Noah Millman


My latest column at The Week is all about an analogy (originating with Corey Robin’s essay from back in January) that’s getting some renewed play in the wake of the AHCA fiasco:

Carter was what Robin calls a “disjunctive president,” someone who leads a coalition that was once dominant but is now in the late stages of fragmentation. The disjunctive leader’s aim is to reorient that coalition around the novel challenges of that political moment, and thereby to restore their coalition to primacy. But he’s unable to herd the necessary cats, and is therefore succeeded by a “reconstructive” president, someone who is capable of articulating that response and following through with action, in part because he needs a new coalition more naturally built around that response.

At the time the article was written, there were already potent reasons to find this Trump-Carter analogy plausible, in spite of the wild differences in personality and ideology between the two presidents. Both Carter and Trump ran as outsiders to the established power structure of their parties, and faced fierce resistance from the old guard. Both ran on heterodox programs and scrambled what had been traditional electoral coalitions, and both won very narrowly. The increasing friction between the White House and the GOP congressional leadership further confirms the analogy, as does the planned shift to “easy victories” over taxes. As Robin wrote back in January:

One of the signature promises of the Trump campaign is already turning into a curse.

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation. At moments of articulation, holding fast to the regime’s orthodoxies can be intoxicating sources of power, as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush learned. At moments of disjunction, that kind of steadfastness can lead to disaster. [Corey Robin]

But there’s a problem with the analogy: Plenty of observers at the time thought the 2008 election ushered in a “reconstructive” presidency and a new dispensation. Those hopes were bitterly disappointed — beginning with disappointment that the best health-care bill the Democrats could pass was the insurer-friendly Affordable Care Act. And today, the possibilities that Robin articulates depend on a factor that at least in 2008 was present but now — so far, at least — is absent. That is a “reconstructive” figure poised for triumph on the Democratic side.

Well, actually, there’s one obvious possibility:

As Douthat points out, Sanders ran an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton much as Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976. And Sanders represents a throwback to an earlier form of unapologetic big-government liberalism that had been largely repudiated after the Mondale debacle in 1984, just as Reagan represented a throwback to an earlier form of anti-government conservatism that had been largely repudiated after the Goldwater debacle in 1964.

Other observers have noted Sanders’ ability to speak successfully to Trump voters and their concerns, and asked why the Democrats aren’t embracing a populist politics of their own, redeeming the very promises on which Trump himself will be unable to deliver.

There are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of the analogy — but my focus is on how the progressive response to the AHCA debacle shows that they haven’t actually grasped the nettle of what drove Trump, and what it will take to “reconstruct” politics in the wake of a catastrophic Trump presidency:

In the wake of the AHCA’s failure, there has been an increase in support for a single-payer system, largely in safe Democratic areas. But Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because he promised a better deal than ObamaCare, and single-payer — even if it’s a good idea — isn’t going to be the banner under which the Democrats can plausibly bring a new coalition to dominance, because ultimately it would be just that: a good idea. The Democrats have never lacked for individual ideas that poll well or have serious policy work behind them. That’s not their most fundamental problem.

Disjunctive presidents have a genuine grasp of some essential aspects of the crisis the nation faced and how it threatened their governing coalition. They ask some of the most important and correct questions in their campaigns, which is why they are able to win, and their only hope of success is in addressing those questions correctly.

Carter paved the way for Reagan when he ran in opposition to school busing and courted the newly awakened white evangelical vote; when he championed deregulation of finance and the airlines; when he appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed; and when he responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan did not win the presidency by saying Goldwater’s libertarian, fiercely anti-communist conservatism was the eternal truth (which, to be fair, is pretty much what he did say when he supported Goldwater in 1964). Rather, he said that in the “present crisis” government was the problem rather than the solution.

The “present crisis” in America, domestically speaking, is not that the ACA is a kludgy solution to distributing health care. Even the alarming rise in American mortality is not due to the persistent limitations and failures of our health-care system. Though the pharmaceutical companies bear more than their share of the blame for the opioid crisis, the deeper roots of the rise in mortality are economic, the collapse in expectations for prosperity in swathes of rural and working-class America.

The populist explanation for that crisis is the devouring of the public weal by special interests — and left- and right-wing populists mostly disagree on which interests to blame. But the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity is what got Trump elected. The Democrats need a champion who can redeem that promise — which there is every reason to expect Trump cannot deliver on.

There may or may not be a place for championing single-payer health care as part of that message. The last thing the Democrats need is to be scared of their own shadow when it comes to big, apparently unlikely initiatives, and under a big umbrella there will be room for dozens if not hundreds of policy ideas, some of which will barely cohere. But the big idea under which all those policies cohere must be a response to that central crisis, that explains why we no longer have a broadly shared prosperity and how to restore it.

When the Democrats have found their “reconstructive” Reagan — whether it’s Sanders or someone who inherits his banner — it’ll be obvious, because he or she will talk as he did, and articulate how in the present crisis their philosophy will be responsive.

Read the whole thing there.

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Will We Always Have Been At War With Obamacare?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I’m going to be boarding a plane shortly, and I’ll likely be in the air when the AHCA vote happens. So it’s possible that this post will look pointless in a couple of hours.

But assuming the vote fails, as it currently looks likely to do, we’re about to learn just how Orwellian the GOP electorate is.

A failure of the AHCA isn’t necessarily the end of the road for GOP attempts to reform President Obama’s healthcare reform. They could start again pretty quickly in the Senate, which was unlikely ever to pass the House’s bill in the first place. They could also move on to other business, hope to expand their majority in 2018, and then try again. They could even campaign on a particular vision of reform in 2018, and then claim a mandate if they did expand their majority.

But of course, to do that they’d need to have an intra-party debate about what that policy agenda should be. Which would require somebody — and that somebody is probably President Trump — to stand up and say: the House Freedom Caucus’s vision is wrong, and here’s my alternative, whether that’s Medicaid for all or some as-yet undescribed alternative to both Obamacare and the status-quo ante circa 2008.

It’s possible that’s a fight Trump doesn’t want, because he doesn’t care much about healthcare except as a way of bashing Obama and the Democratic Party. Indeed, it’s possible that much of the Republican party sees the matter in precisely the same way: that there wasn’t anything in particular they objected to about Obamacare (other than the tax hikes to pay for it); they just hated that it was a Democratic initiative. It may be that Paul Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus folks are the only ones who actually want to have this fight on the merits. If that’s the case, then if the bill fails that will be the end of any action on health care, and Obamacare will remain the law of the land.

The question then is: how will the party membership react?

If the reaction is fury and renewed attempts to unseat Republicans deemed insufficiently determined to repeal the ACA, and to expand the ranks of the ultras whose demands made any plausible compromise impossible, then we’ll know that what we’re dealing with is a real ideological conflict. Our political system might have a particularly hard time negotiating it, but a substantial irredentist faction would pose a real challenge to any political system.

If the reaction is a mix of soul-searching and teeth-gnashing, and a concerted attempt to find whatever formula delivers a more durable majority, then we’ll know that at the end of the day the GOP is a normal party after all, one that, when it loses, tries to figure out how to win. It wouldn’t be as encouraging as an open fight about policy and principles, but it would be far more encouraging than continued irredentism.

But I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the whole debate just dropped down the memory hole, and the party leadership acted like repealing Obamacare was never that big a deal — and the rank-and-file mostly went along as the party moved on to whatever they are told was always really the priority. Which would be the most depressing — indeed, alarming — possibility.

The vote’s in half an hour. We’ll find out pretty soon whether my whole premise is fallacious.

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JCC Hate Hoax

Turns out at least some of the reported anti-Semitic threats of the past few weeks were indeed perpetrated by someone seeking to “make others look bad“:

A Jewish Israeli teenager born in the US has been arrested on suspicion of issuing dozens of fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions in North America and elsewhere in recent months, police said on Thursday.

Police said the resident of the southern city of Ashkelon was the subject of a months-long undercover investigation by police’s Lahav 433 cyber unit and the FBI. It said in a statement that the motive behind the bomb threats was unclear. Police said he is 19 years old, but several Israeli media outlets reported him as 18.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the suspect allegedly placed dozens of threatening phone calls to public venues, synagogues and community buildings in the US, New Zealand and Australia. He also placed a threat to Delta Airlines, causing a flight in February 2015 to make an emergency landing.

“He’s the guy who was behind the JCC threats,” Rosenfeld said, referring to the dozens of anonymous threats phoned in to Jewish community centers in the US over the past two months.

The hoax calls were widely regarded as acts of anti-Semitism. The threats led to criticism of President Donald Trump’s administration for not speaking out fast enough. Last month, the White House denounced the threats and rejected “anti-Semitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms.”

Unsurprisingly, the suspect appears to be a troubled individual, who was rejected from IDF service as unfit. I suspect that, as with most hate hoaxes, the crime was likely motivated primarily by a desire for attention and a feeling of larger social significance. No doubt, it will be interpreted — just as the original crime was — as something of vastly greater social significance.

We’ve seen this movie so many times before, you’d think the initial reporting would have foregrounded the possibility of a hoax, while also keeping open the possibility of a new and serious threat. There are real hate crimes out there, and there are also real hate hoaxes out there, and the right way to report on these matters is to report the facts and, where possible, report responsible theories about what might lie behind the facts.

But our media has precious few incentives to behave responsibly. All the incentives line up behind fomenting panic rather than spreading information. This critique applies equally well to right-wing media as to left-wing and the supposedly objective mainstream media; they have different bugaboos but increasingly similar low standards. There is no percentage in being judicious and waiting for the facts to come in before rushing to judgment, and even if one or another outlet does take a cautious and responsible approach, they’ll be drowned out by other outlets eager to maximize the sensational spin. It’s cheaper to do and it’s also more lucrative. The audience wants to be alarmed and outraged. That’s what gets clicks. And people who don’t want that — like myself — increasingly don’t read or watch the news, because we know it has so little value. But this is hardly the best way to remain informed about the world.

I really don’t know what to do about this.

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Revisiting the End of History

Did History return with a vengeance on 9-11? Or was that just history — that is to say: stuff happening? And are the rise of Western leaders like Victor Orban and Donald Trump, and the vote for Brexit, further evidence that History has taken a new turn? Or are they also just stuff happening?

The question is prompted by a piece Paul Sagar has at Aeon that is well worth reading, about how Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument has been misunderstood and mis-recalled. As Sagar reminds us, Fukuyama didn’t think the “end of history” meant the end of stuff happening — it just meant that we had arrived at the point where there were no more plausible fundamental political debates:

Fukuyama jettisoned Hegel’s implausible metaphysics, as well as Marx’s idea of ‘dialectical materialism’, as the proposed motor of historical synthesis. In their place, he suggested that the modern scientific method coupled with technological advancement, alongside market capitalism as a form of mass information-processing for the allocation of resources, could explain how humanity had successfully managed to develop – haltingly, but definitely – on an upward course of civilisational progress. The catch, however, was that we had now gone as far as it was possible to go. Liberal democratic capitalism was the final stage of Historical synthesis: no less inherently contradictory form of society was possible. So, while liberal democracy was by no means perfect, it was the best we were going to get. Big-H history was over, and we were now living in post-History. That was what Fukuyama meant by his infamous claim that History had ‘ended’.

