Noah Millman

The Colossus and Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I was fascinated to read the now-infamous New York Times Magazine piece by David Samuels about Ben Rhodes and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, with special emphasis on the selling of the Iran deal. If you haven’t read it already, you really ought to. It’s as elegantly brutal, nasty and underhanded as you’ve heard – and, precisely for that reason, a superb piece of writing.

Because the Times is getting bludgeoned for not disclosing Samuels’s public opposition to the nuclear deal, nor his longstanding feud with Jeffrey Goldberg, either or both of which might have been relevant to understanding where the piece was coming from, I should begin with a disclosure of my own: David Samuels is a friend, someone I know socially apart from the journalistic world. So I may have brought a somewhat different perspective to the piece than did those who didn’t know Samuels at all, or who knew him solely from his published work.

The first thing that struck me about the piece is that Rhodes and Samuels have an awful lot in common. They are both New Yorkers, both Jewish (half-Jewish in Rhodes’s case), and – crucially – both people who think of themselves as serious writers. Rhodes abandoned plans to become a novelist after 9-11, shifting his focus to international affairs, and gets praised repeatedly by previous bosses for being able to observe and express the narrative of a policy argument; Samuels, meanwhile, is a journalist who is widely praised for his novelistic approach to detail and the acuity and depth of his profiles, and who writes at least as much about cultural phenomena as about international affairs. It is not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which David Samuels got a job working for the CIA after 9-11, or where Ben Rhodes became a notable member of the anti-Iraq-War press (though he’d probably be more like Spencer Ackerman than like Samuels).

Most important, although Samuels plainly wrote the piece in part to eviscerate the narrative of the Iran nuclear deal’s success, Samuels and Rhodes have more compatible worldviews than might first appear. Specifically, they share a contempt for the foreign policy establishment, a group Rhodes refers to as “The Blob.” Samuels opposed the Iraq War in part because he had no faith in the neoconservative plan to remake the Middle East, and in part because he was capable of thinking a couple of moves ahead on the chess board – for example, to wonder what would happen when we removed Iran’s strongest regional competitor. It cannot have failed to make an impression on Samuels that virtually the entire foreign policy establishment was relatively easily swayed to go along with that foolish project. So when he artfully skewers Rhodes with his own words about manipulating the press to push a narrative, it’s Samuels, even more than Rhodes, who shows deep contempt for his journalistic colleagues, and Iraq is in the background of why.

Samuels prizes giving reality a cold, hard look, and then accepting what you see. He prizes that in himself, and in others. This isn’t a partisan thing; he was as scathing about what he saw as Condoleezza Rice’s illusions as he is about what he sees as Obama’s. When Rhodes – or his boss – seem like they are doing serious realpolitik, he has respect for that. When, at the end of the piece, he baits Rhodes about Henry Kissinger, it’s not because he wants Rhodes to recoil from what he is doing, or what he has become. It’s because he wants him to face the responsibilities of power.

That’s what Samuels is not convinced the Obama team were doing when they made a deal with Iran. On the surface, the piece is about how they sold the deal with deceptive happy talk about reform and change in Iran and so forth – a claim that, frankly, isn’t especially damning and whose most damning particulars have been widely debunked. (Fred Kaplan links to many of the best debunking and makes his own contributions to boot.) But underneath the surface, it’s about whether the Obama Administration ever truly reckoned with the potential consequences of an American withdrawal from the Middle East, or whether they allowed themselves to escape that reckoning by saying, in effect, that whatever happens isn’t their fault because the place was irretrievably wrecked by their predecessors.

I want to bracket the question of whether Samuels is right about those consequences, as well as about whether the Obama Administration is really facilitating such a withdrawal (Yemen, anyone?), because that would require a lot more space and would take us off on a considerable tangent. But I think his perspective is something like this. American hegemony, the belief that America is willing to spend considerable blood and treasure to prevent any meaningful changes in the balance of power in the Middle East (and Iran going nuclear would certainly be a meaningful change), is all that has prevented an all-out struggle for supremacy between Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As soon as that commitment comes into question, all bets are off. Iran might go nuclear – or Saudi Arabia might out of fear of Iran. Turkey might make a bid to replace Saudi Arabia as the dominant Sunni power – or Egypt might. Then there’s the risk of an Islamist takeover of any number of regimes in the region, as an American withdrawal prompts a shift in focus to the near enemy, or a turn toward Islamism by one or more regimes in an effort to forestall that outcome. Syria’s Civil War is the Spanish Civil War of the Middle East, the proxy war between the region’s powers that prefigures a much more devastating conflict to come. And we don’t seem to have any idea what we even want to do about it.

One ready response to make to that picture is: yes, but what can we do about it. That’s pretty much exactly what Ben Rhodes says to him. And Samuels’s main retort to this response is: dude, I don’t work for the National Security Council. You do. Own the job. There’s nobody out there to pass the buck to.

That’s what the piece is about.

One last point. There’s been a lot of chatter about how foolish Ben Rhodes was to walk into Samuels’s trap, and how bad he made his boss look. But his boss is on his way out. The person who has something on the line isn’t Obama – it’s Hillary Clinton. It comes as no surprise that her people – like Leon Panetta – proved more than eager to talk to Samuels, more than eager to backpedal on previous support for Obama’s Iran strategy, and barely willing to defend the President by blaming his aides for keeping information from him. By the same token, it’s not terribly surprising to hear Rhodes classify Hillary Clinton as part of “the Blob” that he blames for the catastrophic state of the Middle East.

