I hope Obama proves to be right about the long arc of history. But I fear he has been wrong too many times during his presidency for me to have that much hope for the immediate future of America in the world.
Patriotic advocates of a more restrained foreign policy should not be sanguine about the likely consequences of such an eventuality.
Half of the people have been very sure that if he were elected the country would come to an end, if the world did not. But we are inclined to believe that the Union will last a little longer, and that we shall have some good times yet, in time to come. It has been said that a “special Providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States.” They make so many blunders, and yet live through them, it must be that they are cared for, for they take very little care of themselves. So we are disposed to trust Providence, and not to worry.
—Editor’s Drawer” column in the December 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 14.
(Do take care to notice who was elected President in 1856, when this bit of optimism was penned.)
I endorse basically everything in this Dan Drezner piece on the question. To whit:
- The recovery of the American economy — and its significant outperformance of Europe’s — in the wake of the financial crisis was a key element in restoring America’s world position, and something the Obama administration deserves real credit for. (To be clear: the problems with distribution of the recovery are a big reason why the establishments of both parties were rebuked so sharply in the most-recent election — but that doesn’t mean the recovery wasn’t real as well, and consequential, particularly given how poorly Europe has done by comparison.)
- The nuclear deal with Iran and the climate deal with China are major diplomatic accomplishments which could be the cornerstones of a better foreign policy orientation for America, focused on extrication from the Middle Eastern quagmire and building a productive, mutually-respectful relationship with a rising China — assuming they are not shredded by the incoming administration.
- But they are likely to be shredded. Obama has been too inclined to do the rational thing, as he calculated it, without regard to how those decisions were likely to be perceived, particularly by the American public. This mismanagement of his domestic political position, particularly in his second term, left his legacy orphaned of popular support.
Drezner sums up: “Obama’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a foreign policy leader was his Zen master approach to world politics.”
I would add, since Drezner glosses over it, that while Obama clearly wanted to extricate America from the Middle Eastern quagmire, part of his “rational” approach to doing this was to work slowly and within the confines of the Washington consensus and what our allies would “tolerate,” thereby allowing that process to take as long as it naturally might. In the course of that long, slow process, he wound up by default sinking deeper into the quagmire (in Afghanistan) and getting into new quagmires to boot (in Libya, in Yemen, and to some extent in Syria) instead of getting out. Rather than play Eisenhower in Korea, he played Nixon in Vietnam.
Now it is Trump’s turn to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Whether he actually favors a more restrained foreign policy (something I highly doubt), I have no confidence that he could execute on that kind of vision — or, indeed, any kind. As often as not Trump just says he’s going to bomb the shit out of people.
So one of the risks of the incoming administration is that we will see a precipitous collapse in America’s international position, something worse than what we experienced in the late 1970s under Ford and Carter. In other words, I agree with Drezner’s conclusion as well:
Obama was more of a restorationist president than his critics realized. He came in at a low point in American power and influence in the world and helped to make America great again. However, his inattention and disdain for the politics of his job laid the groundwork for an incoming president who can tear down the very order that Obama fought hard to preserve.
Following up on my last post: I think it’s important to distinguish between identifying past mistakes and assuming you can simply undo them.
It has been abundantly clear for some time that the United States under President Bill Clinton badly mishandled the immediate post-Cold War period. We took advantage of Russian weakness in multiple ways, from corrupting its transition to democracy to facilitating the rape of its economy to transforming a previously defensive alliance (NATO) into a vehicle for American power projection, and expanding that alliance into former Soviet territory. It is not surprising that, in the wake of that experience, Russia has become deeply distrustful of America.
Russia’s interests are its interests, of course; they would want secure access to the Black Sea and the Baltic and a friendly port on the Mediterranean whether it felt threatened by America or not. Moreover, it is entirely plausible that, even had America handled Russia with greater foresight in the 1990s, an authoritarian populist leader aiming to restore Russia’s lost greatness would still have arisen after the trauma of the post-Soviet collapse. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the relationship between our countries would be on a better footing than it is now notwithstanding if we had handled things better then.
