Archive for April, 2019

Trump escalates assault on democratic governance and rule of law

April 29, 2019

Recently I wrote about Venezuela’s slide into dictatorship. Such regimes hold elections but exploit their control to effectively deny citizens a voice.

America’s Republicans do this. There’s gerrymandering, of course, both parties do that, but voter suppression is a particularly vicious specialty of Republicans alone. And when Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor, the Republican-controlled legislature passed bills to strip the office of key powers. And in 2018 Florida passed a referendum restoring voting rights to ex-felons — but the Republican governor and legislature say, “Nothing doing.” And the Trump administration is trying to game the census to undercount Latinos, to reduce their voting power.* This travesty seems likely to be upheld by the Supreme Court’s Republican majority. (Time was, I’d bridle at such cynical partisan characterization of the court. Chief Justice Roberts might step back from shredding its cloak of impartiality. But don’t hold your breath.)

In Venezuela, the Maduro regime was so unpopular by 2015 that its vote-rigging wasn’t enough to keep the opposition from winning Congress. Which then tried to hold the regime accountable. What did Maduro do? He quite simply disregarded Congress. That’s right — whatever Congress legislated, the President ignored. (He set up another body, packed with regime toadies, supposedly superseding Congress.) Control of the courts helps Maduro get away with this.

“It can’t happen here?”

It’s happening.

Our democratic constitutional system vests various powers in Congress, to hold the presidency accountable. The House Ways and Means Committee has sent the Treasury Department a demand for Trump’s tax returns. This was done pursuant to an explicit law, it’s legally incontestable. But the White House says the returns will never be handed over. (What is he hiding?) The lawful requisition is being simply ignored. And the Trump organization is suing Congress to keep requested business records hidden too.

The White House is also telling its people to defy subpoenas for them to testify before Congress. This includes former White House Counsel Donald McGahn testifying about Trump’s lies concerning Mueller. And Carl Kline, responsible for the improper security clearances for Jared Kushner and others, that Trump also lied about. And John Gore, a Justice Department official subpoenaed to testify about the lies involved with the mentioned census manipulation.

How does Congress enforce its subpoenas for testimony and documents? By prosecutions for “contempt of Congress.” Which go through the Department of Justice. Controlled by guess who. Meantime Trump may try to assert “executive privilege,” like Nixon did regarding the Watergate tapes. The Supreme Court ruled Nixon had to turn them over. Will it reverse this precedent for Trump? We’ll see.

Remember when Republicans used to posture as Constitution worshipers? They still bang on about the law when it comes to immigration. But Trump feels his regime can — just like in Venezuela — simply ignore Congress and anything it tries to do. Cocking a snook at constitution and law.

And why not? He’s spent his whole life getting away with such shit. The Mueller investigation found he attempted to obstruct justice, yet there are no consequences. Indeed, he’s even braying exoneration. Now he feels he’s Prometheus unbound.

Democratic governance? Checks and balances? Accountability? Rule of law? Those are for chumps.

* At issue is adding a citizenship question to the census. The administration’s pretext is that the Justice Department somehow needs this to enforce the Voting Rights Act. They say this with a straight face — as if they’re not actually eviscerating the Voting Rights Act.

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Biden for President

April 27, 2019

When I saw Joe Biden’s 3-1/2 minute announcement video Thursday morning, as a longtime observer of American politics I was frankly shocked. It was not what I expected; unlike anything seen before.

Please view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbOU2fTg6cI&feature=youtu.be

It is all very well to talk about health care, tax policy, jobs, and other issues. No doubt Biden will in due course. But those kinds of concerns pale in significance when America’s very soul is on the line. Biden’s powerful statement strikes to the heart of what’s at stake in 2020. What I’ve been saying for three years. No other candidate shows such incisive mettle.

It’s customary to call every election “the most important in years.” But this one truly is the most consequential, at least since 1860. I always used to know that whoever won an election, America would be all right. Not so for 2020. We stand at the hinge of history. Biden shows why.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;

Oh, be swift my soul to answer him,

Be jubilant my feet!

Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism

April 25, 2019

“We’ve created a culture based on lies,” David Brooks says, and they’re the roots of our political problems. Hence we need a cultural revolution more than a political one.