But we should be surprised. It’s kind of amazing that the President is prepared to let his own former Secretary of State hang out to dry, letting her take the fall for the Libyan debacle and generally impugning her performance in her most significant previous office. Yes, he’s right in a sense, inasmuch as Clinton was the prime proponent of going to war in Libya, not to mention the fiercest advocate of using force to topple President Assad in Syria. But on a purely political level, Obama is clearly trying to protect his own legacy at the expense of his potential successor. And it’s even more amazing that Clinton is this willing to disparage a sitting President of her own party who is far more popular than she is, and in the service of a foreign policy agenda that is not only deeply unpopular but which has no demonstrated record of success, and is implicated with her own worst failures in office.

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The Pessimist’s Case Against – and For – Donald Trump

Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

I want to endorse the bulk of this Ross Douthat blog post about how even people who hate the status quo need to recognize how Donald Trump could make things much worse:

I would invite the Trump-curious to think about the two signal crises of the Bush years, 9/11 and the financial crisis, and imagine each one with Donald Trump installed as president of the United States.

In the first instance, you can imagine a better outcome than the one we had: Perhaps Trump’s (alleged) skepticism about the Iraq War and zeal for “winning” would have manifested itself in a more restrained and tightly-focused post-9/11 response, perhaps we would have caught or killed Bin Laden sooner and brought our troops home in a victory parade, perhaps phrases like “Abu Ghraib” and “waterboarding” would have never entered our national lexicon.

But remembering the post-9/11 atmosphere (and, indeed, my own psychic state at the time), it also seems very easy to imagine a response that was much, much worse — more reckless, more bloodthirsty, more extra-constitutional, and ultimately more disastrous for our military, the innocent, the world.

Recall, especially, that for all the talk at the time and after about Bush’s fascism, etc., the Bush administration spent a lot of time trying to tamp down backlash at home (mosque visits, yes; internment camps, no) and working within institutional frameworks that imposed some limits on its actions. Both of its wars (unlike our Obama-era adventures) were debated and approved by Congress, a great deal of time was spent trying to work through the United Nations, the invasion of Iraq was a coalition effort even if it was only of the “willing,” High Cheneyism was pressed by one faction of the executive branch but resisted by others, and so on.

None of this prevented the war from being a mistake and then a debacle, and if you’re preparing an indictment of the American governing class the fact that so many centrists and reasonable liberals went along with the Bush administration’s case for war can be invoked in a case for disruption, a case for #TrumpNow. (As can the fact that many #NeverTrump voices on the right seem not to have reckoned fully with what Bushism wrought.)

But it’s also pretty easy, especially given some of the precedents created by President Obama’s foreign forays and drone wars, to imagine how a future American president might respond to a 9/11-style attack by ignoring institutional restraints entirely, and simply lashing out with blood and fire. Especially if that American president had, I dunno, explicitly campaigned on promises to “kill them and take the oil,” to murder terrorist families, to disfavor and discriminate against Muslims as a class during a time of terror, etc. Which is why, in the end, a rigorous case for Trump needs to be very comfortable with that possibility (as some of his supporters are!), comfortable with fire and blood as an alternative to George W. Bush’s far-too-timid crawl to war and overlawyered “enhanced interrogations,” rather than assuming because Bush’s foreign policy went bad a far higher degree of recklessness and folly isn’t possible.

Then regarding the financial crisis — well, there my take is a lot shorter. No doubt the Bush administration (and the Clinton administration before it) made mistakes that made the crisis worse when it came; no doubt the Washington-New York response was imperfect and created all kinds of problems down the road. But to believe that the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse couldn’t have been much bleaker with a more feckless and volatile president at the helm and a more hackish cast around him, that the Bush administration’s response was the worst of all possible options rather than among the least-bad, requires ignoring a lot of very dark economic history that we were lucky not to actually revisit. There is some chance that America and the world would have been better off had Donald Trump been president on 9/11 rather than Bush. But the chances that we would have been better off in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (and into the present) drop very low indeed.

I’ll leave off there, while noting that I’ve made an earlier version of this argument that touches on the immigration issue as well. Again, we’ll have plenty of time to wrestle with these questions over the next six months. But in the pessimist community generally, and the world of dissident, anti-Bush conservatives especially, this strikes me as the core problem that need to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to make a strong case for supporting Donald Trump for the sake of #disrupting our decadent elite. It’s not enough to note that things are bad now, that our bipartisan leaders — and especially the Republican Party’s leaders — have often marched with folly. You need to address head-on the ways in which a President Trump seems like a man whose instincts, inclinations and explicit promises could make that march of folly ever so much swifter, ever so much worse.

I agree with all of this. One of Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters on the right is Ann Coulter, and we all remember how she responded to the attacks on 9-11. If I were betting how a President Trump would have responded, I would guess something like that – or, alternatively, that he would have responded with that kind of rhetorical bluster while doing nothing productive to respond to the attacks. Similarly, with Trump nattering on about repudiating the national debt when there is no crisis at present, and no plausible crisis in response to which repudiating our debt would bring anything but national catastrophe, I feel highly confident that a President Trump’s response to the financial crisis would either have precipitated a deep and lasting depression, or that at best it would have looked at least as crony-capitalist as the bailouts we got.

But I here’s the thing: I feel fairly confident that much of the current leadership of the GOP would also do worse than Bush on these same tests. Marco Rubio, whom Douthat boosted throughout the primaries, inspires in me absolutely no confidence on either score. Neither does Ted Cruz, Trump’s most successful primary competition. Neither represents as radical a gamble with our nation’s governance as Trump would, but both did represent an increasing radicalism since the Bush years, and in some of the same directions.