We confront the world as it is, though, not as we wish it had been or how it might have been had we acted with greater foresight. In the world as it is, Russia is a revisionist power looking to improve its security position in its local area and to disrupt security arrangements that it views as potential threats. We don’t have to exaggerate Russia’s ambitions or the nature of Russia’s challenge to European security to recognize that it has ambitions or that a challenge exists.
And in the world as it is, we have extended security guarantees to the Baltic states. We can regret having done so, but simply withdrawing those guarantees because we’ve thought better of the matter has broader implications for how America’s word is perceived. Once again, the fact that advocates of an aggressive foreign policy routinely exaggerate the both the importance and the fragility of credibility does not make the concept meaningless, and if it has any meaning at all then surely it means most when we are talking about formal treaty alliances.
It’s possible that the only practical way to rebalance our international commitments and get Europe to take more responsibility for its security (which they are fully capable of doing) is the blustery, obnoxious Trump way. But if that is the case, then that rebalancing is going to involve more violence, and more damage to America’s world position, then advocates seem to be willing to recognize. I’d like to think that it is not the only practical way. But then again, I think President Obama’s overall foreign policy approach is going to be more respected, not less, in light of what I suspect is to come, so I guess I would say that.
My latest at The Week is about NATO.
In his confirmation hearing for the position of secretary of defense last week, General James Mattis staked out a position on NATO that appeared strikingly at odds with that of his prospective boss, President-elect Donald Trump. While Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and said he seeks “good deals” with Russia, Mattis called for inserting American troops into the Baltic states as a “tripwire” to deter Russian aggression.
Who is right? To answer requires asking a different question: What is NATO for, anyway?
Probably the most famous answer was given by Lord Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO. He quipped that the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
If that’s what NATO is for, then much of what the alliance has been doing for the past 20 years would have to be described as “off-mission.” So would Trump’s call for NATO to “focus on terrorism,” for that matter. But if the original mission no longer makes sense, perhaps the organization needs a new mission — or it needs to be scrapped. So: Is the original mission obsolete?
I go on to argue that no, it isn’t obsolete — it’s just not as serious a mission as it was in the heyday of the Cold War. Russian revanchism is a real problem that should be countered, but it isn’t a threat to civilization itself, and it matters much more to Europeans than it does to Americans:
Concerns that NATO allows Europeans to “free ride” on Americans are not new. Neither are concerns that America’s security guarantees are not actually credible. Indeed, Irving Kristol of all people, the very godfather of neoconservatism, mused as long ago as 1983 whether America shouldn’t withdraw its security guarantees precisely so as to prod Europe to build up its own defensive capacity, which (in his view) was the only credible way to deter Soviet aggression.
Such a conclusion applies in spades today. Estonia has no way of defending itself from Russian aggression. But Sweden and Finland would have genuine reasons to be concerned if Russia were to make a move against Estonia. That’s an argument for a collective security arrangement in the Baltics. And since the United States shares an interest in a peaceful Baltic, we would have a strong interest in bolstering such an arrangement.
But our interest, being more attenuated, should not rationally be expressed by seizing the front-line position. While conflict in the Baltic would be a bad thing, it would be madness for America to go to war with Russia over Estonian independence. For that very reason, if the only deterrent to Russian revanchism is an American tripwire, then there’s no credible deterrent at all. Collective security must be dominated by local forces that have the most to lose. Even in South Korea, where American troops act as just the kind of tripwire General Mattis suggests for the Baltics, they modestly bolster the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, one of the largest and most capable standing armies in the world.
Sweden and Finland undoubtedly cannot deter Russia alone, even if they make a robust commitment to doing so. But if they need support, they should first be getting it from their European neighbors — preeminently Germany. As the largest European economy, and with a Baltic coastline of their own, the Germans have the most to lose from conflict with Russia. That means they should be concerned about Russia’s ambitions to undermine European collective security — as they are. But it also means they should want to avoid provoking Russia unnecessarily. So it is no accident that Germany has been far less-enthusiastic about NATO expansion, or about demonstrative military deployments in the Baltics, than have many newer and more-vulnerable European states.
Inasmuch as NATO keeps Germany “down” (while the EU helps raise Germany “up” in the economic sphere), this allows the Germans to have their cake and eat it too, counting on Americans to shoulder the burden of collective security and leaving them free to posture as a more reasonable interlocutor with the Russians. It is difficult to see how this is in America’s interest — unless NATO’s primary purpose is not in deterring Russia through collective security, but preventing the rise of a European rival to American power, and providing America with a force-multiplier for its own adventures.