Brooks is the best columnist of our time. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking; not stereotypically “conservative.” A pet theme lately is individualism versus communitarianism. Brooks sees them as oppositional and advocates for the latter over the former. Thus his recent column about cultural “lies.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/cultural-revolution-meritocracy.html)

Western societies have indeed entered an age of individualism (“hyper-individualism” Brooks says). That was not an option for most people in most times, given social and economic constraints. Conformism reigned. Those bounds were loosened by Enlightenment humanism — recognizing that what life is really about is for each individual to achieve fulfillment in his or her own best way. And giving many at least conditions of life that free us to pursue that happiness.

I celebrate this. I live it. Blessedly enabled to enjoy a good life according to my own conception — idiosyncratic though it may be.

Is individualism at odds with communitarianism, as Brooks keeps arguing? It can be. He’s right that in some ways individualism can go too far and undermine the social foundation for truly living well. Case in point: an anti-vaxxer, privileging her belief of what’s good for her kid over society’s good. Giving us an epidemic of measles, previously thought eradicated.

But the word that keeps coming to my mind — absent from what Brooks says — is balance. Neither individualism nor communitarianism is wrong. Both are good. We must balance the two. Healthy balance is, indeed, itself key to a good life.

Much of my own seems quintessentially solitary. I’m scribbling this essay lounging alone out on my deck, soaking up sunshine. I love this. Likewise, my involvement with coins, also very solitary. But not solipsistic. Most of what I do would be devoid of meaning for me if not embedded in a world of other people. What confers meaning on my numismatic doings is other people ultimately appreciating the coins. I write to communicate ideas to others.

Such balanced perspective is missing from Brooks’s catalog of alleged cultural lies. Here are his headings: career success is fulfilling; I can make myself happy; life is an individual journey; keep your options open; you have to find your own truth; rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The last is a no-brainer. But none of the others is a lie; rather, they are partial truths. Nuanced by, but not refuted by, what Brooks says about them.

For each he sacralizes the social, with individuation subordinated to it. It reads as though he wants us all to live like bees in a hive. As though the Enlightenment and mass individual empowerment never happened, or were bad things. And we should go back to the conformism imposed by past constraints.

“Find your own truth?” Fine if your name is Aristotle, Brooks dismissively says; we mostly get our values from our societal context. And of course that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Does Brooks seriously suggest thinking for oneself is never good? And “society” is always right? What about all those Germans who swallowed the values of Nazi society?

“Career success is fulfilling?” A lie? Brooks claims his making the best seller list “felt like . . . nothing.” Well — it wouldn’t have, for me, as an author, but maybe he’s a saint without an ego. But such success can admittedly be empty if that’s all there is to your life, with no human connectivity. No one on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” yet most aren’t sorry they ever went. Many of us do get much fulfillment from work, it gives our lives meaning —  in great part precisely because of its larger social context. Utilizing our abilities productively is empowering, but we also feel we earn our pay because the work contributes to some greater good. Isn’t that the very thing Brooks urges on us?

Similar points apply to Brooks’s other “lies.” They’re not lies but partial truths — for each one he ignores something important.

The fact is that social life is integral to human existence. Just like bees evolved for hive life, we evolved for group life. However, there’s a lot more to us than to bees, and while community does fill needs for us, we also have needs as individuals. They’re not incompatible. We can strive to fulfill both.

Russia & Norway & Trump & Mueller & Truth

April 21, 2019

Russia has invaded Norway. That’s the premise of the Netflix series Occupied, recently reviewed here. Now we’ve started Season 2, eight months have passed and the situation is . . . the same. It does worsen, yet basically it feels like watching the same stuff just repeating.

Just like America’s political scene. Stuck in this unending psychodrama, each new episode seeming repetitive. Though it too does worsen. A year and a half to go.

This is what we tuned in for, in November 2016, and we can’t change the channel till November 2020. While our screens are filled with ear-splitting static.

Let’s cut through that and be clear about Mueller’s findings.

First, Russia did engage in a massive state-sponsored attack on our democracy. (We already knew this.) Whether it changed the election’s outcome is impossible to prove, but given its extent and the narrowness of Trump’s win, it’s obvious the Kremlin succeeded in putting its man in the White House.

