribly when he had to advance any kind of proposition of his own. You might think this would mean that he’d do well ranting on his own television network — except that’s a space that is already pretty crowded, and not obviously growing. And I’m specifically not convinced Trump would know how to handle guests. Would congressional hopefuls really sign up to be contestants on Political Apprentice? I somehow doubt it. Anyway, potential investors in Trump TV should be appropriately skeptical.

The biggest headline from the debate, of course, was about Trump’s refusal to say that he’ll accept the results of an election he’s now extremely likely to lose. He’s now doubled down on that comment, to predictable outrage from anybody who still cares about American democracy. But in the end, I’m much less worried than commenters like Damon Linker that Trump will seriously undermine American democracy by refusing to concede. Rather, the bigger risk is that he will continue his destruction of the GOP. Because if Trump refuses to accept the election results, they will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, they could try to humor his supporters, holding hearings on voter fraud, promising to impeach Hillary Clinton within 100 days, promising to reject any legislation she proposes, filibustering her choices for the Supreme Court, etc. But this plays into Trump’s hand, keeping him relevant and giving him the power to pronounce that whatever they are doing is ineffective and weak and that if he were in charge Hillary would already be in prison. Moreover, a Trumpified GOP is already hemorrhaging educated white voters. That process will only accelerate if the GOP continues its policy of appeasement, with potentially dire consequences for 2018 and beyond.

On the other hand, if the GOP leadership clearly accepts the results of the election, and offers (however disingenuously) to work with the new President, they will likely face an outraged revolt by multiple parts of their base — not only by core Trump voters, but also those ideological conservatives who object to Trump’s deviations or his character but who want to see the GOP stand on conservative principle. Opportunists like Ted Cruz will greedily seize the megaphone to decry the sellout by the leadership even as they take pains to distinguish themselves from Trump.

Just as in the primaries, the GOP leadership faces a two-front war. They will want to avoid that war, and to reconcile on almost any terms in the interest of battling the “real” enemy. But reconciliation is impossible without the mutual respect that allows for negotiation to form a coalition, something manifestly lacking at present.

The only way out is true institutional and ideological reform, something the GOP leadership has vigorously resisted now for three presidential cycles. Trump has made that process much harder, but he has also made it all the more necessary.

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Every Action Has An Equal Opposite Reaction

Sam Tannenhaus’s review of Mark Lilla’s book, The Shipwrecked Mind, which I hope to get around to reading before too long, ends on the following Godwinian note:

One of the strangest developments in the 2016 election has been the spectacle of West Coast Straussians who champion Trump—and lustily denounce his critics—in various forums, including the Claremont Review of Books, a well-written quarterly edited by Charles Kesler, and on Web sites like the Journal of American Greatness, billed as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism,” since reborn as the Web site American Greatness. Twenty or so Claremonsters are also among the more than a hundred “Scholars and Writers for America” who recently declared Trump “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”

Imperfect though Trump may be, the argument goes, he has all the right enemies: Beltway insiders, academics, “social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals,” as Clarence Thomas’s tutor John Marini wrote. These are Strauss’s relativists and nihilists, who have perpetrated “regime change” at home, destroying the republic, or trying to. Trump’s redemptive greatness begins in his fearless opposition to political correctness, “a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans,” Kesler says. It would seem that reactionaries, while they inhabit our world, are not really of it. “They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over,” Lilla writes. This, too, is a lesson of Weimar. With luck, we won’t have to learn it in real time.

This engendered a (to me) fascinating argument between some of my favorite intellectual sparring partners on Facebook (including TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy), about whether there is any plausible connection between Trump and the American reactionary intellectual tradition which preceded him, and which Lilla traces in his book.

The case against such a connection is that nobody from what I guess you’d have to call the “mainstream” reactionary right was calling for somebody like Trump prior to his emergence. Trump’s “movement” arguably has limited ideological content beyond the glorification of Trump himself, and Trump himself is not only a low huckster but someone with neither knowledge of nor respect for America’s constitutional traditions, something you’d think a west coast Straussian would care rather a lot about. Finally, inasmuch as Trump represents the ascendancy of certain political ideas, those ideas are not the ideas of Harry Jaffa but rather those of Sam Francis. So “blaming” Jaffa (much less Strauss) for Trump seem ridiculous — and if some of Jaffa’s heirs are jumping on the Trump train, then they are just wrong.

All of which is both true and fair enough as far as it goes. But there’s still the problem of explaining why there have been any intellectual defenders of Donald Trump who aren’t coming from the world of the “alt-right.” It’s all well and good to say “these people are ignominiously betraying the intellectual tradition they claim to be upholding” — but one still needs to know why.

I think the likely answer should make someone who wants to defend that “mainstream” reactionary tradition just a little bit uncomfortable.

Apocalypticism has consequences. Reactionary thinkers may genuinely believe that the regime that America has been living under since 1965, or 1937, or 1913, or 1868 — or whatever date a particular reactionary prefers — is fundamentally corrupt, and that we need a radical return to first principles to save our civilization. But if you actually believe that, then it follows that when it comes time to choose a champion, it’s rational to pick not the person you agree with most or who has the character of someone you’d want to see in a leader, but the person most likely to destroy a corrupt system that is beyond reform.

You might, at one point, have convinced yourself that Ronald Reagan or New Gingrich or George W. Bush was someone different, someone who really would restore the Old Republic. But when you think about it, wasn’t that perhaps a purer example of self-delusion than supporting a guy like Trump? Because Trump really could destroy the Empire. And your own ideas imply that such destruction is a precondition to a successful re-founding.