Now, I’m not much for Leninist “the worser, the better” type of thinking. I wanted the GOP to have a real debate about its priorities and principles, to move in some degree to repudiate the party’s turn toward radicalism, and to nominate somebody who looked like a plausibly responsible steward of the Republic. But it was clear from very early on that this wasn’t going to happen – that, in fact, the party was determined to have even less of an open debate about the party’s future than they had in 2008 or 2012. Take a look at the depressing evolution of Rand Paul as he prepared to seek the Presidency if you doubt that.

Enter Donald Trump (whom Rand Paul is now supporting, by the way). He’s manifestly unqualified to be President. But precisely because answering the question, “Why Not Trump?” was a painful exercise that exposed the deep flaws and weaknesses of both the establishment and its hard-right institutional opposition, he was uniquely qualified to destroy the GOP in the process of running for President, either by bolting the party in pique to run a third party campaign, or by winning the nomination and leading a decapitated party to a huge, historic defeat.

If you still basically believe in some version of what the GOP has stood for since the mid-1990s, then Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster. And if you are mostly looking for a responsible hand on the tiller, then Hillary Clinton is clearly your candidate, even if you disagree with her on a host of issues – clearly superior to Trump, but also clearly superior to the most plausible Trump alternatives whom the GOP might have offered up. But if you are “Trump-curious” because you want the GOP to repudiate its post-Reagan identity not in favor of moderation but in favor of a new, more populist/nationalist direction, then you can hope that Donald Trump will be something like Barry Goldwater: the right man to lose with. (Doubly so given the close correspondence between Hillary Clinton and Lyndon Johnson.)

Of course, Barry Goldwater was a mensch. Donald Trump, not so much. Barry Goldwater was a man of ideas. Donald Trump, not so much. Barry Goldwater was the head of an organized and disciplined political faction. Donald Trump, not so much. It’s very plausible that those most interested in the ways that Trump promises to break with the historic GOP will be the most disappointed of all by what he leaves behind, whether he wins or not.

These are all reasons to maintain a healthy critical distance from the Trump phenomenon. But even those who fear that Trump will leave nothing but destruction in his wake, and who hope that the destruction stops with the GOP and does not extend to the country as a whole, may yet have to concede, as they contemplate the wreckage: the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

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Can the GOP Civilize Trump the Barbarian?

Conan

My latest column at The Week begins thusly:

With his last two opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, out of the race, Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee for president of the Republican Party. As Kublai Khan conquered the ancient Song Empire of China to become its first barbarian emperor, Trump swooped down and conquered the once-mighty party of Lincoln. Now that party has to figure out how to respond.

For the people who make their living crafting policy papers and political strategy, Trump’s ascendancy presents both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, because he comes into the position of nominee with a much thinner infrastructure than is typical, Trump has a huge number of slots to fill — including at the highest level. Plus, Trump has shown a distinct preference, both in his brief political careerin his business career, and even in his personal life, for people with non-traditional qualifications (or few qualifications at all), and a willingness to promote quickly to very senior positions.

The opportunity is there, in other words, for bold and aggressive staffers to leapfrog over more typical choices for a host of quite senior positions. Notwithstanding the risk that, if Trump loses badly, eagerness to have welcomed our new insect overlords proves a permanent career liability, we’re probably about to see a version of “Political Apprentice” play out on a massive scale.

For the conservative movement, meanwhile, Trump poses a bleak choice. They can attempt to negotiate from a position of weakness — demanding a vice president who they consider politically reliable, for example — and risk finding themselves humiliated as Trump ignores them and does whatever he wants. They can protest by mounting a third party challenge, give Clinton an electoral landslide, and render themselves permanently radioactive in the eyes of both Trump’s own loyalists and the bulk of the party political leadership. Or they can focus their attention elsewhere — on Congress, for example — and live with the dread that, if Trump wins without any help from them, they will have neutered themselves permanently in the eyes of the party as a whole.

We’re already seeing some version of each of these responses, what with Paul Ryan demanding that Trump convert to Reaganism before receiving the Imperial purple and Trump haughtily waving Ted Cruz’s severed head in his face, while in the background Rick Perry and a variety of other former Trump opponents scramble to offer their support.

The thing about barbarian conquerors, though, is that they need the help of the conquered to run their empires. And this gives the conquered people power – the power to keep things the way they are.

[T]he GOP can still try to convince itself — with some evidence — that Trump will prove exceedingly malleable policy-wise. After all, he doesn’t think about policy much, and surely believes that his voters aren’t primarily motivated by issues but by his own personal awesomeness. And on many issues Trump is far less-heterodox than his rhetoric suggests. Consider Trump’s tax plan, or his health care plan. Trump’s efforts look like more amateurish and exaggerated versions of precisely the sorts of “plans” that GOP candidates have been proposing for the past several cycles. They involve enormous tax cuts for the top income brackets and corporations, and ripping up ObamaCare to replace it with nothing.

Trump has been emphatic enough about physically building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that it would be difficult for him not to break ground somewhere, but apart from that particular promise it isn’t hard to see how he could be induced to jettison most of his heterodoxy during the transition, if not during the campaign. And to the extent that he doesn’t, well, most policy is made by staffers anyway. Staffers who are going to mostly be the sorts of people who are in Reince Priebus’s contacts rather than in Trump’s.

Once he was emperor, Kublai Khan famously decreed the building of a stately pleasure dome at Xanadu — just the sort of thing one can imagine Donald Trump doing. But to govern China, he relied on Han Chinese advisors, and ran his empire according to traditional Chinese models. Trump the barbarian may wind up being “civilized” by his conquest in much the same manner.

I suspect Sheldon Adelson sees things pretty much this way.