So I have some sympathy for Trump’s position in his current spat with the Germans. But I am much less sympathetic for the notion that, because Russia is no longer the threat that it was in Soviet days, we should find a new mission for NATO other than preserving stability in Europe:
If we still care about NATO’s mission, then, we need to focus on properly defining it and then how best to achieve it. If NATO’s mission remains collective security in Europe against the threat of a revanchist Russia, then that mission needs to be defined clearly, and undertaken primarily by Europeans themselves. America should remain “in,” but Germany, far from remaining “down,” should be expected to play a leading role. And the contours of the alliance should be fixed rather than subject to continuous expansion. Mattis’ own stated objective of deterrence would be better served by a policy of firmness and restraint than one of wild swings between overtures to cooperation and reckless provocation.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what refocusing NATO to combat terrorism would really mean. An expansive military alliance with America is hardly necessary for cooperation on intelligence or even effectively patrolling the Mediterranean. And defeating ISIS requires brokering cooperation between Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states more than it does any action by countries bordering the north Atlantic. Chasing shiny objects hasn’t served NATO well in the past few decades. There’s no reason to think Trump’s preferred shiny objects would be any different.
Read the whole thing there. And while you are there, read Michael Brendan Dougherty on the same subject.
Larison lacerates President Obama for a legacy of “continuing U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and . . . the ability to start, escalate, and join wars at will without Congressional authorization” (and he might have added the routinized deployment of flying robot assassins), and blames that legacy on a lack of opposition from either left or right. Myself, I focus on one reason for the failure of Obama’s promise in this regard: that we’ve forgotten what it means to hold up peace as an ideal in the first place.
One might well say, who doesn’t wish for peace? But for that wish to be other than idle, one must accept that peace is sometimes more important than other values. Peace cannot merely be the greatest reward of victory. It must be, at least in some circumstances, more important than victory. To say that a lasting peace can only be constructed on a foundation of fundamental agreement and a consonance of interests is to say that a lasting peace is impossible. And even if such a peace is indeed impossible now, merely to hold it up as an ideal requires saying that some differences will not be resolved, and yet even so we will still not fight.
This is a crucial point. It is true that the surest foundation of peace is justice. But justice is very much in the eye of the beholder — and so in a deeper sense, the surest foundation of justice is peace, that is to say, a mutual agreement to respect a process that all sides know is unlikely to give them total victory even if they believe that they are absolutely right.
I’ve written about this before in the context of the diplomatic agreement with Iran. If you assume that peace is what you get when interests are aligned and differences are resolved, then whenever you have materially differing interests between parties you’ll anticipate conflict, and eventually war. If you think that order can only arise from a monopoly of violence, you will want to be pretty sure that you hold that monopoly. So if you assume that we can never be at peace with Iran until it presents no challenge to American interests, then you should expect never to have peace. But if you think that conflicting interests are normal, and yet that the pursuit of peace is noble, you will seek ways to resolve those conflicts when possible, and to live with them unresolved when it is not. And you’ll wind up signing something like the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, peace as an ideal has been orphaned at home as well as abroad — and it’s not all the fault of the outrageous and obstructionist right:
If peace has been in short supply internationally, the same, unfortunately, holds true in the domestic sphere. The ideal of progress is a noble one, of course. Moreover, President Obama should be applauded for pursuing that ideal in a reasoned, measured, and generally responsible manner, in the face of opposition that, too frequently, anathematized the very idea of compromise.
But a politics that charts by progress as its only star can never rest — and so can never know peace. If it does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, progress must seek them at home. A more perfect union sounds like a wonderful thing to devote one’s life to bringing about. But a world in which we must struggle ceaselessly to make the union more perfect by our own lights — lest our opponent perfect it by their lights first — is to condemn society to an ever-escalating ideological arms race.
This is also something I’ve written about before, in the context of another Obama speech, and again, I don’t intend to ascribe blame for our state of social agitation primarily to the progressive left. My point, rather, is that without peace as an ideal, our politics only has meaning when construed as a battle, whether that’s a battle for progress or for some other set of ideals. We have to be able to talk about peace as an ideal to make its pursuit seem like a laudable goal rather than a pathetic compromise.
