Monday, 10 February 2020

Dealing with an Imperial Colossus

I think Donald Trump is going to be re-elected in November. It was a conclusion I reached as I sat on my couch last Monday night, fruitlessly waiting for returns from the Iowa Democratic Caucuses. As I write this more than a week later, we still don't know what the final tally was. The stakes were enormous, and Iowa Democrats managed to screw it up, handing Trump, and all those who suck up to him, a series of talking points to challenge the validity of the entire electoral process-- anyone remember "system is rigged against us"? Expect to hear that a lot this fall.

Iowa was an epic, inexcusable debacle.

The Incumbency Economy

As many others have noted, Iowa was not the only political victory for Donald Trump. The U.S. economy added 225,000 jobs in January. The country's unemployment rate is at a ridiculously low 3.6%. Moreover, Trump's abject ignorance around policy-making, including ill-advised unilateralism on trade, are not having the catastrophic impact on economic growth many predicted. Trump understandably took at victory lap on the economy in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday night.



If he could be disciplined enough to just stick to the economy for the next 10 months, I'd be willing to go to Vegas and bet money on his re-election. Incumbency in the midst of a booming economy is a powerful argument for four more years of the status quo. However, we all know Trump is anything but disciplined and will undoubtedly find ways to make November's election closer that it otherwise would be.

One of the most remarkable things about last week was Trump's State of the Union Address. The Trumps and Clintons will forever be linked in many ways, among them sharing the dubious honour of giving a State of the Union Address in the middle of an Impeachment Trial. Trump's SOTU speech was one of the most disciplined I've ever observed. The tension in the room was so thick you could cut it, but Trump unapologetically stood there, touted his stewardship of the economy, and laid out what will obviously be his closing argument this fall. If he sticks to it, he wins.

However, if he wins, I think we all lose... and lose a lot.

A No Good, Terrible Week for Democrats

I have no confidence that Democrats are going to be able to pick themselves up off the floor after Iowa and mount a solid challenge. Trump's historic unpopularity ought to make defeating him easy. Instead, Democrats are mired in debating each other over who's single-payer healthcare plan requires a more radical transformation of the U.S. economy. Joe Biden, the great hope of Democratic centrists, got pounded in Iowa-- perhaps fatally-- and strikes me as uninterested in the cause ("Sleepy Joe" indeed). I actually like a couple of the candidates (Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock), but none of these ever had a chance. Instead, we have a Democratic field full of contrasts, democratic socialists on one side, two billionaire candidates on the other, Biden and the inexperienced Mayor Pete clinging to the middle, and debates among them all that consistently miss the point of this fall's contest: Defeat Donald Trump!!!!

Then there was the Impeachment Trial... if you can call it that? We've known for a long time that acquittal was died in the wool. The House Managers put on a devastating case against Trump that didn't move a single vote, not even to hear more witnesses. It was the showiest of show trials. Impeachment and removal were intentionally designed to be difficult. To have made them easy would have been to cheapen them by weaponizing what is an inherently political process and standard. That said, last week's charade had a similar outcome by undermining impeachment as a means for removing any president. If what Trump has done in soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections or obstructing Congressional efforts to investigate isn't grounds, then I'm not sure what is?

There was always a risk that by bringing the Impeachment Articles to the Senate, House Democrats would be handing Trump a victory. In the short run, at least, that seems to be exactly how it's played out. As unbelievable as it seems, Trump has managed to cast himself as a victim again. Mueller Report? "Vindication, Total Exoneration." Impeachment? "Total Acquittal." The fact that Trump regularly puts himself in positions where he has to fight for exoneration is telling.

The case against Trump was compelling, and depressing. But we are not in a moment when reason and facts are going to carry the day. I think Democrats assume that Americans are going to tune in, weigh the evidence, listen to facts and policy ideas, and wake up to the fact that Trump isn't actually doing much that serves their interests. Democrats seem to have lost sight of the fact that voters cast ballots on the basis of a lot of emotion. That's never been more true than it is today.

Democrats are mostly bringing knives to a gun fight.

Four More Years of This?