It would be sadly ironic if a President Trump wound up coarsening American public life, trashing the Constitution, and inflaming intercommunal tensions, all for the sake of pretty much the same basket of failed policies that the GOP have enacted whenever they get into power. But it’s not at all a farfetched outcome. Remember: Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency largely on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War and other “dumb wars.” And then in office he gave us the Libyan adventure.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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The Upcoming Battle For Upscale Whites

General Election

How did I not know about this before now?

How the Swing-O-Matic works: We started with the results of the 2012 election and the support for each party’s candidate by the five demographic groups. We then adjusted the size of those groups based on four years of population change. When you adjust the vote and turnout above, our model recalculates the results for each state — as well as the Electoral College outcome and the national popular vote — taking into account how much of the state’s electorate the group accounts for.

The toggles control assumptions about voting behavior for five different demographic groups: College-educated White, Non-college-educated White, Black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American/Other. You control two factors for each group: turnout and partisan breakdown. Set your assumptions for each group, and voila: a prediction for the 2016 Presidential election.

For my chart above, I made the following assumptions about how voting behavior will change:

  • College-educated white voters shift significantly towards the Democrats, going from 56% Republican-leaning in 2012 to 55% Democratic-leaning in 2016. But turnout in this group also drops significantly, from 77% to 70%. Basically, I’m assuming upscale Republican moderates will partly swing toward Clinton while upscale conservative Republicans will to some degree stay home.
  • Non-college educated white voters shift the other way, going from 62% Republican-leaning to 70% Republican-leaning. And their turnout also goes up, from 57% to 65%. This is the Trump bump, bringing out infrequent voters from this demographic segment, and also swaying more regular voters further in a Republican direction.
  • Black voters shift very slightly towards Clinton (their Democratic percentage really can’t go much higher), from 93% to 95%. But their turnout drops from 66% to 60%. This reflects the fact the toxicity of Trump’s campaign on the one hand, but the fading of the Obama effect (particularly among younger voters) on the other hand.
  • Hispanic/Latino voters shift toward the Democrats, going from 71% to 75%, and see a bump in turnout as well, from 48% to 55%. And Asian-American and Other voters do the same, going from 67% Democratic-leaning to 75%, and from 49% turnout to 55%. This reflects a strongly negative reaction to Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

The result is a clear victory for Clinton in both the popular vote and the electoral college.

The magnitudes are obviously made up, but I do suspect I’ve got the direction right in terms of turnout and partisan tilt. Trump will bring out more downscale white voters. The question is how many. Some GOP-leaning upscale whites will either vote Clinton or stay home in disgust at the choice presented. The question is how many. Black turnout will probably go down without Obama on the ballot. The question is how much. Hispanic and Asian-American turnout will probably go up because of Trump’s anti-immigrant posturing. The question is how much.

Assuming I’m right about all of that, I decided to make a map of a popular-vote tie (Trump wins with 273 electoral votes) with the following premises:

  • Non-college-educated whites shift toward Trump as in the previous scenario: 70% for the GOP (versus 62% in 2012) and 65% turnout (versus 57% in 2012).
  • Black voter turnout drops to 60% as in the previous scenario (from 66% in 2012).
  • Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American turnout rises by 2%, and shifts 3% towards the Republicans Democrats.
  • Turnout for college-educated whites drops to 70% (from 77% in 2012), but only shifts 2% towards the Democrats, ending at 53% Republican.

Here’s the map:

General Election2

In this scenario, Florida, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are all on a knife-edge, with Iowa and Ohio not far behind.

Obviously, these are oversimplified models – but they aren’t meaningless. My primary take-home is this:

If Donald Trump can make significant gains among working-class whites, that ground will be hard for Democrats to recover merely by winning more black, Hispanic and Asian-American votes (though they will absolutely seek to expand in those demographics as well). So the Democratic strategy will perforce be focused on a combination of winning over more upscale whites and limiting Trump’s appeal to downscale whites.

The challenge will be doing both of those things at once.

The good news for Team Clinton is: they start out far enough ahead that they don’t have to do that good a job of either in order to win.

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Now, Who Could It Be? Could It Be … Satan?

carvey.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

John Boehner probably isn’t the first person to compare Ted Cruz to the Prince of Darkness, but I’m more inclined to agree with the Satanic Temple that the hoof doesn’t quite fit. I’m more inclined to go with this comparison.

Meanwhile, do you realize who, by calling Cruz the rebel angel, Boehner is implicitly comparing himself – and the other targets of Cruz’s rebellion – to?

Milton’s Lucifer is indeed a rather miserable son of a bitch. Much of what makes him so compelling a figure is how effectively he converts his own misery — his terrible fall from grace and his painful knowledge that for God this act of banishment was almost an afterthought — into purpose, and power.

And that sounds a lot like Cruz. For essentially his entire life, he’s been actively disliked by most people, and yet he has turned virtually every setback into a launching pad for further advancement. Consider the way he has conducted himself as a senator, eagerly tearing down both his party and the Senate itself for the sake of private ambitions that seemed comically implausible. There’s clearly something of Lucifer’s spirit to that. And the spectacle of Cruz choosing his running mate immediately after it became apparent that he had almost no chance of becoming the nominee recalled Lucifer’s petulant declaration that he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven (even though reigning in hell is as worthless a title as being Ted Cruz’s vice presidential pick).

The target of Cruz’s rebellion, though, simply doesn’t measure up to the majesty or consequence of Lucifer’s. John Boehner isn’t God. Neither is Mitch McConnell, nor Reince Priebus, nor Paul Ryan, nor the so-easily-overthrown Jeb Bush, nor any other luminary of the GOP. The comedy of Cruz’s rebellion is all too human.