This is perhaps a strange message for MLK Day, whose core ideal was justice and who was very willing to disrupt peace in its pursuit (which did not contradict at all his commitment to non-violence). But perhaps that’s precisely why I do want to stress it again today. The very extravagant hopes invested in the Obama Presidency are, in part, a testament to our failure to understand what peace is. On the right, peace is conflated with order; on the left, it is conflated with justice. But peace is a thing in its own right, and the only reason we don’t remember that is that we’ve experienced so little of it.
If we want to recover it, we had best remember.
The first fracas of 2017 provides a useful template for how politics is likely to proceed in the Trump era.
On Monday night, in a vote taken behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference decided to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, eliminating many of its powers and putting its successor entity under the control of the House Ethics Committee (which is staffed entirely by members of Congress). The uproar was fierce and immediate, not only from the Democrats (who created the body in 2008 in response to the escalating ethical problems of the Hastert/DeLay era), but from reform-minded conservatives and independents as well.
With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
Lo and behold, Congress got the message, and by mid-day Congress had scrapped its plans — at least for now.
But what exactly was the message?
Well, consider how the drama has affected the various players.
Donald Trump looks like a champion of clean government (though the OCE would have had no power to investigate his Executive branch) and the interests of the people, while still suggesting that he understands the motivations of those who voted to undermine the office. If the House GOP had any intention to hold Trump to account for corruption, they just made it that much harder for themselves.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, an average Republican Congressman from a safe Virginia seat, is going to have his name in the papers for a while as the poster boy for lax ethics enforcement. But his colleagues — many of whom understandably have little love for the office he aimed to cripple — will remember him as the fellow who stood up for their interests. He’ll make friends, not lose them, as a consequence of his actions. The members who voted with him, meanwhile, won’t ever be known unless they want to be.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, officially opposed the measure, but was overruled by his own caucus. Then, when the measure passed, he defended the proposed changes that he had opposed in conference. And finally, after Trump’s twitter attack, he saw his caucus fold in the face of popular opposition from both the left and the right. He is exposed as somebody unable to convince his people to follow his political advice, while Trump looks fearsome — not least because he is capable of coopting Democratic criticisms without being deemed treasonous.
Ryan’s caucus members know, in other words, where the power really lies, and it isn’t in the speaker’s office. And Ryan knows that as well.
Most fundamentally, the message was a reminder to Republicans in Congress that they owe far more to Trump than Trump does to them — and that he can safely do them far more damage than they dare to do to him. That Congressional Republicans gave Trump such an easy opportunity shows how much they still have to learn about the shape of politics in the Trump era — or how confident they are that they can always offer their Speaker as a sacrifice if the winds begin to turn.
As for the Democrats, the lesson is that the GOP Congress is more exposed than Trump is. Their best chance of winning back a share of national power in 2018 will come from fracturing the fragile alliance between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now we’ll see who learns to play by the new rules first.
I don’t highlight the role that ordinary citizens played in the fracas, but that is also important. Individual legislators got thousands of angry phone calls from constituents about the ethics vote, and that clearly was vital. That doesn’t really change my analysis, though, for two reasons.
First, we don’t know that only left-wing or Democratic-leaning voters were complaining. After all, liberal good-government groups weren’t the only ones expressing outrage; Judicial Watch also slammed the GOP Congress for its move. And the representatives in question are Republicans, most of whom represent conservative districts, so it makes sense that they would care more about hearing from constituents who could defenestrate them than from folks who would never vote for them in the first place. To an extent, then, the rapid public backlash against the House GOP mirrors or reflects the dynamic Trump’s rise in the first place, which was very much aimed against the GOP as it previously stood.
Second, it is entirely plausible that one reason Trump intervened against the House GOP is precisely because he saw or felt the public outrage. In other words: public pressure affected Trump before it could affect the House GOP directly. This is precisely what I mean by saying that if the Democrats want to score wins, they need to recognize that Trump and the GOP House can be easily separated — because Trump is much more interested in his own personal power and popularity than he is in either the success of the party or any particular policy outcomes.