To be sure, many critics see Fukuyama’s theory as no more plausible than Hegel’s metaphysics or Marx’s materialism. And his claim that Western liberal democratic capitalism represented the necessary end point of the grand Historical working-out of human existence – such that no society more desirable than the US of the 1990s was possible – strikes many as no more likely than Hegel’s notorious claim that the end of History was the 19th-century Prussian state (which just happened to pay his salary).

But whether Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism is plausible is not the most interesting aspect of his thesis. For throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality of thymos (the Greek for ‘spiritedness’), or recognition, to human psychology: what Thomas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. This denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that recognition outwardly affirmed – if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that.

Indeed, even if all people wanted was equal respect and recognition, there would be the potential for conflict, because a rationalist, capitalist, meritocratic order, even if it is properly designed and executed, and doesn’t become corrupted, will give outsized rewards to those deemed deserving by its lights, which will inevitably be understood by those denied those rewards as proof that they are not being granted equal respect at all.

But it’s worse than that:

[H]uman beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

What was remarkable about liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama thought, was that it had managed to put a lid on the more destructive expressions of megalothymia, encouraging citizens to direct such energies into socially harmless expressions, such as mountaineering or competitive sports. Which might sound like a pleasant conclusion. Except, Fukuyama thought, that a sanguine response failed to see the hidden dangers lurking in the end of History.

The second half of Fukuyama’s title, The Last Man, was a direct reference to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, although modern society with its emphasis on truth and transparency had ‘killed God’ (the future of Western politics was egalitarian and secular), it had nothing to replace Him with. The vast majority of modern human beings would now be small-minded, stunted, pathetic creatures, possessing no sense of how to achieve greatness, only of how to accrue petty comforts and easy pleasures in a materialistic, self-obsessed world. In other words, if megalothymia went out of human life, so would greatness. Only base mediocrity would remain.

Fukuyama combined Nietzsche’s idea of the last man with his own diagnosis of underlying human psychology. His prognosis was that the outlook for post-History Western society was not good. It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun (this was what Kojève predicted). But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed. (Sound familiar?)

Fukuyama predicted that such restlessness and resentment would eventually need a political outlet – and when it came, it would be explosive. The anti-capitalist Left, however, was a busted flush. Communism was now a known fraud and failure, and post-Historical people driven by megalothymia would have no truck with its egalitarian pretensions, or its nakedly tyrannical realities. Far more threatening to the stability of liberal capitalist societies would be the emergence of demagogic strongmen from the fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.

This is where one might be inclined to cue Rod Dreher and say that part of what Christianity is “for” is providing a God that directs megalothymia properly by providing a meaning to action that is grounded somewhere other than a restless self. Except that Nietzsche hated Christianity, which he saw as a religion of slavery, precisely because it inverted natural and obvious value hierarchies, saying that the meek shall inherit the earth and that one should turn the other cheek and so forth. Greatness in Christianity is the greatness of sainthood, which begins with a radical emptying out of self, which might be precisely what those inclined to extreme demands for dominance need, but is hardly going to satisfy what they want. And the history (or is it History?) of the middle ages was mostly the history of sundry warlords grasping for greater dominance, and the best idea the Church had for channeling this kind of behavior into something less locally destructive was to launch the Crusades.

But I’m still curious how, from Fukuyama’s (or Kojève’s) perspective, one is to distinguish history from History. Is political Islam an Idea with a capital “I”? Is the resurgence of nationalism? Or are these atavistic eruptions of discontent against an order that really is the best we can come up with, and that therefore will never really be replaced? If the medieval Christian order featured a lot of on-the-ground disorder, then this is just what life at the end of History looks like: the liberal capitalist order persists because we can’t really imagine an alternative, but persistence doesn’t preclude continuous conflict. On the other hand, perhaps Ibn Khaldun had some useful insights about how history works as well as Hegel.

Ultimately, I don’t think Marx’s emphasis on the material substrate can be so easily cast off. The ructions we’re seeing now in the West cannot be divorced from the demographic expansion of Africa and the Middle East, nor can they be divorced from the economic rise of China and the consequent dramatic drop in the bargaining position of labor in relation to international capital, nor can they be divorced from the impact of the Internet on the distribution of wealth and information. I worry that the next phase of automation will kick these trends into even higher gear, and will finally put the material basis of the liberal capitalist order into fundamental question.

In any event, please do read Sagar’s piece, and read it all the way to the end, because he saves his most amusing revelation for the last paragraph.

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Another — Doubtless Very Different — Book Launch

Last night I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a panel discussion with our own Rod Dreher about his new book, The Benedict Option, hosted by Plough magazine, TAC and First Things.

It was a fascinating evening, and all four of Dreher’s co-panelists made cogent points in response to the central thesis of the book, to whit:

  • Ross Douthat takes Dreher’s jeremiad with a grain of salt because it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. On the other hand, he argued that “Dreher is right even if he is wrong” — because he’s swimming against the cultural tide, and why isn’t that always a thing worth seriously considering precisely because we don’t know where the tide is going to take us? Is our country suffering from too much asceticism? Do we have a surplus of monks and nuns? If not, then why not pay attention when someone suggests we need more of them?
  • Michael Wear agreed that all Christians should seek to deepen their knowledge and commitment to living a Jesus-centered life, but this argued for expanding rather than narrowing the scope of Christian political engagement. Christians can’t allow themselves to become another political interest group, even if they see themselves as under threat.
  • Jacqueline Rivers warned against conflating Christianity with Western culture. The West may or may not be in decline — and Christianity may or may not be in decline within the West. But globally, Christianity is growing — and what does it mean for the global Christian communion if American Christianity turns inward?
  • Finally, Randall Gauger spoke out of his experience of joining and living communally within the Bruderhof community. In effect, he said to Dreher: you say you were inspired by our example, but if that is true then you should follow our example and do as we have done. You should not imagine that there is some other message peculiar to our time besides Jesus’s own message which is relevant in all times and all places.

I’m not a Christian, so I came at the debate from the perspective of an outsider. But nonetheless, the most interesting question to me remains what the Benedict Option would do to Christianity — and I don’t think so much in terms of walls as gates.

The thing about intentional communities is that you have to earn your way in, and you can also be driven out. To become a monk, you have to take vows; to stay a member of the monastic community, you have to keep them (or that’s the way it’s supposed to work). The requirements for membership are much more stringent than they have usually been for membership in the Christian fellowship generally.

Which is entirely fine: every Christian community isn’t supposed to be a monastery, nor is every Christian supposed to be a monk. And even if the Bruderhof, for example, do believe that every Christian ought to follow their example, they recognize the Christians who are not doing so as fellow Christians — just Christians who aren’t following Jesus as fully as they ought.

But I’m curious about how this works within Dreher’s framework. Specifically, I’m curious, if mainstream Christian denominations put more emphasis on building and supporting intentional communities of various kinds (and if Dreher isn’t calling for that then I really don’t know what he’s calling for), how does that change the nature of the larger communion?

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

If you want to hear the panel discussion, you can do so here.

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The Politics of the AHCA

Damon Linker and I each have columns at The Week today about the politics of the AHCA. Linker sees a great opportunity for the Democrats that he fears they will blow:

If the Democrats can’t transform this monstrosity of a bill into fuel to power them to victories in the 2018 midterms and beyond, then they should just pack it up and go home.

Could they screw it up? You bet they could. This is the party, after all, that just a few months ago lost the presidency to the most unsuitable, unfit, unappealing major-party candidate in American history, and has spent most of the time since then blaming Russia for its own ineptitude.

So yes, the Democrats could blow it. But they shouldn’t. Especially when the path to victory is so clear.

The primary thing they need to do is follow the example of Bernie Sanders. Have you heard about his town hall in rural West Virginia on Monday night? A 70-something socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent won over a crowd of Trump supporters with his earnest, straight talk about health insurance and the struggles faced by voters in coal country. I don’t often agree with Glenn Greenwald, but he was surely right to plug the event with this tweet:

Precisely. Sanders has a message that resonates with large numbers of Democrats — and like Trump, it’s a message with potential appeal among members of the other party as well. This is a moment of realignment, both in the U.S. and Europe. Neoliberal, managerial, centrist globalism is being challenged by populists of the anti-liberal right and left. Right now, the right-wing variant holds power in Washington. If Trump had the guts to combine his populist-nationalist appeals with support for a single-payer health-care system, he just might succeed in realigning both major American parties by scrambling their policy commitments. But despite his occasional words of support for covering “everybody,” Trump shows no sign of actually doing this.

That leaves the field wide open for the Democrats to act boldly. And Sanders is showing how to do it: Call the AHCA the social calamity that it is. Talk about how trade deals have enriched some but impoverished many others. Propose bold policies that could make things better, and do so with confidence, daring the Republicans to denounce them. And make the case for all of it in terms of citizenship.

I agree that the bill is a monstrosity — but I’m less convinced that it’s guaranteed to do serious damage to Trump:

[One] possibility is that Trump thinks the game works differently for him than it did for Obama. Obama’s large majority in the Senate in 2008 was built on the back of two successive wave elections, each of which explicitly involved reaching beyond the Democratic core. He had a lot of room to fall. Trump himself certainly altered the shape of the electoral map — but by accelerating polarization, not decreasing it. And his legislative majority in both houses of Congress is thin and dominated by the right.

Because of this, Trump may well think it makes sense to govern as if Democrats just don’t matter. If Democrats overwhelmingly oppose anything he does, that may just convince the voters who elected him that he’s on the right track. Those people losing insurance? Maybe they’re mostly poorer, or non-white, or are happy to avoid paying for insurance that they don’t want. Maybe he’s gambling that for the bulk of his voters, making sure they aren’t paying for insurance for the “undeserving” is precisely the point. Particularly given the shape of the 2018 electoral map, Trump and the GOP may rationally conclude that the more polarized the political environment, the better for them — and the AHCA will certainly be polarizing if it passes. Meanwhile, by 2020 the state of the economy and job growth is what will really matter to voters, or at least an electoral college majority thereof.

Paul Ryan is another story:

The AHCA was announced to furious condemnation by many Tea Party-type Republicans for not completelyeviscerating the ACA, but instead being “ObamaCare light.” Since then, it’s shored up its support on the right in the House, but come under fire from less-doctrinaire Republicans in the Senate without having won back Cruz and Paul. What are the odds that a bill with that kind of opposition can even pass? Maybe not high. It’s possible that this is fine with the Trump administration, and that in fact they would prefer for the bill to fail.