On the other hand, if we want to find the personification of arrogant assertion without any restraint in this contest, we surely need look no further than presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps the root of the dread that sincerely Christian commentators like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat have about a likely Trump nomination is that Trump entirely lacks even the modicum of humility that graces even the most ambitious and vainglorious of American politicians. And what should give us pause is that it appears that what those Americans who admire Trump admire most about him is precisely that lack.

All of which is by way of saying: I’ve got a piece in Foreign Policy asking which candidate most deserves the title of Satanic Majesty, with references to Milton and the Bible.

Just doing my part simultaneously to raise and lower the tone of this campaign.

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How Conservatives Can Defeat Donald Trump

Andrew Sullivan is back, with a long piece in New York Magazine about how Donald Trump’s campaign is evidence of the decadence of our democracy and a harbinger of its possible end. I’m glad to see he’s his usual level-headed, temperate self. He concludes as follows:

[T]hose Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

More to the point, those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.

And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Regardless of whether Sullivan is right about the threat Trump poses to democracy (and I think he does pose a real risk, though as I’ve said before I think he’s more Berlusconi than Mussolini), this is not well thought out, because it doesn’t consider how the voters are likely to react to attempts to frustrate their exercise of the franchise. The evidence by this point should be overwhelming that the use of procedural tricks is backfiring, and strengthening Trump. Ted Cruz manages to snag all the delegates out of Colorado without an election, and Trump runs in New York and Pennsylvania on a platform of “the system is rigged against me” – and wins overwhelming landslide victories. Cruz and John Kasich form an anti-Trump pact and Trump’s numbers go up; it turns out Kasich voters actually liked their candidate as opposed to merely being “anti-Trump” voters – and that a clear majority of voters strongly disapprove of the pact. What makes Sullivan think that further shenanigans won’t strengthen Trump further?

I’ll make a prediction right here. If Trump is denied the nomination in 2016 because of procedural tricks – the latest trial balloon is denying delegates’ credentials – he’ll be elected President in 2020, either as a Republican or under the banner of a new party that replaces the Republicans. It’ll be 1828 all over again.

So how can Trump be stopped?

Well, it’s possible he can be stopped passively. Republicans could campaign in a lackluster fashion and let demographics do the work for Hillary Clinton. Then come back after Trump’s landslide loss and pick up the pieces. That is almost certainly what the institutional Republican Party is planning: to lose by not trying very hard.

There are just a few wee problems with this plan. First, if the Republican campaign is lackluster generally, then officeholders up and down the ballot will see their jobs at risk. That means that their interests will not be aligned with the interests of the leaders of the national party – and I’d guess they’ll follow their own interests when they see the conflict. Second, if the GOP campaigns in a lackluster fashion, that’ll give Clinton a freer hand, which, in turn will be obvious to GOP voters, who may get angry. And when they get angry, they may vote for Trump. And finally, isn’t this exactly how they planned to defeat Trump in the primary? How’d that work out for them?

If Sullivan is right, and Trump is an “extinction level event” for our republic, then sterner measures are called for. But if procedural tricks will backfire, what else can be done?

Fortunately, democracy itself provides two perfectly respectable and effective ways to defeat Donald Trump. But they both involve destroying the Republican Party.

The first option is for a rump conservative faction to bolt the party and run independently. They can make a very straightforward argument that Trump is in no sense a conservative: not only does he violate movement conservative shibboleths all over the place, but he has patently zero respect for the Constitution. He’ll be no better than Clinton on some issues, and worse on others, and besides he’s a personal disgrace. So vote your conscience, and vote for – I dunno, Cruz/Fiorina.

This would unquestionably elect Hillary Clinton as the next President. But the argument to conservatives would be that this is far less-bad than electing Trump. And they’d tell a happy story about how, in 2020, they could take back the party, run a real conservative, and win. Instead of dreading 1828, they’d be looking forward to 1920.

Unfortunately, that story will be a lie. Instead, after such a defection we’d see outright civil war, as both Trump die-hards and establishment Republicans see conservatives as having crossed an unforgivable rubicon. Letting them back in would be admitting that movement conservatives have an outright veto over every major party decision. Not to mention that Trump’s partisans would have been given a clear mandate to play exactly the same game in 2020, threatening to bolt if their guy doesn’t get the nod again, and a fair shot at a re-match. Instead of ceding one election to recover and return stronger, Republicans might permanently tear their party in two, and give the Democrats control of the Presidency for a generation.

The second option would be for notable Republicans to flat out support Hillary Clinton. Either leave the Republican Party or form “Republicans for Hillary” and stuff it with an ideological cross-section of party members. The group couldn’t just say “we can’t stand Trump” though – as the primaries should have amply demonstrated, you can’t beat something with nothing. It would have to say, “Hillary Clinton won’t be so bad.” Get a bunch of manufacturers to say that she understands the economy, and while they’d rather see a real Republican in charge, they prefer Clinton to Trump. Get a bunch of retired military brass to say that Clinton has a clear understanding of American interests and capabilities and a good relationship with the services, and that she’d make a perfectly acceptable Commander in Chief under whom they’d be proud to serve. Whereas Trump . . . Make the case that, while Clinton isn’t ideal, she’d certainly be an adequate President – hardly disastrous. She’d muddle through, and the country would muddle through, and that’s good enough.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it trashes the entirety of GOP messaging. The conventions of American partisanship in this day and age require outright apocalypticism about the opposing party. The Democrats can’t just be wrongheaded about this or that – they have to be outright aiming to destroy the United States of America. “Republicans for Hillary” would have to abandon a generation worth of demonization in an heartbeat.

Would many Republicans follow them? It’d be a test, in a way of just how Orwellian the party has become – how many would reliably declare that we have always been at war with Eurasia once their leaders told them it was so? Based on Trump’s performance in the primary so far, I’d say “not many.” But it wouldn’t have to be that many. There’s a big part of the country that is plainly really angry and ready to elect somebody manifestly unsuited to the office in order to express that anger. But it’s not a majority. In a baseline 50-50 nation, even the #NeverTrump contingent could swing an election.