Republicans — traditionally so anti-Russian — just shrug. And basically nothing is being done. Because Trump sees the whole story as a personal affront, undermining the validity of his “triumph.”

But put Russia aside.

The other story is obstruction of justice. Was Trump exonerated? No. Innocent? No. Was it a case of insufficient evidence? No. About this, Attorney General Barr’s summary and press conference were flagrantly misleading.

Mueller — based on sworn evidence and documented facts — proved that Trump, on numerous occasions, did attempt to obstruct justice. Note that the attempt, even if unsuccessful, is still a serious crime. And Trump was unsuccessful only because his orders were disobeyed.

The past two years saw much discussion of whether Trump would really cross the line and fire Mueller. Now we know he did direct his Counsel, Don McGahn to do just that. McGahn refused. (Trump is infuriated with McGahn for telling the truth.)

That’s just one point. There were others. And in addition to thusly abusing his power, to sabotage the Russia investigation, Trump (and Republicans and Foxers) have waged a two year smear campaign against not only the Mueller probe but the FBI, DOJ, and our intelligence services, as well as the press for reporting what turns out (no surprise) to be the truth, as documented in the report. This assault on the foundations of our democracy and rule-of-law continues, indeed grows even more hysterical as the evidence of Trump’s criminality mounts.

The report also makes clear that Trump’s White House is a cesspool of lies. (We already knew this too.)

Yet in spite of it all, 40% of Americans still support him. A profound sickness of our civic soul.

So why didn’t Mueller have Trump indicted for obstruction of justice? Not because the evidence was insufficient. The only reason, the report explains, was the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. Nothing in the Constitution requires that policy. But it’s the sole reason Trump wasn’t indicted. So Mueller’s report says the responsibility now falls to Congress to fulfill its duty and act upon these crimes in the way the DOJ could not. Thus in effect Mueller recommends impeachment.

Of course, impeachment is politically impossible absent major Republican support. And Republicans are loyal not to America but only to the criminal in the White House (or are totally cowed by him).

Stay tuned for further episodes. As I keep saying: it will get worse.

Venezuela’s tragedy: lessons for America

April 18, 2019

Javier Corrales is the Dwight Morrow professor of political science at Amherst. I recently heard him give a talk about the situation in Venezuela, divided into three parts: what he called “democratic backsliding;” economic collapse; and lessons for America.

Corrales explained that the democratic decline preceded and led to Venezuela’s economic disaster. And he saw reasons for concern that the story could repeat even in well-established democracies like ours.

Corrales started with “Democracy 101.” America, in the 1700s, basically invented the modern concept of liberal democracy. (Not to be confused with the “liberalism” that’s a political orientation of some Americans.) It’s rooted in the Enlightenment, with government accountable to people, and limited, to prevent tyranny by either a minority or a majority. A key means is to divide power among different government branches to check each other, with constraints upon government as a whole to leash its authority.

For a time, after WWII, and especially after the Cold War, liberal democracy was spreading. But then came a “democratic recession” beginning around 2006. Notable cases are Turkey and Hungary, and of course Venezuela. What we see is not the “old fashioned” putsch, but something that more insidiously starts in ambiguity — what Corrales called “executive aggrandizement,” with other centers of power being neutered or co-opted. The picture may ostensibly seem at first more democratic, with a majority thinking they’re getting what they voted for.

Then the regime uses and abuses laws, and creates new ones, to make an uneven political playing field. Elections are still held, but they’re manipulated by a host of measures to produce the desired results. The ruling party becomes a rubber stamp cheering section. The opposition is demonized and delegitimized. Press freedom and public debate are suppressed.

Political scientists use a host of criteria to measure a nation’s degree of democracy. Corrales presented a graphic timeline of Venezuela’s scores. They started low, with a dictatorship until the 1950s, when they jumped to a sustained democratic plateau. Then in 1999 Hugo Chavez (a former would-be putschist) got elected president, and Venezuela’s democratic score fell off a cliff. (Corrales also displayed Cuba’s graph — basically flatlined since the 1959 Castro takeover — and America’s, starting high and rising higher through the period, but with a noticeable drop in the last few years.)