It would normally be strange for a Republican president to want his own party’s majority to suffer a major black eye like that. But this is Ryan’s bill, and Trump has no love for Ryan. Moreover, inasmuch as Bannon is in competition with Ryan-ally and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus for influence over the White House’s agenda, it’s very much in his interest specifically for Ryan to fail. The collapse of the AHCA would be a massive failure — and would likely invite a leadership challenge.

And if it failed quickly, it would be easy for Trump to blame Ryan for getting it wrong, tinker with ObamaCare around the edges (particularly in ways that could be done without even passing legislation), and then when the exchanges don’t collapse claim he fixed them. After all, the same CBO report that said the AHCA would cost 24 million people their insurance said that the much-heralded death spiral isn’t coming all that soon. Trump could yell at a bunch of insurance executives, watch premiums stabilize, and claim victory.

The most exotic possibility is that Trump not only wants the bill to fail and Ryan to take the blame, but that he wouldn’t be too upset to see the Freedom Caucus defanged, opening the door to more creative possibilities. There are certainly people in Trump’s inner circle who see the big problem with ObamaCare as being its support of private insurers, and who would prefer a relatively stingy single-payer plan to either ObamaCare or ObamaCare light. Trump doesn’t have a legislative majority for a reform like that — but maybe after some strategic losses in 2018 he would?

Personally, I think those kinds of hopes are misplaced, and that Trump ultimately just doesn’t care that much about the subject of health care. But it is important to recognize that Trump’s position is far less exposed than Ryan’s is.

This, from my perspective, is the dominant political fact about the Trump presidency. He won by attacking his own party’s leadership. He can’t win again without retaining the support of the Republican base — which means he has to be supportive of any effort to repeal ObamaCare, because the base has demanded that for years. But he will take every opportunity to convince that same base that they should be more loyal to him than to a GOP leadership for which they have already demonstrated mistrust. Which means failures by that leadership can be turned to his advantage. Whereas apart from individual leaders who have their own personal following (as, in their different ways, Cruz and Paul and McCain do), the traditional GOP leadership has a much harder time doing the opposite and triangulating against Trump.

So Ryan’s taking a huge gamble with the AHCA, and he’s taking that gamble because it actually matters to him as a policy priority. Trump is taking a much more modest one.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.

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The Gazillion Bubble Show

Al Jazeera

Earlier today I was on a segment of Al Jazeera’s talk show, “The Stream,” discussing political polarization, social media’s role in promoting it, and possible ways to combat it.

My view in a nutshell: just as social media has enabled previously isolated people to find kindred spirits, and hence has fostered new communities and a new sense of belonging, it has made it easier to live in an informational bubble in which you only hear from the like-minded. But I don’t think this is anything more than a surface layer on top of something much deeper. We are increasingly polarized because of social, economic and political trends that have developed over 30-50 years, from the ideological sorting of the parties (and the distinct problems that sorting creates for our political institutions, which depend on a certain level of cross-partisan comity to function properly), to the rise of alternative conservative media, to globalization and the consequent deindustrialization of America and rise of a transnational elite, to . . . well, it’s a long list. And it’ll take a lot more than a cute app to counteract all that.

One point I didn’t make forcefully enough on the program is that we are increasingly polarized in the real world, not just on line. It’s not just that conservatives and liberals only talk to the like-minded, or that we’re all spending so much time on line that we don’t encounter people in meatspace anymore. It’s that increasingly we only live near the like-minded, politically-speaking.

David Wassermam at has a very sobering piece on the subject up today, that is well worth a read:

Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread.1 During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties.

Sure, it’s people who vote, not counties — and it’s not quite fair to give equal weight to Los Angeles County, California (pop. 10 million, 76 percent Clinton), and Loving County, Texas (pop. 112, 94 percent Trump). But a more equitable way to measure this “big sort” is to track the share of all American voters living in polarized communities over time. And 2016 was off the charts (figuratively speaking; it’s on the chart below):

The electorate’s move toward single-party geographic enclaves has been particularly pronounced at the extremes. Between 1992 and 2016, the share of voters living in extreme landslide counties quintupled from 4 percent to 21 percent.

And remember, this was in a year that, like 1976, scrambled what we think of as the usual party coalitions, with the Democrat doing better than usual in states like Texas and Georgia and the Republican (more significantly) doing better than usual in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In other words, what on the surface may have looked like an electoral reshuffling was actually a deepening of prior trends turning us into an ideological archipelago of single-party islands.

All of which does not bode well for the future:

In an increasing number of communities like Baldwin County, Alabama, which gave Trump 80 percent of its major-party votes, and San Mateo, California, which gave Clinton 80 percent, an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative political points of view. If you think our political climate is toxic now, think for a moment about how nasty politics could be 20 or 30 years from now.

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The Mob at Middlebury

My latest column at The Week is about the appalling events at Middlebury College:

The violent protests that greeted the conservative political scientist when he tried to speak at Middlebury College last week could be easily dismissed as the latest episode in the by-now tiresome campus speech wars. They shouldn’t be. Murray isn’t just another right-wing gadfly who enjoys provoking left-wing outrage. In a very real sense, if the left thinks he isn’t worth debating, then one has to wonder who they think is.

I probably don’t need to rehash what happened here; if you want to read Murray’s own account of the events, here it is.

It should go without saying that violence is completely unjustified, and that so is protesting a speaker in such a fashion that he is unable to speak. But I spent the bulk of the column arguing specifically for the importance of engaging someone like Murray:

Murray is someone students need to hear from. He may be utterly wrong in his explanations for the phenomena he is studying. He may be thoroughly misguided in his proposed solutions. But he is asking questions that must be asked — and that must be asked in particular of a community of higher education which is a primary vehicle for the stratification he worries about.

Moreover, the concerns Murray is airing should be of particular interest to the left, which historically stands against the concentration of economic and political power, and against domination by a ruling class. If meritocracy and equality of opportunity does not increase social mobility and reduce class stratification, but the opposite, that would seem to be at least as powerful an argument for old-school left-wing solutions, like strong labor unions and the redistribution of wealth, as it is for Murray’s own conservative libertarianism.

But that’s why you have a debate.

Left-wingers should want to hear Murray — and hear what answers can be had from his analysis — more than conservatives should, because he is asking precisely the questions they need to answer. By ruling Murray unworthy of consideration, the radicals who protested him have not just traduced important norms related to free speech and civil respect (which would be bad enough), they have traduced those norms in the name of preserving themselves from having to question the institution they attend and its place in our society. A less-radical agenda than theirs is hard to imagine.

I conclude:

At some point in an article like this, the writer typically says that they abjure Murray’s abhorrent views but stand firmly for his right to air them, or that by engaging in violent and disruptive protest you merely turn him into a martyr and thereby enhance his stature rather than silencing him. And if I were writing about an odious troll like Milo Yiannopoulos, and I bothered to write an article about him at all, I might say something like that.

But I’m not going to say that about Charles Murray. He deserves to be debated not only because free speech belongs to everyone, but because he is asking absolutely vital questions. And any left worth its salt would jump at every chance to demonstrate that they have better answers.

Read the whole thing there.

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Whence Comes Legitimacy?

Michael Hogue

#notmypresident.#thisisnotnormal. The hashtags’ sentiments are echoed by respectable Democrats such as civil-rights leader John Lewis: “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Elected without a popular majority and shadowed by concerns about foreign interference, our 45th president entered office with many of his opponents believing he simply did not have the right to assume its powers.

Refusal to accept the legitimacy of its duly elected leader has become something of a habit in America, beginning with the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, then extending to the 2000 Florida “chads” election of George W. Bush and the “birther” calumny promoted by Donald Trump himself against President Barack Obama. And now Trump. Even spurious charges can stick if they play on preexisting or partisan-induced doubts about the legitimacy of a given authority.

So what is this mysterious quality, “legitimacy”? In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the bastard Edmund questions why it should have any meaning at all. But legitimacy is a crucial element of any polity, whether democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, or oligarchy. Any regime may command obedience, and get it, inspired by fear—or by love. A legitimate government does not require recourse to such intense emotions. It is obeyed because its authority is internalized by the people. But once questions of legitimacy are raised, they cannot be unasked. What happens then? Can they be answered in ways that can preserve legitimacy or restore it?

Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare contemplated this question in a series of history plays that speak with extraordinary clarity to the problem of legitimacy in a modern context—for Shakespeare was a modern like us, though he lived before the spread of modernity’s distinctive illusions that may blind us to similar clarity about our situation.

Kings in Christendom traditionally relied on the blessing of the church to legitimize their rule. But when Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, severed the connection with Rome, he cut as well the cord that connected him to the ultimate source of his authority. To compensate, the Tudors, and later the Stuarts, embraced a hypertrophied theory of divine right, according to which the monarch is answerable only to God Himself, and not subject either to the church or even God’s own law. But like papal claims to infallibility that followed the loss of temporal power, the theory protested too much. It was not a sign of the monarchy’s strength but of its fragility.

The tenuous basis of royal authority at its apparent apogee is the background to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the series of plays from “Richard II” through “Henry V.” Among other things, these are an extended meditation on what source of legitimacy might be found in a fallen world where authority has no explicit connection to the divine.

Why do I say that these plays are such a meditation? In part because the Henriad repeatedly but ironically echoes another story of successive kings: that of Saul, David, and Solomon. And that story forms the basis, in Western thinking, of the idea that a ruler’s legitimacy derives from divine election.


biblical origin for divine right is itself ironic, because the Israelite monarchy was birthed in ambivalence. According to the biblical text, the original Mosaic model of government was theocracy, with God as the sole sovereign, and a prophet from the priestly tribe His mouthpiece on earth. After Moses’ and Joshua’s deaths, there was no legitimate successor—in the words of the Book of Judges, every man did as he thought right.

Leadership did emerge in times of crisis. Whenever the people fell prey to a warlord from another tribe, the Lord would raise up a judge or hero—Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon—to throw off the foreign yoke. But these judges and heroes came from nowhere and returned to nowhere. Their authority lasted only as long or as far as a successful battle.

This situation obtained until the threat from the Philistines, invaders from across the sea who had established themselves in the coastal plain, became too great to be opposed in this ad hoc fashion. The Israelite people turned to their most recent hero—Samuel, a judge, priest, and prophet—to give them a king “to judge us, like all the nations,” which is to say: to rule, and to do battle with their enemies on their behalf.

Samuel was not pleased with this request. A king would change radically the relationship between the people and their true sovereign, God. Samuel warned of the ways a king would abuse the people: seizing their sons and their daughters, their grain and their cattle, and pressing them into his service. But these material consequences were not the heart of the matter, which was that God would no longer be king over the people but rather king over the people’s king.