The trouble comes later, when they try to go home again. Because in abandoning the party, they will have ceded it outright to Donald Trump. And they’ll have no obvious mechanism for winning it back, particularly not after a betrayal of that magnitude.

Which is why the leadership of the GOP is reconciling itself to Trump. They know that his victory means either vassalage or exile, and that’s not a very palatable choice. So they are either convincing themselves that he is not an “extinction-level event” or that, notwithstanding the impending end of the world, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

And right there in a nutshell is the problem with elites that Trump has been riding to victory.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Contradictions Should Sound Familiar

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The last word that Donald Trump would use to describe himself is “humble.” But if you look past that word, there’s a lot of continuity between the foreign policy that Trump outlined in his speech at the Center for the National Interest, and the foreign policy that George W. Bush claimed to advocate when he was running for President.

In that campaign, Bush called for a reduction in “over deployment” of American troops overseas, specifically criticizing mission-creep in Somalia, the extended involvement of American troops in the Balkans, the intervention in Haiti, and “nation-building” in general. But he also called for strong American leadership and robust support for our allies. He claimed that America should only use force as a last resort, but that when we use it we should make sure we use it overwhelmingly and achieve a decisive victory. He said we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, and shouldn’t presume to tell other countries how to run their affairs, as though our way were the only way to do things, but that nonetheless we should always infuse our foreign policy with our values. Bush even called for a more constructive relationship with Russia while also calling for stepped-up investment in missile defense for Europe.

The language was different in certain crucial ways – Bush never said we should “put America first” for example – but many of the same contradictions that bedevil Trump’s outline of how our foreign policy should change were already in place, because they are deeply rooted in contradictory desires on the part of the electorate, and even more so in policymaking circles.

Of course, there are some substantive differences, particularly in the way Trump talks about trade and its relationship to foreign policy generally. Getting a better financial deal for America is clearly a Trump priority, both in the terms of trade agreements and the terms of our alliances. What this would actually mean in practice under a hypothetical Trump administration is very unclear. Would Trump actually kick Germany out of NATO if it didn’t spend at least 2% of its budget on defense? Would he actually impose 45% tariffs on Chinese goods if his trade demands weren’t met? (Is either something the President can even do unilaterally?) What does “walking away from the table” mean, exactly, in the context of an attempt to renegotiate our commitments overseas?

But at a minimum, it will surely mean that Trump would prioritize the terms of trade in certain ways over other priorities in international relations – for example, getting China to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. If he doesn’t mean that, then he doesn’t mean anything at all. Which is, admittedly, possible.

Apart from that, though, what I heard from Trump’s speech is mostly the usual hodgepodge of wishful thinking that we get from most candidates – we’ll get more of what we want and it will cost us less – but with much less rhetorical emphasis on American leadership and much more rhetorical emphasis on American strength. I expect we’ll see more of this as the Trump campaign continues. The rhetorical tropes will be different than we’re used to, sometimes in striking ways. The actual substance will be – for the most part – depressingly familiar.

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Baseless Speculation of the Day: a Cruz-Fiorina Third Party Bid

I have no reason to believe this is true, but I wrote it anyway. Because it was fun.

[N]ominally, you’re projecting that only you [Ted Cruz] can save the party from a terrible mistake, because Trump is unelectable. But you know that if the convention were willing to overlook the clear plurality winner, and electability were the primary criterion for their choice, there’s no way the delegates would turn to you. So you’re also making the argument that Trump is not a “real conservative” — as, indeed, he isn’t by the standards that prevail among those who cherish the definitions of such contested terms. But if I recall correctly, in your view much of the party’s leadership fails that test as well. So why would you be laboring to throw open the election to the delegates, a cross-section of the people who form the sinews of the GOP, to decide of their own free will who the nominee should be?

You’re not Bernie Sanders, soldiering on without hope of victory with the aim of influencing the party platform and forcing the nominee to take your demands into consideration. If that were your object, you wouldn’t be playing these silly games, making pacts and announcing running mates. You’d just be trying to win as many delegates as you can on a principled basis — and you’d be angling for a VP slot yourself, not naming one of your own.

Moreover, if you were still trying to woo enough delegates to win outright, why would you announce your VP choice now? At the convention, that very choice could be the prize that nets you precious delegates from the Marco Rubio or Kasich corner, as well as their admirers among the uncommitted.

So what are you up to?

Well, if Trump is really unacceptable to true conservatives, then presumably true conservatives shouldn’t vote for him, even at the risk of electing Hillary Clinton. And if Trump is really an unprecedentedly dangerous person to elect president — because of his temperament, his blithe ignorance, or his manifest insincerity — then nobody should vote for him, regardless of their ideology.

And if either or both of those things are true, then neither should you. Or your supporters.

The Cruz campaign set out to redeem the Republican Party from its pusillanimous  pessimists and appeasers, the very people who are now prepared to pussyfoot with Trump in the hopes of achieving some semblance of party unity. But what if they can’t achieve unity that way at all — because if they try, you’ll free Cruz-Fiorina 2016 from the party?

Of course, such an independent campaign would be extremely unlikely to achieve victory. It wouldn’t even be on the ballot in most states — and if it got any meaningful number of votes, they’d come almost entirely out of Trump’s hide. Hillary Clinton would win in a crushing landslide, sweeping not only the blue and purple states but potentially taking states like Texas and Georgia, where there are enough Democrats to win a three-way race, or even Utah, where Trump is deeply unpopular.