Anyway, read the whole thing there.
I try to avoid getting on the outrage bandwagon. Most outrages turn out to be outright fabrications, like the hate hoaxes that we seem to be endlessly plagued with, or considerably more complicated than they are presented as being.
But sometimes you should be outraged by the genuinely outrageous. Which means you need a good filter to help you figure out what’s worth being outraged about.
For the issues with which he’s most concerned, Norm Ornstein is one of my filters. And he’s pretty outraged about the Republican gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics:
I have rarely been more angry or dismayed at the conduct of Congress than I was Monday night with the unconscionable, deplorable, underhanded move by Representative Bob Goodlatte to eviscerate and undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and his counterpart Nancy Pelosi indicated weeks ago that they would continue OCE, the reform community—left and right—breathed a sigh of relief. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, had seen the value to the integrity of the House of the office, which has been a stalwart of bipartisan and nonpartisan comity and independence. That makes this bait-and-switch action even more outrageous.
Some have pointed out the relatively recent vintage of the office — it was created in 2008 — as a way of suggesting that its removal merely reverts to a reasonably-functioning prior system. Ornstein rips the stuffing out of that objection: the OCE was created specifically in response to the escalating seriousness of ethics problems in the Hastert/DeLay years (remember them?) and succeeded because both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner wanted it to.
And Ornstein isn’t buying Paul Ryan’s claims that he tried to preserve the OCE but was overruled by his caucus:
Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker. Make no mistake about it: Despite public reports loudly proclaiming his opposition, it’s hard to believe this would have happened had Paul Ryan really tried to stop it. And do not believe Goodlatte’s risable assurance that this strengthens OCE. It has been muzzled and hamstrung, defenestrated and castrated. If Speaker Ryan really is opposed, he can demand a separate vote on the OCE provision when the whole House votes on its rules. If he does not, he owns it, plain and simple.
I’m not at all surprised that stuff like this is happening first. Any time a new party takes power, it makes sense for them to push their highest and most difficult priorities first. When President Obama prioritized health care reform over a more aggressive response to the foreclosure crisis (or, for that matter, climate change), that told you both what he and his party thought would be the hardest sell (do your toughest stuff first), and what would pay the most long-term dividends (in terms of constituents who benefitted from the action).
Republicans would be crazy to do something like this in the run up to an election. So they are doing it immediately after an election. And, as well, they presumably see a strong and independent body policing Congressional ethics as a material obstacle to their individual and collective advancement, such that removing that watchdog will pay dividends down the road.
I suspect the GOP caucus knows what they are doing. I hope advocates of the public interest know how to respond.
UPDATE: well, right after I posted this, the House Republicans backed away from their own proposal in the face of criticism not only from Democrats and independent reform groups but from President-elect Donald Trump.
That doesn’t mean the proposal is dead — Trump’s own tweets against the measure suggested the problem was more the timing than the substance. But nonetheless: it’s a pretty clear message to the GOP House about where the power lies right now. It sure doesn’t look like it’s in the Speaker’s office.
Kevin Drum has a weird post up about how there are no big lessons of the 2016 election (at least not at the presidential level), because nothing much actually happened:
Everyone wants to draw big, world-historical lessons from this election. That’s understandable, since the result was the election of an unprecedentedly dangerous and unqualified candidate. But the data just doesn’t support any big lessons. Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by 2.1 points. That’s less than a two point difference, despite the fact that Obama is unusually popular and Clinton had to run after eight years of Democratic rule. In the end, she did slightly worse than Obama, which is about what you’d expect. Unfortunately, a little too much of that “slightly worse” happened to be in three must-win states.
Nevertheless, the identity politics critics insist that the lesson for Democrats is to ditch identity politics. The economic lefties say the lesson is that Democrats need to be more populist. The Bernie supporters are sure that Bernie could have won. The DNC haters think it was a massive FUBAR from the Democratic establishment. The moderates blame extremism on social issues for alienating the rural working class.
These have one element in common: All these people thought all these things before the election. Now they’re trying to use the election to prove that they were right all along, dammit. But they weren’t. This election turned on a few tiny electoral shifts and some wildly improbable outside events. There simply aren’t any truly big lessons to be drawn from it.