In this past weekend's Globe and Mail, Andrew Coyne had a column that resonated with me for several reasons. His piece argues that Trump supporters are on a slippery moral slope into oblivion that needs to be checked. I completely agree. However, Coyne also describes the nature of a threat Democrats don't seem to be grappling with in its full reality. In part, Coyne writes

Perhaps it was possible, very early on, if you had not been paying much attention, to see him [Trump] as a sort of necessary evil, a shock to the system – uncouth, sure, a bit rough around the edges, but a rock through the window, as it has been put, of official Washington, a signal that people were fed up with politics as usual.
But it is not possible now. It is not possible to look at all that Mr. Trump is and all that he represents – the pathological lying, the habitual corruption, the serial groping, the casual racism, the glorification of violence, the winking to Nazis, the laziness, the impulsiveness, the childish tantrums, the bottomless ignorance, the vanity, the insecurity, the vulnerability (so skilfully exploited by America’s adversaries) to flattery, the bullying, the crudity, the indifference to suffering, the incompetence, the chaos in the White House, the attacks on America’s allies and support for its foes, the contempt for experts and for expertise, for norms and conventions, for checks and balances, for limited government, for the very rule of law – it is not possible to be exposed to all this on a daily basis for four years and shrug it off or explain it away or accept it as part of the deal without there being something wrong with you.
Purged

Indeed, there is something wrong with everyone supporting this president; whether it's the rabidly mindless supporters at his rallies or the growing list of officials willing to kneel before the emperor and kiss the ring. Republicans used to be much smarter. Indeed, for several decades it was conservative academics, think-tanks, and pundits who drove substantive policy debates. All of that is gone. Many of the Never-Trumpers are in political exile, with no party, no influence, nowhere to turn except to hope a Democrat can get it together and defeat this president. 

Several naive Republicans went on the Sunday talk shows and said they thought Trump had "learned his lesson." Bollocks! Trump is already emboldened, showing no signs of contrition, and beginning the purge of his enemies (see Lt. Col. Vindman and Amb. Gordon Sondland). 
Purged

To those who argue the purge of opponents is just about getting people around him who support what he's trying to do, I would advise you to watch your backs. You could easily be next. Indeed, the insidious thing about the slide toward authoritarianism is how slowly and subtly it happens. As institutions are assaulted, fall into the hands of those who exercise arbitrary authority, assault the free press, or systematically marginalize those who stand in the way, surface appearances will remain largely the same. 

There will be no soldiers or tanks in the streets. Buses and planes will continue running. Sewers and roads will get fixed. And each of the corrupted institutions will maintain the appearance of functionality. It will all give cause to the masses to shrug their shoulders and say "hey, this is not so bad." Well, consider the poetic confession of Pastor Martin Niemoller in 1946 after witnessing the horrors of Nazi Germany.

First They Came 

First they came for the Communists 
And I did not speak out 
Future Trump Youth?
Because I was not a Communist 
Then they came for the Socialists 
And I did not speak out 
Because I was not a Socialist 
Then they came for the trade unionists 
And I did not speak out 
Because I was not a trade unionist 
Then they came for the Jews 
And I did not speak out 
Because I was not a Jew 
Then they came for me 
And there was no one left 

To speak out for me. 

The End of American Exceptionalism

Truth be told, I think I am especially depressed about everything that's transpired because it represents a fatal spike in the idea of American Exceptionalism. The whole idea of exceptionalism is controversial because of the many ways in which the concept has been invoked by America's leaders to engage in lots of objectionable actions at home and abroad in the country's 240+ history. I acknowledge that Exceptionalism and depictions of America as a "shining city on a hill" have had enormously negative consequences depending on how they've been invoked.

Is America perfect? Hardly. Was Churchill correct when he allegedly said that "America can always be counted on to do the right thing.... after they've exhausted every other possibility"? There might be merit to this.

I think what is being lost is a particular form of exceptionalism, of the "city on a hill," the deeply liberal, pluralistic, Enlightenment forms of those ideas; Lincoln's "last best hope of earth." The Trump years are undercutting everything connected to the ideals on which the United States was founded, undermining those abroad who also strive for more just, democratic societies, and giving plenty of cover to autocrats around the world.

I hope we'll eventually be able to take some solace from Lincoln who, December 1862, in the midst of a Civil War the Confederacy looked like it could win, closed his address to Congress with some of his most memorable words:

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We - even we here - hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just - a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

--President Lincoln, December 1, 1862

Consequences of The Imperial Colossus

President Trump is already emboldened by his victories over Robert Mueller in the Russia probe and over House Democrats in the Impeachment Trial. Re-election is likely to embolden Trump further. But how? In what ways? How should we prepare for the chaos that is certain to unfold? 