But instead of staying home and sulking, all your voters (and the handful of #NeverTrump voters) would at least turn out to vote — and they’d presumably vote for the GOP candidates for the House and Senate. Republican representatives and senators would feel freer than they otherwise might to proclaim their independence from Trump if he proved toxic in their district, and independents otherwise inclined to punish the GOP would see Clinton’s inevitability as a reason to keep her in check by voting for the GOP for Congress.

You could almost call bolting the party a loyal thing to do, under the circumstances.

Or, if you prefer to see it as a threat, well, there’s one way the delegates at the convention could prevent it from coming to pass.

Enjoy.

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How Over Is The GOP Primary Race?

Stephen Coburn/Shutterstock

This over: Trump could lose 8 of the next 10 contests, winning only New Jersey and West Virginia, and still be about 300 delegates ahead of Cruz:

Total

Trump

Cruz

Kasich

Indiana

57

9

48

0

Nebraska

36

0

36

0

West Virginia

34

34

0

0

Oregon

28

10

13

5

Washington

44

15

18

11

South Dakota

29

0

29

0

New Mexico

24

8

11

5

New Jersey

51

51

0

0

Montana

27

0

27

0

California

172

51

94

27

TOTAL

502

178

276

48

Current

954

562

153

Grand Total

1132

838

201

Shortfall

105

399

1034

That’s about as bad as it could plausibly get for Trump, and about as good as it could plausibly get for Cruz. Carly Fiorina can’t change that math except at the bare margins. (Though, as I recall from her tenure at HP, math was never her strong suit.)

Meanwhile, Cruz just gave away a bargaining chip that might have been useful for winning over Rubio’s or Kasich’s delegates, which he will absolutely need in the unlikely event that the convention considers turning to him rather than putting Trump over the top (which would be a whole lot easier).

Cruz is by all reports a very clever strategist. I feel like I’m missing something.

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Not For An Age But For A Moment—And Therefore For All Time

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Passover holiday, and it was only when I was deep into my annual preparations that I was alerted to the fact that Saturday April 23rd would be William Shakespeare’s 400th yahrzeit. Which occasion surely deserves to be marked, even if belatedly. I’ll take the occasion of this anniversary of his death to speculate just why it is that Shakespeare didn’t die – why he lives on, seemingly going from strength to strength even as his chosen medium (the theater) has receded from its central place in the culture, as the culture has swung wildly in its own artistic and political enthusiasms, and as the English language itself has evolved far enough from Shakespeare’s own usage that a major North American festival thought it appropriate to translate his plays into contemporary idiom. What accounts for this extraordinary life after Shakespeare’s own death?

As has been noted elsewhere, Shakespeare did little if anything to prepare an afterlife for his works. Partly, this is because at the time plays were not considered serious literature on the level of poetry. But Ben Jonson – Shakespeare’s rough contemporary and sometime rival – famously challenged that view by publishing a folio edition of his work including his plays. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was mulling the same idea before his sudden death, but if he was he showed no signs of it. Does that mean Shakespeare agreed with the contemporary prejudice that plays were not “serious” art?

I suppose that’s possible. One can imagine the author of Titus Andronicus or A Comedy of Errors saying to himself: I’m really quite good at this, but this isn’t meant to last. But it doesn’t take long before you come to works that simply cannot be explained as the product of a hack working for money, not even a naively brilliant hack. Even a relatively weaker early work like the Henry VI trilogy demonstrates a level of ambition impossible to square with being a purely popular entertainer. Henry VI is a sprawling, multi-part saga about a deeply traumatic period in his country’s recent history. Its ambition is to be War and Peace, or at least “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t personally think it reaches that level – but the scale of the ambition is wildly at variance with what you’d expect of someone who saw himself as merely a popular entertainer.

And if Shakespeare’s ambition was obvious at that early point, it only gets more obvious as his career goes on. Shakespeare’s Richard II  and Henry V weren’t just far more complex and sophisticated than the three parts of Henry VI – they were far more dangerous, asking quite probing questions about the foundations of political order. Coriolanus contains speeches so dense scholars are still debating what they actually mean, while plays like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are so fundamentally unsatisfying they get classified as “problem plays” – “problem” not usually being a descriptive that producers want to read in a review.

And then there’s Hamlet, a downright bizarre idea for a drama, when you think about it. In the original story, Amleth pretends to be mad in order to fool his usurping uncle into thinking he’s no threat, all the while plotting revenge for his father’s murder. That’s a straightforward story that would be easy to tell – and easy to sell. Instead, Shakespeare makes a quite deliberate hash of it, removing his hero’s obvious motivation for acting mad (because Claudius, at the start, is trying to win Hamlet over, not get rid of him), and then on top of that having his hero mysteriously unwilling or unable to take revenge when the opportunity is handed to him on a platter. In other words, Shakespeare took a story with clear character motivation, strong dramatic tension and robust forward momentum, and turned it into a story about puzzled wills losing the name of action. And, yes, thereby created one of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization – but there’s no way he could have known that he’d achieve that, and he would have been mad to want to. What we can surmise, though, is that Shakespeare was motivated by some other ambition than merely to entertain, or why make so many choices contrary to the demands of the genre, or even of good story-telling?

Shakespeare was, indeed, a preternaturally brilliant wordsmith, and if that were all he was then yes, one might imagine that he was a kind of savant, someone who just didn’t know that what he was doing was art. But his thematic, characterological and structural innovations were far too profound to be chalked up to naive genius.