But the people would not be dissuaded. So, with God’s reluctant blessing, Samuel chose them a king in the person of Saul. It is telling that Saul is presented as a bit of a joke: plucked from obscurity among the smallest tribe largely for his height and his apparent simplicity. Moreover, while Saul’s military victories compared well with earlier heroes, the text focuses on how his transgressions of Samuel’s authority—performing propitiatory sacrifices before going into battle, despoiling the Amalekites rather than obliterating them—justified his loss of authority. Up to this point, the king’s legitimacy depended on following divine law, as interpreted by God’s authentic prophet, Samuel.

Then the story takes a surprising turn. Samuel promises the kingship in secret to a young man from the more powerful tribe of Judah. A charismatic warrior and poet, David becomes a favorite of King Saul, but his popularity eventually prompts a wary Saul to plot his death. David flees, taking refuge among the Philistines, still among Israel’s most fearsome enemies. There he builds a martial reputation, recruits an honor guard, and waits until Saul and his son, Jonathan, meet their doom on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa.

If faithful obedience is what legitimizes a king, then a rakish adventurer like David would seem a strange choice. But not only is David chosen, he is chosen on very different terms than Saul was—terms not seen since the promises made to the patriarchs. Moses, the paradigm of the reluctant prophet, has his greatness thrust upon him. So do Joshua and the various judges who followed him, down through Samuel: each has a divine charge to fulfill, but none is blessed with a divine promise. And Saul, as noted, derived his authority from Samuel.

Not so David. Far from demonstrating Samuel’s continued authority, his secret crowning was a passing of the torch. After this, prophets may chastise kings—Nathan, David’s court prophet, scourges him for his sins. But they will never again make and dispose of kings as divine favor bids them. That promise is eternal. Eternity is not harmony—as Nathan prophesied, the sword never departed from David, who had to contend with rebellion by his own son, Absalom, as well as by the northern tribes. But God never threatens David with the loss of election.

David’s son, Solomon, was the first dynastic heir in Israelite history. His claim was not uncontested—his brother, Adonijah, had himself crowned first, and Solomon’s own claim rested on a deathbed conversation that only his mother, Bathsheba, and Nathan—neither a neutral party—were privy to. One of the first stories told of Solomon upon his accession to the throne reveals just how tenuous his own authority was.

This is the famous story of the two women contending for a baby. Each claims to be the rightful mother. Obviously, they cannot both be telling the truth—but since he cannot resolve the matter by interrogating the facts, Solomon orders the baby cut in half and split between the two claimants (which would be right and proper were the baby a piece of land or a chest of treasure). One woman accepts the verdict, while the other renounces her claim to save the child, which King Solomon says proves her to be the true mother.

The story is presented as evidence of Solomon’s wisdom, the trait for which he is best-known. But the text also says that when the people heard the story, “all Israel … feared before the king.” The next verse (1 Kings 3:1) calls Solomon king over all Israel. Why was this a fearful judgment?

The tale is an allegory—of civil war. The two mothers are rivals for the throne. Anyone who would accept division of the kingdom is not a true mother, whereas anyone who cleaves to an authority that he or she would otherwise reject in order to preserve the kingdom is a true parent. Given the history of civil turmoil during his father’s reign, Solomon had every reason to deliver a stern message with a coldly Hobbesian pragmatism: accept my rule over the whole kingdom even if you once opposed me, or prepare for the sword.

This, Solomon seems to have known, was an insufficient basis for preserving his regime. And so Solomon set out to establish it on a more secure basis, by building the temple that his father had been forbidden from building because of his personal sins.

The signal distinction of a temple—highlighted by God Himself when he contemplates David’s desire to build one for Him—is that it does not move. While God lived in a tabernacle, He could travel the earth but return to dwell among the people as a fellow nomad. Fixing God’s dwelling place meant that God no longer came to the people. They would come to Him, in the city where He lived.

Meanwhile, a temple associated with a royal palace implied that the palace dynasty ruled with the favor of the temple’s deity. In a context where one deity is the lord of all the universe, this meant that now there was only one legitimate temporal authority. And that authority was the king of the Davidic line.

Whether this ideology actually originated in Solomon’s time or reflects the concerns of a later period is less important than its endurance. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, lost the northern tribes to Jeroboam (who set up his own rival “temples” in Dan and Bethel). But Jeroboam’s was only the first of several dynasties in Israel, and when Israel fell, its tribes were lost to history. David’s dynasty was both the first and the last in Judah.

And after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the promise to David continued, transformed from something immanent to something transcendent. With his temple, Solomon asserted that his father’s heirs were the only legitimate rulers of Israel. It’s destruction returned rule to God—but with a promise that, at some future date, legitimacy would be restored. In the meantime, all kings were regents, ruling by divine providence rather than by divine right.

This understanding was inherited by Christianity, descended, like rabbinic Judaism, from Israelite religion. When Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in 800, the echoes of Samuel’s coronation of David (and the implicit snatching of the crown from Irene of Byzantium, much as Samuel withdrew it from Saul) sounded throughout Christendom. It was, on the one hand, an assertion of the primacy of the pope over temporal rulers. But it also made clear that temporal rulers had divine sanction, and that blessing could descend upon a barbarian Frank if God so willed.

Could that election be withdrawn? Or was divinely granted legitimacy permanent? Legitimacy implied the ability not merely to enforce the law, but to make it, to command obedience even of those it might seek to dispossess of its traditional prerogatives and property. This is just what Samuel warned the people about when they asked for a king to rule over them. And it is just what transpired when the concept of divine right came to the fore in England, 2,500 years after the reign of King Solomon.

The Tudor monarchs were not the first English kings to assert royal authority against the rival claims of feudal lords or the church hierarchy. Henry II had the “troublesome priest” Thomas Becket disposed of; King John faced down rebellious barons by declaring himself the pope’s vassal (and allegedly flirting with conversion to Islam).But the first contest ended with Henry agreeing to the Compromise of Avranches that restored clerical privileges and immunities (and submitting to ritual flogging at Becket’s tomb), while the hapless John was compelled to sign the Magna Carta.

Rather, the Tudors were the first to succeed in making that assertion stick, severing the connection with Rome and bringing the barons permanently to heel. Under the Tudors and especially the Stuarts, the concept of divine right became the official ideology of the state. (James VI of Scotland even wrote a book on the subject before assuming the English throne.) In effect, they asserted an authority comparable to the line of David: based on an irrevocable divine promise, answerable only to God for their behavior.

But were they so? How could they assert such authority with no Samuel to anoint them? Did divine favor descend on a murderous usurper merely because he wore the crown?

Shakespeare must have brooded on this haunting question for some time. Early in his career, he wrote a series of history plays recounting the Wars of the Roses in a manner highly congenial to Tudor sensitivities. While the actions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians were as brutally thrilling as the popular Game of Thrones, those actions are contained within an essentially providential structure. The violence, climaxing with Richard III’s tyrannical reign, is punishment for the original sin of deposing Richard II. Once the land has been purged by the scourge of God, the tyrant is dispatched in turn by God’s servant, Henry VII, founder of a new legitimacy.

This is all very neat, but also retrospective. Per Hegel, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk, and actions that appear to be violations of the right may be understood, after the fact, as providential. But what are we to do now if our ruler is a tyrant? How can we be assured now that his rule is legitimate? Or, to put it another way, where was Henry VII’s—and Elizabeth’s—Jerusalem temple?

To contemplate deposing kings was dangerous, and the Tudors were far from lenient on such matters. Nonetheless, from whatever internal compulsion may have moved Shakespeare as an artist, he set out to explore it, returning to the original sin that began the wars that concluded with Henry VII’s accession: the overthrow and murder of Richard II.


“Richard II” opens with two nobles, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, accusing each other of treason. Shakespeare’s audience would have known that Richard himself may have been implicated in the crime at the heart of the dispute (the murder of Bolingbroke’s kinsman), as Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, himself suspects. Richard unsuccessfully commands the noblemen to reconcile, then sanctions their trial by combat. But before the combat can commence he calls a halt and banishes them both.

The effect of this business is to establish that Richard lacks authority in his person. He claims the inherent right to command, but his commands are not readily obeyed. And when he resorts to punishment, it is resented as capricious and unjust—all the more so when it becomes clear that his ulterior motive is to seize Bolingbroke’s lands when his aging father dies.

On his way to the grave, and awaiting Richard’s arrival, Gaunt introduces a new and important theme to the play, explicitly claiming the mantle of Samuel:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves

What follows is his famous peroration on the glories of England, ending with the sad conclusion that, thanks to Richard, the poor country had “made a shameful conquest of itself”—an echo of Samuel’s warnings to Israel of what a king would do to them. Gaunt has no power comparable to Samuel’s to remove Richard. But by foretelling deposition, and calling himself a prophet in doing so, he articulates this possibility as something other than treason but rather as divinely sanctioned.

Richard, though, is blithe to danger. He believes that he has a special charism, a divine election that will protect him, personally, from any threat. Disdaining advice, he seizes Gaunt’s property, then sails to Ireland to suppress rebellion there. While he is gone, Bolingbroke violates the terms of his exile, returning in arms to reclaim the property that Richard had seized. Almost immediately, the other noble houses flock to his support.

So when Richard returns to England, he instinctively falls back on that imagined charism, that grace of God, to restore his authority. But he realizes, too late, that it doesn’t exist. Within a few speeches in a single scene, Richard goes from this:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord …

To this:

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Richard is not merely a weak or wicked king. His lack of personal authority puts to question the very notion of authority. How can you say, “that man is a king,” when, if put to a test, his authority depends on mere “tradition, form and ceremonious duty”?

What remains of the play is the ceremony of usurpation, imprisonment, and murder of the Lord’s deputy. Richard’s resistance is more formal than forceful. When Bolingbroke is still proclaiming that all he seeks is his own right, Richard speaks the truth: Bolingbroke has the power. All the crown would do is formalize that fact. Through Richard’s beautiful poetry, we feel the significance of these actions both on a personal level (the king is a man, after all) and on a political level. For if a king rules only by might, and not by right, then how can his rule be legitimate?

Here’s how Henry Bolingbroke—now Henry IV—answers:

Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.

Bolingbroke is chasing the same charism of divine favor that Richard has already taught us was an illusion. And the parallels to David, with whom the notion originates, are clear. Bolingbroke already shared David’s prehistory: son of a powerful house, former royal favorite, exiled for being a threat, returns to claim the crown. Now, just as David sought to secure divine favor by building God a temple in his conquered capital of Jerusalem, so Henry IV seeks to wash his sins, and legitimize his rule, by repeating David’s conquest.

He never undertakes it. Instead, as with David, the sword never departs from his house. For the entirety of the next two plays, Henry IV contends with rebellion. The northern nobles ally with the Scots to plant a more pliant king than Henry on the throne. And he also has to worry about dissension in his own house. His son, Hal, a wastrel in Richard’s mold, seems so dissolute to the King that he wonders aloud:

Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes,
Which art my near’st and dearest enemy?
Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,
Base inclination and the start of spleen
To fight against me under Percy’s pay,
To dog his heels and curtsy at his frowns,
To show how much thou art degenerate.