I'm not sure I've got solid answers to all of these questions, partly because Trump is only a symptom of a larger set of circumstances that have been years in the making. Trump didn't invent the populist moment we're in, but he will continue to liberally throwing gasoline on the brushfire. I think a second term for Trump will accelerate disruption in several "buckets" of policy. That disruption will be uneven, perhaps dictated mostly by impulsive whim of the moment. There is a lot to be said for each of these, so I'll keep each short:

1) Continued erosion of postwar institutions and alliances. 
Trump has revelled in attacking or undermining a host of postwar institutions: NATO, United Nations, World Trade Organization, etc. I suspect all of this will accelerate. Voices calling for dramatic change to these institutions have been around for years. But most of those voices were driving toward reform efforts, not their wholesale demolition. Trump is good at taking aim and destroying things. He has no inclination (or intellectual capacity) to put forward ideas for replacement. Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have quipped that all Trump roads lead to Russia. I haven't seen anything suggesting Trump is actively collaborating with autocrats like Vladimir Putin. I think Trump is a sort of "useful idiot" or "unwitting dupe" on most of that. However, undermining America's postwar alliances and many of the institutions America had a hand in creating most clearly advances Russia's foreign policy interests. 

2) Unilateralism and Preferences in Trade
Donald Trump's first term in office demonstrated an obvious preference to do things on his own terms. Again, perhaps the old ways were in need of reform. But Trump's approach to slapping tariffs on things in order to compel trading partners to the negotiating table is hardly a long term strategy for economic success. Moreover, Trump seems to think the entire U.S. economy is driven by trade policy and that tariffs are the silver bullet to a host of problems. Those deals Trump has managed to conclude- USMCA, China Phase I-- are thin gruel deliverables for all of the chaos that has been generated. Moreover, at no point in any of it has Trump signalled a preference for coordination with like-minded nations. Finding a way to team up with Europe in negotiations with China could have produced something more significant than the paltry Phase I deal announced last month to some fanfare. 

3) Discrediting of Domestic Institutions
For a variety of reasons, I think a number of domestic institutions are going to suffer decline and erosion during a second term; everything from the basic rule of law, First Amendment rights like freedom of the press, civil rights, to the environment. So long as the U.S. Senate is in Republican hands and Trump maintains his grip on the Party, the only effective check on presidential power will be the House of Representatives. Given the executive branch's stonewalling on the Impeachment investigations, there's no reason to think the White House won't continue to flout subpoenas or refuse to testify in oversight hearings.

4) Disruption of Staff Level Cooperation and Coherence
The deterioration of the administrative state will continue. This is not really something to be celebrated. Indeed, the majority of Trump's Administration has been serving in an "acting" role for months. Trump seems happy with this, but it is terrible for staff-level decision-making at deeper levels of the bureaucracy. Without political and policy direction from a formally appointed and confirmed official, staff are unsure what to do when confronted with problems. Instead, decision-making grinds to a halt. Moreover, where staff-level officers used to be able to communicate policy positions to their foreign counterparts with ease, there will be an increasing level of uncertainty and inconsistency about those communications. To put it concretely, when someone in Public Safety Canada picks up the phone to talk with their counterpart at DHS about something concerning borders, their DHS counterpart may be in no position to give clear direction. Moreover, policy that has been made by Trump-- for example, the various iterations of the travel ban-- are made out of the White House (Steven Miller, in particular), not through the normal inter-agency process that involves DHS, State, and others. Hence, policy may be handed down from the White House without the requisite input or information flow to on-the-ground staff who need to implement. 

5) The Arbitrary Use of Power, Mechanisms of State Deployed for Political Ends
Finally, I think Trump will continue to break norm after norm of presidential behaviour as he wields state power to undercut his opponents. We are not at the point in well-known dictatorships in which the state is the leader. However, we are closer to that than ever before in American history. Given the failure to check Trump's power through investigation and impeachment, the executive branch will continue to wield unchecked power. How and in what directions that power is wielded remain to be seen, but Trump's propensities to head in that direction are already abundantly clear.

I wish I were in a more optimistic mood about all of this, and I still hope Democrats figure themselves out in time and mount a challenge. Otherwise, it's going to be another bleak and bumpy four years. 





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