The puzzle, then, is how to square Shakespeare’s obvious artistic ambition with the plain fact that he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his ambition would outlive him. It’s my belief that part of the answer is simply that Shakespeare didn’t think that plays were things that sat on shelves, nor that he was an “author” as a playwright in the way that he, himself, was when he wrote the Sonnets or The Rape of Lucrece. Every blues tune, every German fairy tale, had an author of some sort at some point, because only people compose tunes or stories. But we don’t think it’s weird that those authors may be lost, or a sign that those authors didn’t care about their work.

If that supposition is correct, then perhaps Shakespeare thought his art was deeply serious – but also essentially ephemeral, like a sand mandala. That may or may not account for certain qualities of his language – but, unintentionally, that attitude may have had another effect. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the peculiar authorlessness of Shakespeare is part of the reason why his art has proved capable of conquering the world the way it has.

In the Western canon, there are really only two other works that rival Shakespeare’s for influence: Homer and the Bible. Both are works of towering genius, of course, and both were backed by large projects of cultural expansion, just as Shakespeare was. As well, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that they are the two other works around which there is a real mystery regarding authorship. In Homer’s case, the text as we have it was written down centuries after its legendary author had died. Before then, it was passed down orally – and we cannot possibly know, therefore, to what degree it was altered and augmented in transmission (not to mention that the Iliad and Odyssey appear to have been part of a larger poetic cycle). As a consequence not only of our ignorance of the author, but also of the mode of transmission itself, Homer’s work has a mystical quality to it, simultaneously seeming to have been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all, a beauty like Aphrodite born of the sea itself. Read Homer and Virgil side by side, and it is immediately apparent that the Aeneid has an obvious and self-aware author in a way that The Iliad does not.

The Bible, of course, comes packaged with a proclamation of its divine authorship, notwithstanding that it is manifestly a collection of books compiled over time, that many of those books themselves refer to having specific authors, and that even the core text of the Pentateuch, which tradition ascribes to divine authorship, reads much more like a novel about God than anything plausibly written by God. But that core text, again, contains stories that simultaneously manifest the quality of having been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all. Read the saga of Jacob and his sons, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer – but that writer gives none of the signs that he (or she!) is conscious of telling us a story, and wants us to be conscious of it, the way that, say, Ovid is. Again, I suspect this is an artifact in part of the mode of transmission of the text.

The limb I’m going out on is to suggest that something of the same effect is at work with Shakespeare. The very fact that he did not curate his own work – that, instead, it had to be cobbled together from actors’ rolls and the like, and that we have to reckon with Good Quarto and Bad Quarto versions of many of the plays, along with the Folio version – has allowed a multitude of individuals to become co-authors with Shakespeare of his seminal works. And this multitude is layered on top of the fact that many if not most of Shakespeare’s works were adaptations of previous work (only two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – have original plots, and in both cases “plot” is a generous description of the action), that he more than occasionally collaborated with other writers, and that theater is inherently a collaborative and evolving art form, such that we cannot know whether individual actors made contributions to their roles, or whether Shakespeare – or anyone else – ever altered plays in response to their reception by the public. The result is a body of work that is at once highly individual, with a distinct verse style, distinct thematic preoccupations, etc. – but also strangely authorless, uncreated, eternal.

None of this would have availed were it not for Shakespeare’s genius. But Dante was also a genius; Chaucer was also a genius; Goethe was also a genius; Tolstoy was also a genius; Joyce was also a genius. And while their influences are titanic, Shakespeare’s influence really is different in kind. I cannot think of any other work that so belongs to us, the reader, the audience; of which we feel so free to talk about our versions of the work, as opposed to his, the author’s – to the point where this supreme genius of the English language has seen his work become foundational in entirely foreign tongues. The exception, again, being the Bible (and, in the ancient world, I suspect Homer would have been another exception).

For another point of comparison, take another genius, who died the same day as Shakespeare did – Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’ influence was, in some ways, as large as Shakespeare’s. He not only arguably invented the novel (though there are clear precursors in the picaresque), he went right on to invent the metafictional novel immediately after, thereby permanently marking the form with a self-consciousness and reflexivity it has never managed to shake. But that very invention of metafiction was prompted by an identity crisis of copyright infringement. Don Quixote and Sancho were so popular that numerous knock-offs were being written about them by all sorts of people – and their creations were plainly inferior to Cervantes’s original. Given the state of the law at the time, there was nothing to do about this but to respond artistically, and so Cervantes did: Book 2 of his master work is an explicit reaction to those knock-offs, and takes place in a world where Quixote and his squire are well-known, and can no longer have naive adventures because they are everywhere recognized.

The result is an absolutely brilliant and supremely fecund piece of invention, but one which makes it all but impossible to avoid Cervantes’s authorship as a fact to be reckoned with. Resisted, perhaps, and there have been numerous attempts at such resistance, most prominently Kafka’s parable and Borges’s story, but these can be understood as somewhat desperate efforts to liberate Cervantes’s much-beloved characters from his authorial grasp, so that they might more directly and completely belong to us, an accomplishment which Shakespeare’s Hamlet achieves without even a hint of a struggle, because it is not the ever-elusive Shakespeare who labors to confine him, but Denmark, that prison, that nutshell whose bounds cannot confine the horror of his dreams. And we are penned in there right along with him.

Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which – good luck to him with that. Meanwhile, we don’t know why Shakespeare, who was tenacious in other ways to carve out a name that would last beyond his life – carefully and expensively securing a place among the gentry, for example – was so cavalier about the ultimate disposition of his plays. But, in the end, that’s a question primarily of interest to his biographers. From my perspective, we should be thankful rather than frustrated that he was, for perhaps it was this blithe disregard that has made it possible for his work to assume the form, and therefore the status of a kind of secular scripture, and for us to treat it as such, living our lives through his words, his characters, his stories, and so to keep someone we really don’t know at all, alive, four hundred years after his death.

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