On one level, this is very true — but it also proves way too much. If nothing matters at all, and the electorate is so partisan that either party could nominate a headless chicken and come pretty close to what econometric models predict, then why bother having elections in the first place? It’s more an argument against democracy itself than against over-interpreting the 2016 election specifically.
And 2016 is a pretty weird year to describe as featuring “just a few tiny electoral shifts.” After all, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by running against essentially the entirety of his party’s leadership. And his main competition was another guy running against the entirety of his party’s leadership. The overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters opted against everybody contending for support of the party leadership. That’s not a meaningless fact. Then Trump went on to win an electoral college majority in spite of never uniting his party leadership behind him, being massively outspent, and being opposed by essentially the entirety of the media establishment, and a chunk of the conservative counter-establishment. That’s not meaningless either.
Had Trump lost his three key midwestern states by the same narrow margin that he won them, nobody would be saying, “see? we told you Clinton had this in the bag.” They’d be saying, “holy crap — that was way too close!” Republicans would be furiously debating whether someone less outrageous than Donald Trump but running on a Trumpian platform could win in a walk, or whether they should return to the true Reaganite faith. Democrats, meanwhile, would be fretting about erosion of support in the Midwest and whether they need to shore it up by moving left on economics and/or ditching identity politics, or whether they should focus on “flipping” North Carolina and Florida to compensate for their inevitable losses of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020. Everyone would be debating what the very obvious and meaningful changes in the electorate portend — and in very similar terms to the way they are now.
What is probably a waste of time is focusing too much on the small-ball “lessons” of the Clinton campaign’s arrogance and incompetence. This article about how they lost Michigan is instructive in that regard:
Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.
They started prepping meals and organizing hotel rooms.
SEIU — which had wanted to go to Michigan from the beginning, but been ordered not to — dialed Clinton’s top campaign aides to tell them about the new plan. According to several people familiar with the call, Brooklyn was furious.
Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.
Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.
“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”
Flip Michigan and leave the rest of the map, and Trump is still president-elect. But to people who worked in that state and others, how Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and lost by 100,000 in states that could have made her president has everything to do with what happened in Michigan. Trump won the state despite getting 30,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost it in 2004.
The article goes on to detail exhaustively how Clinton’s campaign in this crucial state ignored all the evidence that it was slipping from their fingers. It’s a hugely damning indictment, and the people who manage and run the next Democratic presidential campaign had better read it.
But it’s not an adequate explanation for Clinton’s loss. Because the Clinton campaign put huge efforts into GOTV in another crucial state — Pennsylvania — that they did see was at risk. And those efforts paid off — Clinton’s vote total was just a whisker shy of Barack Obama’s 2012 winning total in the state, or John Kerry’s winning 2004 total.
And Trump won Pennsylvania by a larger margin than he won Michigan.
The point of an explanation isn’t to provide predictive power, but to help determine what to do next. A predictive model doesn’t need to explain why anything happens, and therefore need not provide any guide to action. “Fundamental models say this election will be close” doesn’t tell you what ground the election will be fought on, or how to maximize your chances of victory fighting on that ground.
The most important lesson of 2016 is not “the country is so partisan that nothing matters” but rather “fundamentals matter way, way more than campaigns.” Trump, after all, made just about every mistake you could possibly make in his campaign. But here we are litigating over which mistake Clinton made that cost her the election, or whether it wasn’t her fault at all but instead the fault of the FBI or the Russians.
But that doesn’t mean that campaigns don’t matter. It means that what matters most about campaigns is whether they understand the fundamentals. The next election will be fought on the ground shaped by the fundamentals of the Trump era. If those fundamentals are meaningfully better than they were in 2016, then it will be an uphill battle for the opposition. If they are stagnant or worse, then the ground will be more favorable. But the fundamentals will determine the shape of the ground, and if the Democrats don’t prepare to fight on that ground then they will not maximize their chances of winning.
Any debate about what the ground looks like and how to fight on it is worth having.