Henry IV wonders if in Hal he has nurtured an Absalom. But as Hal protests, “Do not think so; you shall not find it so.” And though he tries on his father’s crown prematurely before his father passes, his apparent baseness is no degeneracy, but a new kind of wisdom.

The final comic turn of Henry IV’s life arrives with his demise, and with it a final Davidic parallel. The dying King protests that he cannot expire in England, as it was prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem—only to learn that the room in which he rests is nicknamed, “Jerusalem.” As David did for Solomon, King Henry gives Hal some deeply cynical political advice, and then is gone. All hail King Henry V.


The series of plays from “Richard II” through “Henry V” are often referred to as the “Henriad.” The Henry in question is not the fourth but the fifth of the name, whom we first meet as Hal. On one level, they form Hal’s bildungsroman, the story of a prince coming of age into the responsibilities of kingship. But if there is a correspondence between the “Henriad” and the “Davidiad,” then Hal is Solomon, the wise and calculating ruler who follows the charismatic founder of a new dynasty and consolidates his rule. And the nature of Hal’s wisdom is central to the argument of the plays.

From his very first appearance in “Henry IV, Part 1,” Hal is looking for a way to be a leader in a world without legitimate foundations. We meet him in a tavern in Eastcheap, a seedy London neighborhood, after a night carousing with Sir John Falstaff, for whom he clearly harbors a deep affection, but also a wariness of letting this dangerous tutor get too close. After verbally sparring with Sir John, and planning a bit of mischief with his friend Poins, he speaks to us in soliloquy:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

It’s a marvelous speech, and it’s the point where the actor playing Hal needs to make his first important choice: whether to play him as fully confident in this plan of action or as trying to convince himself that he has a plan. Either way, Hal’s story is not one of a prodigal son returned, but of a prince who understands the power of that story, and how to use that power to his advantage.

Why is Hal hanging out in Eastcheap with the likes of Falstaff in the first place? Falstaff is his tutor in the nihilistic truth revealed when Richard II was deposed: that no one has inherent authority. Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest deflator of authority, notably in his soliloquy against honor, which cannot heal a wound, nor benefit the dead who earned it dying. If everyone believed that, of course, no king could ever raise an army to defend his kingdom—but the heroes who do seek honor above all wind up, like Hotspur, as corpses.

But Falstaff’s deepest mock follows the Gadshill robbery, the prank Poins and Hal plotted in their first scene. Falstaff and his men plan to rob a group of travelers, and Hal and Poins are to help them. Instead they hide until the robbery is complete, then emerge, disguised, and set upon Falstaff to rob him. The point of this, explained in advance, is to catch Falstaff in the outrageous lies he will undoubtedly tell to explain how he lost the stolen money—which, indeed, he spins to great comic effect.

When Falstaff’s confabulations are done, Hal reveals that it was he and Poins who robbed him. Falstaff’s lies are exposed. But it takes more cunning than that to catch Sir John:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made
ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true prince.

To drive the point home, Falstaff then plays Henry IV chastising his son, only to have Hal depose his “father” and play him himself to chastise Falstaff. We remember Richard’s words, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king”;  but after this scene the balm is well and fully off. Falstaff knows the essential hollowness of the crown, which is exactly why Hal studies under him—not be fooled as Richard was into believing he is more than what he actually is.

But Hal is absorbing a positive wisdom as well—a skill that will serve as a new if fragile basis for authority. One night, he stays up carousing with a bunch of drawers—lads who work the taps. When Poins asks why, he says, “when I am king of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.” He concludes:

I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life. I tell thee, Ned, thou hast lost much honour, that thou wert not with me in this sweet action.

This is not the battlefield honor that Falstaff will mock. Hal has won the friendship of a group of young working-class men not by separating himself from them, teaching them that he has a special balm upon him that commands obedience, but, on the contrary, by behaving as if he were no better than they, and particularly by learning their language. There is more to be learned in the “base court” than Richard, who refused to descend, could have known.

Hal takes this language lesson along with the Dauphin’s mocking tennis balls all the way to Agincourt. There, he must lead a polyglot army of English, Scots, and Welsh against the French. The differences in their English are made much of, but Hal, now Henry V, pointedly identifies with them all, even calling himself Welsh for having been born in Monmouth.

He must also lead an army of all classes, and once again Henry goes out of his way to establish himself as beyond class distinctions, most famously in the “band of brothers” passage from his St. Crispin’s Day peroration, but also when he wanders incognito through the camp to read his men’s morale on the eve of battle. The trope of a king in disguise is an ancient one, but Shakespeare uses it to novel effect. Henry learns not only the true state of his kingdom, but his true position as king.

At the end of his wanderings through camp, Henry encounters three ordinary soldiers, nervous about the next day. They ask the disguised king what his commander thinks of their chances.

KING HENRY V: Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.

BATES: He hath not told his thought to the king?

KING HENRY V: No; nor it is not meet he should. For, though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am … no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.

The tension and the humor of the situation alike lie in our awareness that Henry actually is the king. But it’s also a masterful bit of reverse psychology, manipulating the soldiers into protecting the king rather than themselves. It’s also a confession, a way for Henry to reveal his own human frailty without undermining the indomitable image he has maintained.

The reverse psychology is a bit too clever, though. Henry avers he “could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable,” and gets rebuked: they cannot judge the justness of his cause, nor is it their job. If it isn’t just, their deaths—and the fates of their souls—fall on the king’s head, not theirs.

This burden is too heavy for Henry to accept, and he argues his way out of it before landing in a new quarrel for saying the king will never let himself be ransomed. The men scoff at the pretense of royal courage—and the matter nearly comes to blows. After they leave Henry exclaims:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. …
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?

This speech is the spiritual twin of Richard’s despairing “you have but mistook me all this while.” These soldiers see through Henry’s tricks and pretenses, both those he perpetrates in disguise and those he executes in full regalia. But they still believe that he has special powers—and that, Henry knows, is the ultimate pretense.

And so, with nowhere else to turn, Henry prays. Henry’s war for the throne of France, like the crusade his father sought, has the explicit sanction of the church. But the opening scene of “Henry V” can leave no doubt in the audience’s mind about the cynicism of that blessing, nor can the king delude himself that God is compelled to fight on his side. And so his prayer is more like one of Jacob’s bargains with God than of a man like Henry VII, who knows he is on the side of right. He begins by begging God not to think of the crime of regicide that got him the crown, and ends with a version of Claudius’s question in “Hamlet,” “may one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”

This, then, is Henry on the eve of battle. He knows the odds are against him. He knows that he has no special divine favor, his crown having been won by regicide, and that even a king with incontestable title has no guardian angel to protect his authority. That authority comes not from God, nor from personal virtue, but from ceremony. And it is Henry V’s novel insight to understand that after the deposition of Richard, that ceremony no longer means performing distance and exaltedness, but commonality. The king must drink with every tinker in the tinker’s language.

It is in this frame of mind that Henry V delivers his most rousing piece of rhetoric, the St. Crispin’s Day speech, which plainly recalls Gideon’s speech in Judges to own his happy few. We have come full circle, to a form of authority that is evanescent, dependent on personal charisma, heroism, and transient divine favor—and unlikely to be passed on to a successor. Indeed, as Shakespeare’s stage already had oft shown, it was not.


Elizabeth I was purportedly agitated enough by the first of these new histories to exclaim, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” Surely that was reason enough never to have written the thing? But Shakespeare wrote it anyway, and I contend the queen misplaced herself. She was not Richard II; she was Henry V.

Shakespeare was wise to the propaganda of his own earlier histories. The Tudor dynasty was founded on usurpation, political and ecclesiastical, and no amount of providential dressing-up could hide that. How could it endure without foundation? Only by learning a new politics. Bolingbroke gets called a “vile politician,” but his son is the one who exemplifies the new, democratic notion of legitimacy, a notion that survived the fall and restoration of the monarchy, and was transplanted to our own republic.

We tend to think of democracy as a set of processes that confer authority by the nature of their operation. In this, we treat our constitution as the Israelites did their temple. Cleansing it of idolatries, we imagine, will restore the land to prosperity. Elections are our urim and thummim, the means by which we divine the will of the People, our sovereign god, as invisible and inscrutable as the one worshipped in ancient Jerusalem. But these provide no more assurance of legitimacy than did Richard II’s balm, as evidenced by our present crisis.

How will that crisis be resolved? I will not presume to prophesy. If Trump proves another Richard III, a scourge of God upon all parties tainted by a chain of usurpations, and ends by immolating himself, it would surprise me not at all. But if he does so, we cannot count on the happy end Shakespeare gave to his play, the humpbacked usurper vanquished by a pure and cleansing Henry VII, universally acknowledged as legitimate by all the weary factions.

Henry V’s democratic charism is the only one we have left. We are fragmented into communities that seem almost unable to communicate with each other. But our system retains its authority only to the extent that it can produce leaders who drink with every tinker—white and black, rich and poor, urban and rural, native and foreign-born—in his, and her, language.

Noah Millman is a senior editor at TAC as well as its theater critic. He is currently working on a book about Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible. 

The online version of this article has been corrected with Henry II’s proper penance for disposing of Thomas Becket; it was the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV who sought readmission to communion in the snow.

Russia: My Take So Far

Not that my opinion really matters, since I’m no more informed than anybody else who reads the news, but if I were placing bets here’s where I’d place them.

  • I’d bet that Russia was indeed behind the hacks that they are accused of perpetrating, and that the hacks were intended to find damaging dirt on Clinton or her associates. The purpose was not primarily to alter the result of the election but to weaken the expected victor, someone Putin saw as hostile to Russia generally and to him personally. They had the means, they had the motive. There’s some evidence they did it. And there’s really very little reason for them to have been assiduous about hiding that evidence — indeed, if the goal was to damage Clinton rather than elect Trump, it’s not obvious that they wouldn’t have wanted everybody to know what they were capable of doing.
  • It’s clear that the Trump campaign was eager to talk to the Russians about their hopes for a better working relationship with Russia. I would assume, therefore, that in their discussions ideas about removing sanctions, recognizing Russian claims to Crimea, or similar matters were floated. It would be weird if they weren’t.
  • I would not be surprised if the knowledge that Trump promised to be a more friendly administration had some bearing on Russian decision making about how to use any damaging information they obtained. So even if the timing of one or another action suggests communication, it doesn’t necessarily suggest collusion.
  • Indeed, I would be surprised to learn that there was any outright collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to break American laws. Among other things, it’s just a weird idea for a conspiracy, with limited upside and huge potential downside.
  • On the other hand, I assume, based on a wide array of circumstantial evidence, that Trump personally has a number of extremely shady business associations with a Russian flavor to them. Because of this, I would be surprised if the Russian government did not have some degree of financial leverage over Trump, and I would be surprised if they did not have damaging information that he would prefer to keep hidden. Which is why I have long felt that the thorough investigation of Trump’s finances is a far more urgent matter than finding out who met the Russian ambassador when.