To avoid that kind of logic, you have to have a deep resistance to apocalyptic thinking as such. You have to be reluctant to see civilization on the line in each and every election, to doubt whether it’s ever possible to identify in advance a fatal Rubicon which, once crossed, makes catastrophe inevitable. But if Lilla’s psychology is right, a reactionary can’t really do that.

And if, perhaps, you hadn’t already traveled that road prior to Trump’s emergence, then consider how Trump’s success might change your perspective on the matter. I remain convinced that a major part of the reason why Trump was able to achieve the success he has was his willingness to attack his own party and that party’s ideas in the fiercest, most uncompromising terms, ideas that had only grown more rigid as they proved less effective, both politically and in their empirical result. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether I’m right about the reason for his success or not — what matters is that the consequence of Trump’s primary victory makes it impossible to hold to a prior idea.

Specifically, movement conservatives can no longer plausibly claim, to themselves or to anyone, that they speak for the “real” American people. Either that people no longer exists, or it never existed.

So an adjustment is required. One possible adjustment would be towards a kind of deep pessimism, a hunkering down until the arrival of another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. But another possibility is to come to see that what one always thought isn’t quite what one had thought one did. Perhaps you didn’t initially greet Trump as the long-awaited savior (for any of the manifold reasons you might have for rejecting him). But once he triumphed, you might ask yourself whether you missed something — not necessarily about him as a person, but about what this moment in history was offering. If you really believe that a radical refounding is needed, are you going to reject the most dramatic opportunity to achieve such change, even if it doesn’t look like what you thought you were waiting for? And reject it in favor of a perfect avatar of the status quo?

Ideas do have consequences — but consequences also have ideas, which, in turn, have their own consequences. For a “liberal conservative,” Trump’s triumph has merely forced a reevaluation of the two parties — which is why many of these people will be voting for Hillary Clinton on November 8th whatever they think of her personally and however difficult it will be for them to rest comfortably with their new bedfellows. But for the kinds of people Lilla is talking about, Trump represents a more fundamental challenge. For those who decided that the right response is an adjustment of the sort I describe above, what will be true from now on is that they made that adjustment, and decided that Trump was the bandwagon on which to jump.

And we’ll have to wait to see what ideas emerge as a consequence of that decision.

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Atoning For Trump

I had a Yom Kippur-themed column in The Week yesterday:

Richard III is described as the scourge of God, sent to cleanse England of everyone with a speck of civil blood on his or her hands, from the murder of Richard II down through the War of the Roses. He is able to thrive not merely because people are complacent or see a chance for advancement, but because his society had already suffered civil ruptures so deep that most if not all of his crimes had already been normalized before he achieved their apotheosis.

Similarly, the biblical understanding of the relationship between the Israelite monarchs and their people is not merely that it’s a bad idea to allow a bad man to become king. Rather, God allows bad kings precisely to punish the people for their transgressions.

This is not a modern, liberal idea. But it has a proper modern, liberal analogue, and that is to see the ascension of a demagogue like Trump not merely as due to our failure to take him seriously, or to condemn him vigorously enough, but of our failure to be fellow citizens together. It is our failure to see those civic bonds as more important than victory for the side we see as right that has, above all, made Trump’s rise possible.

It flatters us to say to ourselves that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, because it implicitly casts us as the good people, and our opponents as the evil. That is why no amount of moral condemnation will put an end to the Trump scourge. After all, The Deseret News was hardly the first newspaper to condemn Trump. Trump has managed the astonishing feat, after all, of being supported by essentially no national newspapers, most definitely including those that traditionally endorse Republicans. Similarly, he triumphed in the Republican primaries in spite of nearly universal opposition from the party leadership. He is being condemned and denounced daily, by leaders in both parties as well as by nonpartisan leaders. All of that only confirms to those who express their die-hard support that he must be on to something.

It may be more than enough to defeat him at the ballot box — Trump has never mustered sufficient support to win the general election, and he’s not likely to gain that support now. But defeat will do nothing to address the reasons why Trump was able to come so far in the first place.

I should probably have atoned for writing another Trump column.

But seriously: this isn’t going to be over when Trump loses the election. Trump will still be out there, actively promoting the myth that the election was stolen from him by some combination of a deck-stacking media, a back-stabbing party, and a vote-fraud-perpetrating opponent. The temptation will be powerful for Republicans to turn those very charges into the cornerstone of their recovery, and for the Democrats to dismiss the entire Trump phenomenon as evidence of “deplorability,” rather than for either to attempt to repair the civic bonds with the people who were so disgusted that they would cheer on their own destruction so long as the collapsing temple crushed their enemies with them.

And, equally, the temptation of those who lost with Trump — particularly the more sophisticated sort such as frequent this magazine — to despair of ever succeeding in changing the country’s direction, and nurture even more extreme fantasies. But the fact is, victory is impossible, and so is civic divorce. They may not like it, but the burden will be on them as well to imagine their way into actual future, which means imagining their way into civic reengagement with people who they are convinced hold them in contempt, rather than turning that contempt into a badge of perverse honor.

Trump is not a builder; he’s a destroyer. But he is our destroyer. We are all responsible for conjuring him up, and we all have to participate in the exorcism.

UPDATE: A commenter writes:

Trump is one of us. He and Clinton both [are] mirror reflections of our culture. And our humanity.

If we forget the ubiquity of that fact, then we are destined to be self-righteous and feign innocence.

What Trump has said and done we have all at least thought of at one time or another. No one can speak as an outside to the human race.

The Yom Kippur liturgy speaks to that, does it not?

That was pretty much the point of my column.

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