My latest column at The Week is about Trump’s Russia policy and the panic about Russian hacking. In a nutshell:
Russia’s alleged actions are entirely unsurprising and far from unprecedented. They are not only the kind of thing that Russia has done before, they are the kind of thing that we have done before — including in Russia’s neighborhood. Russia’s actions may well deserve a response — but the most important response would be to make cyber security a significantly higher priority. They certainly don’t merit panic about Russian intentions, or about the fragility of American institutions.
By contrast, the opacity of Trump’s financial relationships does remain a serious problem, and the possibility that he is personally subject to Russian “influence” because of financial liabilities held by Russian banks could taint any attempt to improve relations between our countries. And of course if the Trump campaign actually coordinated with Russia on dirty tricks, that would be a crime amply deserving investigation, and potentially impeachment.
But at this point, there is no evidence at all of that kind of wrongdoing. That ought to matter. And it ought to be possible to investigate the possibility of corruption or criminal collusion without indulging in scaremongering about the Russian threat. Indeed, advocates of a friendlier relationship with Russia should be the first to call for such scrutiny — because an opening to Russia will only be durable if the American people believe that it rests on a solid institutional foundation and genuine mutual interest.
Meanwhile, those arguing that Russia undermined the integrity of the American electoral system need to take a good look in the mirror. Nothing Russia did or didn’t do can come close to the damage that will potentially be done by exaggerating the extent and impact of that influence, much less creating a constitutional crisis in response.
Read the whole thing there.
Having a poor opinion of Trump’s overall capabilities, it is pretty easy for me to explain the incoherence of Trump’s choices for his national security team.
Trump likes guys who strike him as tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. He sees himself as a man of that mold, and he likes the idea of being surrounded by such men. Retired General James Mattis and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson are not only perfectly cast for those roles, they actually are tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. You can agree or disagree with their views about this or that matter, and you can fret about having a recently-retired general in charge of Defense or someone with such deep corporate ties running State. But in terms of individual capacities it would be hard to find more capable stewards of their respective departments.
But Trump also likes extremist crackpots with a penchant for conspiracy theories. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories himself, and he seems to associate extremism and crackpottery with open-mindedness and a resistance to political correctness. I suspect listening to them makes him feel smart in a way that listening to proper intelligence does not, because proper intelligence trades in probabilities and possibilities while the crackpot offers certainty. Retired General Michael Flynn and Ambassador John Bolton are about as cracked a pair of pots as you are likely to find at their level of experience, and they will have ample opportunity to pour their chosen poison into the President’s ear. The amount of damage they could do is hard to fathom.
How could the same individual make both sets of appointments? It makes no sense at all if you assume that it’s an informed strategy of some sort. But it makes perfect sense if it’s just a matter of psychology, of how they make the boss feel.
Now we have to hope that the tough, practical types have a strategy for isolating, undermining and ultimately disposing of the crackpots. My only comfort is that they both probably know that this is a key part of their job descriptions, as well as their patriotic duty. My fear is that the crackpots know just as well that their job is to undermine their boss’s confidence in the sober men’s loyalty, and that it’s a job they know they are good at.
Open thread: what books would you most recommend to readers interested in understanding the Pacific War — its origins, its prosecution, its consequences, and the experience of those involved?
I admit, I’ve read far less about the war than I ought to have given my interest in the subject, and given its enormous importance in American and world history. Partly that’s just because I’m not a “military history” guy — but that’s really no excuse.
In any event: among the books I have read that touch on the Pacific War, and which I found interesting or enlightening, are:
- A War It Was Always Going To Lose: Why Japan Attacked America in 1941, a short volume wrestling with the question of how Japan could have decided to launch an attack against a much more powerful rival.
- Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, a classic history of America’s relations with China and with Chiang Kai-shek specifically during the period of Japan’s imperialist war to dismember the country.
- Hiroshima, John Hersey’s classic account of the on-the-ground experience of those on whom the first atomic bomb was dropped.
- Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, the incomparable Kenzaburo Oe’s first novel, about teenage delinquents abandoned during the waning days of World War II.
- The Man In the High Castle, the book, not the Amazon series, a truly extraordinary meditation on the experience of defeat, and on history itself.
Books I have intended to read, as they have been recommended to me more than once, and that I am ashamed not to have read yet, include:
- With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
- Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
- Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War: Was Defeat Inevitable?
- Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan
Additional reader suggestions are explicitly solicited.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.