I also encourage people genuinely interested in the story to follow Josh Marshall’s ongoing writing about it. He’s doing actual research, not just quoting anonymous leakers, and he’s not flying off the handle. On the contrary, he recently laid out an outline of what the innocent explanation of what we know so far would look like. And it’s pretty convincing, with the caveat that there is undoubtedly more that we don’t know. My own suspicion is that the “more” that we don’t know is mostly about dirty money rather than anything directly related to interference in the election.

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Saving Russia Policy From Trump

My latest column in The Week calls on realists and others in the foreign policy community who favor a less-confrontational policy towards Russia to lead the charge in calling for a congressional investigation into possible Russian interference in the Presidential campaign and the even more speculative possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign:

The Trump administration might not want such an investigation, though, for reasons having nothing to do with the substance of any discussions with Russian officials. Investigations inevitably metastasize, and draw attention away from an administration’s substantive agenda. In today’s hyper-partisan climate, it’s even more likely that a GOP-led investigation that came up empty would simply be dismissed as part of a coverup.

Individual members of Congress, meanwhile, might support or oppose an investigation for reasons that have nothing to do with the substance of the issue. Opponents of rapprochement with Russia, for example, would have every reason to want to make continued pursuit of such a policy politically toxic.

Which is precisely why it is supporters of such a policy who should be taking the lead in calling for such an investigation.

The Trump administration could stonewall its way through this ongoing scandal, counting on rank partisanship to carry it through the worst. If there were genuinely no crimes committed, such a strategy might even succeed when and if Congress changes hands, and in the meantime the GOP have two years to pass their legislative agenda.

But until the air is clear, American policy towards Russia is badly tainted. Every move this administration makes is being interpreted through the lens of the most outlandish suppositions. In such a climate, the rational thing for the administration to do is abandon any plans for substantive improvement of relations. The Russian government is reportedly already operating on the assumption that Trump will not prove as friendly as hoped, both because of his own personal deficiencies and because of the widening impact of the scandal.

A congressional investigation could well prove a millstone around the administration’s neck, and provide ample opportunity for Democratic grandstanding. But it’s also the only way to rescue American foreign policy towards Russia from a widening gyre of increasingly fantastical speculation and innuendo.

Read the whole thing there.

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Words, Words, Words

I had intended to write something about President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this week, but a combination of the death of my laptop and a bad head cold intervened. But in retrospect, I’m kind of glad I said nothing.

Because at this point I have essentially no interest in what the President says, and not much interest in what anybody else says about what he’s saying.

It’s not that I’m not interested in what he’s going to do. If actual legislation is proposed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, I’ll be very interested to learn what it does and debate the implications (particularly since I buy my insurance on New York’s exchange). Ditto with any kind of tax reform. Ditto with legislation to move us to a merit-based immigration system. Ditto with legislation to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. Ditto with childcare and family leave. Ditto with fighting ISIS, or gang warfare, or drug addiction. They all seem like worthy topics. Let’s see what he does about them.

I feel like ninety percent of the coverage of Trump in the mainstream press and on social media has been outrage about some horrible thing he’s said, and that ninety percent of the favorable coverage that he’s gotten has been about themes he’s emphasizing or change he’s  promising — or about how that horrible thing he said is actually great. And I just don’t care anymore, either way.

Whatever money Trump actually made (and we still don’t know his true net worth), he made as a marketer. Most of the products he marketed were terrible. Nonetheless, America bought his latest product: the Trump Presidency. So we no longer have to listen to the marketing. We can evaluate the product itself.

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The “Paradox” of Transnational Nationalism

Damon Linker has a good column in The Week about the launch of American Affairs, a new journal which, in Linker’s words, aims to “explore the meaning and shape of American nationalism in the age of Trump.”

Linker’s main point — and it’s a trenchant one — is to note the belatedness of the effort: National Review and Public Interest took years or even decades to bring the fusionist New Right and neoconservatism respectively to a position of political dominance, whereas American Affairs was only founded after Trump’s unexpected triumph. But I want to comment on something Linker says at the end of the piece about our nationalist moment:

The central paradox of the present historical moment is that nationalism is on the rise — but the trend is taking place simultaneously across the West, as a kind of byproduct or inverse of internationalism itself. Trump himself seems to understand intuitively that he’s part of something bigger than himself. Hence the cheerleading for Brexit, support for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France, criticism of Germany’s Angela Merkel, praise for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians, and more far-reaching mischief-making with regard to NATO and the European Union.

I totally agree that this is the essential trend — and that it requires explanation that extends beyond domestic factors. But I’m not sure why it’s a paradox.

In the 1930s, nationalism was also on the rise, along with its hypertrophied cousin, fascism. But the fascists, notwithstanding their fanatical nationalism, shared with and borrowed from each other, and in many cases wound up as allies — the German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian and Japanese fascists all made common cause with one another.

To some extent, the common cause they made was due to factors unrelated to ideology. Germany, Italy, Japan and Hungary were all revisionist powers, aiming to overturn the established international order and remake it to radically enhance their positions. Poland and China also were ruled by nationalist parties in the ‘30s, but they lined up with the liberal democracies because they were the targets of the revisionist powers.

But to some extent it really was ideological affinity — that factor does seem necessary to explain the extent of the domestic French support for the Vichy regime. And both the major liberal powers (the U.S. and Britain) and the illiberal left-wing regime of the U.S.S.R. took on a distinctly nationalist cast in the 1930s and during the war. Stalin’s Soviet Union got more Russian even before the Great Patriotic War, and Roosevelt’s New Deal drew some of its inspiration from Mussolini’s Italy, even as other aspects were inspired by the radical left and the bulk of it was inspired by prior home-grown experiments within the liberal tradition.

The point being: there’s nothing obviously weird about nationalism, as an outlook, having a transnational dimension. Nationalism is an outlook that is particularist and collectivist. Why shouldn’t people who share that outlook discover they have something in common even if their particularisms differ? After all, traditionalist Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and Jews discovered they have things in common even though they have radically incompatible theologies, practices and eschatologies.

I’ll give my thoughts on possible transnational factors driving nationalism in subsequent posts.

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Robert VerBruggen Is Not a Nazi, But Eugenics Isn’t Rocket Science

I’m tempted to say, in response to Robert VerBruggen’s lament, that yes, that’s Twitter for you, and this is one of many reasons why I’m not on it. But I think there is more to say about the problem of eugenics than merely “it’s immoral but not ineffective.”

First of all, as I’m sure VerBruggen would agree, not all efforts to improve the gene pool are immoral, and though we may disagree about exactly where the line is, we both surely agree that it’s laudable to get tested for Tay-Sachs before you marry, and we both surely agree that forced sterilization of “undesirables” is an abomination. For myself, I’ve written about this before, and I stand by what I wrote then.

Second, we should probably limit the word “eugenics” to collective programs to improve the gene pool, and not apply the word to individual choices about who to have children with, because only collective programs can actually change the population as a whole. As such, it’s important to recognize that to breed for particular traits, you have to prevent elements within the population that don’t have those traits from breeding. For example, if you assume that intelligence is highly heritable, and wanted to increase the intelligence of the population, it wouldn’t do to get smart people to marry other smart people. You’d have to get smart people to outbreed less-smart people. I can’t think of a way to do this that is both ethical and plausible — and most of the ways I can think of are neither.

Finally, while we know from extensive experience in selectively breeding animals and plants that such programs work, by “work” we mean that we’ve maximized particular traits, abilities and behaviors. And in the course of doing so, you always get tradeoffs. The swift greyhound has chronic hip problems. The highly-trainable poodle is also prone to stress. The large-breasted chicken can’t fly. And so forth.

There is no reason to doubt that the same would be true of humans, and that any serious attempt to breed people for particular traits — even if undertaken on an entirely voluntary basis and involving no abortion or sterilization or whatnot — would have unexpected side effects. Perhaps breeding for ambition will result in lower empathy. Perhaps breeding for intelligence will result in greater incidence of anxiety and depression. Perhaps breeding for greater athletic prowess will result in higher rates of marital infidelity and divorce. Who knows?

We don’t — and we can’t ethically conduct the kinds of controlled experiments that would allow us to determine with high confidence that we had avoided unexpected side effects. That caution holds as well for genetic therapies that are surely on the horizon. “Fitness” is only meaningful relative to a set of environmental conditions. Narrow the set of traits by which you define fitness and you have implicitly narrowed the set of environments within which an organism will prove fit. Which is not, generally, a good way for a species to maximize its survival prospects.

I’m not arguing that people should blithely ignore genetic history or the science of inheritance more generally in matters like mate selection. (If I did, nobody would listen to me anyway.) But I am arguing both for humility and for a broad understanding of what constitutes fitness. Someone especially smart who says, “I need to marry someone just as smart as I am so that our children are likely to be similarly smart and hence similarly successful” is not only running the risk of disappointment due to mean-reversion (which remains a factor even when you stack the deck in your favor), but running the risk of having ignored other vital dimensions of the human personality by reducing “fitness” to a narrow, measurable trait.

(Also, if you want a good marriage, you should probably marry someone who you love and desire, who is good for you and who you are good for, and with whom you share certain core values and a robust ability to communicate, rather than thinking of your spouse primarily as breeding stock. Not to mention not treating your children as pint-sized success machines. And staying off Twitter when your wife is in the next room with the OB/GYN. Just saying.)

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Ten-Year-Old Me For President

Meanwhile, my latest column at The Week is a bit on the lighter side. It’s a trip down memory lane to my ten-year-old self:

“As for campaigning, people don’t want promises. They want action.” — Noah Millman, age 10

This past Sunday, on a visit for brunch, my mother brought me a time machine in the form of an old valise. Inside was a treasure trove of documents from my childhood: photos, drawings, report cards, clippings, programs from the local drama club’s productions. And, unsurprisingly for a budding writer, a wide array of written material.

I was particularly struck by one piece, written in November 1980 as part of a school assignment, describing my program should I be elected president of the United States. It began with the line quoted above.

I don’t recall the details of the assignment, but I can imagine what prompted it. The 1980 election loomed large in all of our consciousnesses, including us kids. After all, we’d sat on the gas lines with our parents. We’d watched the drama of the Iranian hostage crisis play out on the television every night. And we all still remembered the 1977 blackout. We knew the country had serious problems. As I detailed them in my essay:

The basic problems today are: inflation, crime, energy, transit in the cities, the hostages, war, etc.

The list is different from one we’d make today — though we’re still worried about falling behind economically, about the poor job we’re doing preventing the country’s infrastructure from crumbling, and we’re still panicked about a hostile regime in Iran.

But what I was struck by most was the . . . familiarity of some of the language I used when I talked about how to tackle these problems. You might almost call it my blueprint for making American great again.

Check the whole thing out there.

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The Deep State Gets a Scalp

National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn (WPRI /YouTube)

Michael Flynn was a seriously dangerous man, and I am very relieved that he will no longer be in a position of power. But Damon Linker is absolutely right that the way he was brought down should worry everyone who cares about the health of American democracy:

Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.

Unelected intelligence analysts work for the president, not the other way around. Far too many Trump critics appear not to care that these intelligence agents leaked highly sensitive information to the press — mostly because Trump critics are pleased with the result. “Finally,” they say, “someone took a stand to expose collusion between the Russians and a senior aide to the president!” It is indeed important that someone took such a stand. But it matters greatly who that someone is and how they take their stand. Members of the unelected, unaccountable intelligence community are not the right someone, especially when they target a senior aide to the president by leaking anonymously to newspapers the content of classified phone intercepts, where the unverified, unsubstantiated information can inflict politically fatal damage almost instantaneously.

The Eli Lake article that Linker links to is worth reading in full, but I’ll pull out a key section here:

The fact that the intercepts of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak appear to have been widely distributed inside the government is a red flag.

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me Monday that he saw the leaks about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak as part of a pattern. “There does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack Flynn and others in the administration,” he said. “From the leaking of phone calls between the president and foreign leaders to what appears to be high-level FISA Court information, to the leaking of American citizens being denied security clearances, it looks like a pattern.”

Nunes said he was going to bring this up with the FBI, and ask the agency to investigate the leak and find out whether Flynn himself is a target of a law enforcement investigation. The Washington Post reported last month that Flynn was not the target of an FBI probe.

The background here is important. Three people once affiliated with Trump’s presidential campaign — Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone — are being investigated by the FBI and the intelligence community for their contacts with the Russian government. This is part of a wider inquiry into Russia’s role in hacking and distributing emails of leading Democrats before the election.

Flynn himself traveled in 2015 to Russia to attend a conference put on by the country’s propaganda network, RT. He has acknowledged he was paid through his speaker’s bureau for his appearance. That doesn’t look good, but it’s also not illegal in and of itself. All of this is to say there are many unanswered questions about Trump’s and his administration’s ties to Russia.

But that’s all these allegations are at this point: unanswered questions. It’s possible that Flynn has more ties to Russia that he had kept from the public and his colleagues. It’s also possible that a group of national security bureaucrats and former Obama officials are selectively leaking highly sensitive law enforcement information to undermine the elected government.

Here’s the thing: I understand why the bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies are behaving the way they are. It’s not just that they are opposed to Trump’s policies, or that they have personal reasons to hate Flynn or Bannon or anybody else on the Trump team. It’s that they are genuinely afraid that this administration is functionally a threat to national security because it contains highly placed individuals actively working for a foreign power or, at best, extremely senior people (including the President himself) who flagrantly disregard basic security precautions:

For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.

Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.

What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.

None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.

When the press first started hyperventilating about Russia, I wrote a column about how we all needed to calm down — because my concern was that the focus was misplaced, because Russia isn’t the problem:

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.

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.

It certainly looks at this point like major elements within the national security bureaucracy are prepared to create a constitutional crisis in response to what they believe is a serious and real threat to American national security from the White House itself. And there is really only one way to avoid such a crisis: for Congress to step up and begin the necessary investigations of the Trump administration.

I completely understand why a Republican Congress would be reluctant to do this. There’s not only the risk that they’d cripple their own party’s presidency; there’s the very real risk of retaliation by the Trump administration, and the President taking steps to mobilize his supporters against members of Congress that threaten him.

But that is not the only quarter from which threats may come. The GOP Congress is not going to be able to ignore an escalating war within the Executive branch. Nor can they discount the possibility of characters like Flynn engaging in their own freelance retaliatory schemes.

And, you know, there’s also our system of constitutional government, that old thing, which gives Congress the responsibility for dealing with corruption and other lawbreaking by the Executive.

I have no particular love for Senator Roy Blunt, but I’m glad he has come out for a full investigation of the administration’s Russia ties. I hope that the investigation focuses on exactly that: the nature, timing and appropriateness of any connections and communications. Because, again, the real problem isn’t Russia or the fact that Trump favors rapprochement; the problem is the real possibility of corruption and the plain fact of flagrant and dangerous incompetence.

And while they are at it, they can also start investigating the leaks. But it has to be both; if Congress focuses only on the leaks, and ignores or soft-pedals the administration’s behavior, they will contribute to the escalation of a growing constitutional crisis.


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“Not Who We Are” Versus “Who We Want To Be”

Our new editor in chief, Robert Merry, has a piece up about the questions of identity at the heart of the immigration debate:

For most of our history, we have been largely a country of Europeans, a country of the West, with Western sensibilities and a shared devotion to the Western heritage. Now we are in the process of becoming something else—a mixed country without a coherent, guiding heritage of any civilization and certainly not of the West.

This is largely the result both of the numbers of immigrants coming into the country (both legal and illegal) and of the place of origin of most of those immigrants. In 1960, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants came from Europe and Canada; now that number is just 14 percent. Also, the percentage of people in America who were born outside the United States reached 13.7 percent in 2015—just a shade below the all-time high for that statistic, which was 14.8 percent in 1890, after a similar wave of immigrants largely from Central and Eastern Europe.

What’s more, experts expect that percentage to climb to 14.9 percent by 2015 and 18 percent by 2065. In 1965, when the country’s current immigration philosophy was enacted into law, the percentage of foreign-born people in the country was 5 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the United States will have no ethno-racial majority. When that happens, America will be a completely different country from what it was, say, when the Baby Boomers appeared on the scene and throughout American history before that.

This is a profound national alteration, and what’s remarkable about it is how little debate, or even discussion, has attended it until recently.

I count myself as one of the people who is not really worried about this. That’s largely because I’m a native New Yorker. I’ve grown up in a cosmopolitan, polyglot city, and watched that city go from putatively ungovernable to a new golden age while remaining if anything more polyglot than ever. (And it’s been a very long time indeed since New York had an ethno-racial majority.)

I have enough personal experience with immigrants from all over the world to know that, in general, the political, religious and ideological divisions between groups already living in America dwarf the divisions between newcomers and natives. And the evidence seems to show that, in the case of immigration, familiarity is as likely to breed comfort as contempt. (To pick a recent anecdote that I am fully aware is not equivalent to data: here’s a heartwarming story about Syrian refugees in Nebraska.)

I am also aware that this notion that America is a “country of Europeans” is also a relatively new formulation. Back in the early 19th century, the question was whether America would be overwhelmed by Germans; in the late 19th century, the question was whether it would be overwhelmed by Italians, Slavs and Jews. “European” didn’t used to be nearly narrow enough; now, for some worried about immigration from further afield, it’s just right.

Finally, the definition of Western civilization is also highly malleable. It’s not at all obvious to me that Russia is more Western than Mexico. And concerns about Muslim immigration, whether legitimate or overblown, have much more to do with the breakdown of civilization taking place within the Islamic world right now than with anything “essential” about Islamic civilization. Meanwhile, Canada and Belgium have both nearly fallen apart at points in the past on account of being “bi-cultural” states, and nobody would dispute that both Quebecois and Angl0-Canadians, both Flemish and Walloons, are core to the West.

Even considering all of the above, numbers still matter — for a simple practical reason if nothing else. Making unum out of pluribus may or may not happen automatically — but it certainly takes more time the more pluribus you have coming in every year. Nonetheless, those fretting that this country will die if it does not preserve its historic character should recall what a small percentage of the American population is of English descent, and yet how large English cultural heritage still looms in the national consciousness.

So I take the other side of the question. But that doesn’t mean I think the question is illegitimate. I think it’s as fundamental a political question as you can have. I think the advocates of a more liberal immigration regime do their cause a serious disservice by trying to rule it out of bounds — it comes close to trying to rule out politics itself. Barack Obama’s favorite formulation — “that’s not who we are” — isn’t an argument; it’s an accusation. Much better would be, “that’s not who we want to be” — because that makes it clear that we do have a choice of who we want to be, and that he thinks a particular choice is a better one.

I also agree with Merry that the question of immigration is a deeply emotional one, and hence difficult to resolve. But all that implies is that advocates of a more open regime need to make their appeal on emotional terms that might resonate with people who are more anxious and skeptical.

As it happens, this is the topic of my latest column in The Week:

In our private lives, few would accept leaving this question — who inherits our property, our name, and the custody of our reputations — to forces entirely beyond our control. Most of us think seriously about who we marry, who we will have children with. Even those of us — like myself — who are adoptive parents recognize that the choice to adopt is exactly that: a choice.

Questions of identity — of who we are — are just as fundamental to any political community. A shared sense of identity is what makes collective action possible, whether that action is financing a community center or fighting a war. Any time we make sacrifices today to benefit generations yet unborn, we imply an identifying bond between the present and the future. And yet, for many supporters of immigration there is a real dispute about whether this is even a valid political question — or, on the contrary, whether freedom of movement is an inalienable right, or whether asking questions about national identity is inherently racist.

In a piece that considers deeply how immigration advocates have gone wrong, Josh Barro argues for the need to make the case for a relatively liberal immigration regime as being in the national interest (as opposed to just being “the right thing to do”). And he’s right about that. But before that case can be made, they need to win the trust of those who suspect — perhaps rightly — that immigration advocates see “the national interest” as the interest of a corporate entity known as the United States of America, without regard to what the nature of that entity is, or who it exists for in the first place.

If they can’t rule questions of identity out of bounds, liberals will be tempted to answer them with ideological definitions of Americanism that implicitly deem large numbers of actual Americans to be less-than-faithful communicants of the national religion (something conservatives have been prone to do at least as much). It’s an approach that is distinctly unlikely to win over anyone not already singing from their hymnal.

So how can those with a more expansive conception of American identity make their case? The answer begins with a return to that word: posterity.

From the perspective of the founders, we are their posterity, whether our ancestors are from England, Ethiopia, or Ecuador. They are our ancestors. And what they have bequeathed to us — from our political institutions down to the land itself — is our inheritance.

The same is true of our political ancestors — and we need to talk that way.

If we want to share our inheritance more broadly, and convince our cousins to do the same, we need first to be able to demonstrate that we cherish it, that we recognize that it is our inheritance, something we, as individuals, did not create, but was given to us by those who came before, and that we are responsible for passing on. If it is ours, then we have the right to remodel it to better suit the needs of the present and the future — we don’t have to be shackled by the past. But if we care about it as an inheritance, then we’ll show gratitude for what we have received, and make changes in that spirit, even if we know that many of those who came before would have cringed to see just who has taken up residence in what was once their house, and what they’ve done to the place.

Read the whole thing there.

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Neo-Reactionaries in the West Wing

So, apparently, Steve Bannon appreciates Mencius Moldbug, leading neo-reactionary.

I said what I had to say about Moldbug and his ilk four years ago, here. I flatter myself to think that I took him more seriously — and responded to him more soberly — than he had any right to expect, particularly given the apparent unlikelihood of his ideas ever having any real political influence. And yet, here we are.

But I want to add something to my conclusion. I’ve long believed that radicals often offer a useful critique of power, which is a very good reason to read them. That goes for right-wing radicals as well as left-wing ones, and it’s a reason that I took Moldbug’s ideas seriously rather than just mocking them or ignoring them.

Radicals in power are another story. Because they see crisis where non-radicals see only problems, the first thing a radical in power needs to do is align the general perception with his or her own. And the best way to do that is to precipitate a crisis. In terms of normal perception, that means doing one’s job badly, even catastrophically badly.

TAC readers are generally pretty good about understanding that you don’t get any points for good intentions when your actions lead to disaster. Certainly they don’t give neoconservatives any credit for their desire to spread democracy and freedom when their wars have mostly brought chaos and destruction. But does that same standard apply across the board? Does it apply to people who are voicing the repressed truths that you always wished could find a hearing in the corridors of power?

I ask because much of the rhetoric of the intellectual defenses of Trump is aimed at avoiding precisely that kind of accountability, by cultivating an air of extraordinary crisis.

If the bi-partisan establishment is not merely foolish or incompetent pilots, but is deliberately seeking to crash the plane, then of course you don’t ask questions about whether the opposition to that establishment has any idea what they are doing. You rush the cockpit, then you try to fly. If Western Civilization is so rotten and diseased, and democracy such a hopeless form of government, that continuing to operate within existing institutions can at best draw out the agony of decline, then of course you don’t ask what institutions would replace the ones we have, or how they would work. You blow up the system, then you try to build a new one. If China is destined to go to war with America, and if the Islamic world is already engaged in a global battle with Christendom for earthly supremacy, then of course you don’t try to manage our international relationships to maintain order as best you can. You prepare for war, and then you fight to win.

In this manner, the atmosphere of crisis makes it impossible to hold a regime accountable, because disaster is assumed to be inevitable and therefore cannot be blamed on the regime. Instead, the regime may take credit for the fact that it was prescient enough to see the disaster coming, and for having thought through its implications in advance. Indeed, it may even wind up taking credit for the disaster itself, as being a necessary precursor to something better. Chaos becomes a prerequisite for order. Failure becomes a prerequisite for success. War becomes a prerequisite for peace.

This magazine has described its mantra in the past as “realism and reform.” The rhetoric of crisis is inherently antithetical to both.

Hitler analogies tend to be conversation stoppers — and they are especially likely to backfire when it comes to someone like Trump. If you’re afraid of America losing its fundamentally liberal character, and doing awful things, then you almost certainly never got on the Trump train in the first place. But if you are on the Trump train, it’s likely in part because you feel the establishment is still fighting obsolete wars — like the one against Hitler — and ignoring what’s really happening to the country. And if that’s the case, then these scare stories probably just push you further into Trump’s camp.

But those who find themselves thrilled by the cultivation of an atmosphere of crisis, and the “opportunities” such a crisis opens up, would do well to remember something else about Hitler. He didn’t just commit horrible crimes. He ruined his country the way no leader had ever ruined their country before. He came to power substantially because of fear of Soviet Communism, and after twelve years the Red Army was encamped in the ruins of Berlin.

I’m not saying I expect anything similar — among other things, I think the Chinese are clever enough to see they stand to benefit more by a strategy of jiu-jitsu than by a head-on collision, though I worry very much about the consequences of a rapid collapse in America’s international position. I’m just saying that if Nassim Taleb thinks Trump has only upside because people already don’t think much of him, then he really, really hasn’t thought the matter all the way through.

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Partisan Redistricting Goes To Court

I hope the justices of the Supreme Court re-read John Hart Ely’s book before they consider the pending cases on partisanship in redistricting:

Partisan gerrymandering has become the norm in U.S. politics because the Supreme Court has declined to declare it unconstitutional. For three decades, a majority of justices have failed to identify manageable standards to determine when a plan rises to the level of an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

As a result, state legislators have come to believe that they can draw partisan gerrymanders so long as long as they satisfy two criteria: They do not violate one-person, one-vote standards and do not reduce the electoral fortunes of African Americans or other protected racial and ethnic groups. As a result, the 2010 round of redistricting saw partisan gerrymandering run amok in some states.

But change may be coming.

Most interesting to me is that the lower courts are starting to move beyond the view that equal protection is the only question at play in redistricting:

Perhaps most important, however, is a case from Wisconsin (Whitford v. Gill). In November, a three-judge federal court invalidated that state’s legislative districts in a 2 to 1 decision. The majority wrote:

The plaintiffs have established … that the defendants intended and accomplished an entrenchment of the Republican Party likely to endure for the entire decennial period. … They did so when the legitimate redistricting considerations neither required nor warranted the implementation of such a plan.

Whitford was the first time a federal court has ruled a single-member district plan a partisan gerrymander. When there is an appeal of that decision, it will almost certainly be heard by the Supreme Court and has the potential to be a “game-changer.”

One thing that distinguished Whitford from the many previous unsuccessful challenges was that it was based on a First Amendment freedom of association test rather than a 14th Amendment equal protection test. Other federal courts have also noted this distinction. A three-judge panel in Maryland held last year that even if an equal protection claim failed to generate a cause of action, a First Amendment claim against a specific congressional district required a trial on the merits (Shapiro v. McManus). Regardless of the trial outcome, that case will likely come before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017.

Partisan redistricting is a classic example of the kind of problem that the various conservative theories of constitutional interpretation have a hard time addressing. Our constitution does not recognize the existence of parties. It doesn’t even recognize the right to vote as such; it just says that the right can’t be infringed for certain specific reasons (like race, sex, or previous condition of servitude). If you’re a textualist, there’s not a lot of text to justify mucking about with how states conduct elections. If you’re an originalist, you’ve got a similar problem. If you’re a federalist, you’re hardly going to be eager to usurp state prerogatives. And if you believe in judicial deference, then you’re hardly going to be comfortable intervening to alter the partisan composition of the legislature.

But partisan redistricting doesn’t threaten novel fundamental rights that exist only in the emanations of the penumbras of the constitutional text. It threatens the integrity of the political system itself, by making government structurally unresponsive to the electorate. To call for a democratic response to a situation where the legislature has specifically acted to frustrate that response seems like cruel mockery. On the other hand, without clear textual warrant for action, isn’t the Court inevitably just aggrandizing power to itself — and thereby undermining the very democracy it claims to be protecting?

That’s why I suggest taking another look at Ely’s book. Democracy and Distrust is an extended argument as to why we have judicial review in the first place, in the face of the counter-majoritarian difficulty. At the heart of that argument is the notion that apparently fundamental rights like speech and assembly are, in fact, a kind of deep foundation for procedural rights. It’s not that they are God-granted privileges inherent to humans, but that free speech is necessary for the citizenry to be able to do its job of holding the government accountable. Ely proposes that the Court look at all of its jurisprudence this way, and that this framing would help both limit the Court’s innovations and ensure that when the Court acted its actions would be aimed at improving the functioning of democracy rather than usurping it.

At all events, I am very eager to see where the Court goes with this. I’d expect Roberts and Alito to be distinctly uninterested in wading into this area, but I really don’t know what the rest of the Court will think. And while he’d surely refuse to comment on pending cases (as well he should), I’m quite curious what the recently nominated Neil Gorsuch thinks about the topic.

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The Democrats’ Gorsuch Dilemma

Normally, someone writing in TAC giving advice to Democrats on how to handle some political question but be assumed to be trolling. But I hope I’ve got enough credibility at this point not to be so perceived.

This is by way of saying that my latest column at The Week is about the Gorsuch nomination, the the dilemmas it poses for Democrats:

Neil Gorsuch is unquestionably a very conservative judge. Like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, he’s a textualist and an originalist, someone who believes that the Constitution and ordinary statutes should be interpreted based on how their actual language would have been understood at the time. He’s ruled in favor of organizations seeking exemption from Obama’s contraceptive mandate on religious grounds, and wrote a book opposing assisted-suicide. He would be a thorn in the side of a future Democratic president who sought to expand government involvement in the economy in novel ways, or to further extend the scope of anti-discrimination law.

But he’s also a man with a reputation both for collegiality and independence of mind. He’s arguably a less prosecutor-friendly judge than President Obama’s previous choice, Merrick Garland. He’s been less-deferential to claims of executive power than either Garland or Scalia. And his defense of religious freedom has not by any means been limited to dominant religious groups. A conservative justice who views government with a jaundiced eye, and who privileges the legislature over the executive, could really come in handy if Trump were to infringe on press freedoms, or corrupt the federal bureaucracy, or further extend the reach of executive power beyond the precedents that Bush and Obama set — all serious concerns that liberals have voiced since the election.

So there’s a case to be made on the merits that liberals should support Gorsuch’s appointment. And there’s also a case for doing so on the politics.

After detailing that case — basically, that opposing Gorsuch will accomplish nothing and will alienate people whom the Democrats need to reach out to — I point out that the Democrats don’t have so much freedom of action on this question:

But the Democrats don’t have the luxury of thinking only about how to expand their coalition and fracture the opposition. They also have to keep their base happy. And their base would not be happy with anything less than total opposition.

Opponents of Gorsuch correctly point out that Trump only had the opportunity to appoint someone in the first place because the Republican Senate refused to even consider Obama’s nominee. (Gorsuch himself has criticized both parties for their shabby treatment of qualified judicial nominees.) The Democrats are understandably loathe to let that unprecedented obstruction stand without consequence.

They also point out that if Gorsuch’s nomination proceeds easily to approval, that this will encourage other aging justices like Anthony Kennedy to consider retirement. Once Gorsuch is approved, though, it will be harder to justify opposition to similarly-qualified conservative candidates, and the Democrats could quickly find themselves having facilitated the entrenchment of a right-wing majority on the Court.

Moreover, advocates of wall-to-wall opposition point to the success of the Tea Party in 2009-2010 as evidence that you don’t need to play to the center to win — that, arguably, it’s better to focus on energizing your base. That base would not only be deeply demoralized by any let-up in the opposition to Trump; it would consider the downgrading of priorities like reproductive rights to be an outright betrayal.

So what should they do?

To regain the initiative, Democrats need to focus their approach to Gorsuch on their fears of Trump. Ask him about the rights of non-citizens. Ask him about war powers. Ask him about political interference in regulatory oversight. Ask him about anti-trust. Ask him about government surveillance. Ask him about whistleblowers. Heck, ask him about the emoluments clause if you want. Make it look like you’re not trying to get business done or to make reasonable compromises — make it look like you’re trying to see if Trump might have played himself.

Read the whole thing there.

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