Another set of criteria encompasses all the specific ways in which undemocratic regimes subvert fair elections, and here again a detailed chart was presented for Venezuela. At the start of the Chavez era, voting was still pretty much fair. But then the regime utilized ever more of the measures on the chart, to the point where today, Venezuela’s voting is a cynical charade.

The manipulation became necessary because whereas Chavez was actually popular for a while, the regime’s popularity faded, and nosedived under his successor Maduro. This leads us to the matter of the economic disaster. Venezuela is an oil state; that is, almost all its national earnings are from oil. Chavez was the beneficiary of a big spike in the global oil price, and he used the windfall to buy off political support from the poorer classes. Then the oil price collapsed with the 2008 global financial crisis. As Warren Buffet said, when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.

In Venezuela’s case, the regime’s economic mismanagement became tragically evident, plunging the once-rich nation into poverty, with an inflation rate measured in millions of percent, and a tenth of the 30 million population escaping to other countries. Corrales explained that Chavez not only imprudently spent all the oil windfall (saving nothing), but went deep into debt besides. While some of this profligacy did trickle down to the poor, most was frittered away through corruption and incompetence. None was allocated to investment to build the economy.

So Venezuela suffered from an unrestrained state — and that was combined with a restrained private sector. The regime’s “socialism” led it to regulate private business so as to destroy it. Thus food, medicine, and all sorts of other goods (which Venezuela, so oil-concentrated, used to import) have disappeared from the shelves. While the regime’s fiscal indiscipline brought forth hyper-inflation. It made things worse by responding with price controls and even more punitive anti-business measures.

Corrales rejected any idea that America somehow bears responsibility for Venezuela’s travail. To the contrary, he said, the U.S. actually helped finance the regime by buying its oil (now stopped). Meantime its oil income has plunged due to its mismanagement, stuffing the state oil company with political hacks.

We keep hoping Venezuela’s military will oust Maduro. After his talk, I suggested to Corrales it won’t happen because the generals too are profiting from the corrupt system. He agreed. So, I said, the only path is the opposition taking up arms and starting a war. He smiled and nodded (somewhat to my surprise). Then I added, “Some things are worth fighting for.” He smiled and nodded again (ditto).

The lessons here for America should be obvious by now. I have written about the burgeoning phenomenon of political populism (https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/what-is-populism/.) Corrales said the world’s democratic backsliding is driven by populism, defined by its perceived political betes-noires. On the left (epitomized by Venezuela) it’s anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism. Bernie-style populism inveighs against “neoliberalism,” corporations, and the rich. Right-wing populism typically demonizes the intelligentsia, elites, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and crime. For both right and left, the stomping on hated enemies can excuse the stomping on democratic norms. (Many Western lefties still defend Maduro.)

Also obvious is Trump’s following the playbook Corrales outlined: executive aggrandizement, undermining governmental checks and balances, demonizing and delegitimizing opponents and the free press. We even see election manipulation, with voter suppression. All this is how it starts. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Notre Dame and humanism

April 16, 2019

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.

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Pete Buttigieg — Are we ready for a gay president?

April 14, 2019

Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Buddha-judge) is the young (37) mayor of an Indiana town (South Bend), running for president. Well, why not? Everybody else is.

There’s always an array of “dark horse” candidates, some in for the fun of it, the exposure, or delusional hopes. Buttigieg initially seemed to be such a case. But now he’s getting serious traction, because it turns out he’s actually a terrific guy.

 

You might think an unknown like him would try to break through by flame-throwing stridency. Buttigieg is doing the opposite. He’s been described as slightly left of Biden and right of all the other candidates trying to outbid each other for the zealot vote. Interviewed on the New Yorker Radio Hour, I was really impressed by Buttigieg’s calm, intelligent reasonableness. That itself is actually a shocker in today’s political environment.

Radical reasonableness — isn’t that exactly what we need, after a generation of howling scorched-earth partisanship?

Buttigieg does suffer from a weird name (sure to be the butt of jokes). Also, he’s married to a man. The American mainstream did come around to accept gay marriage. So how about a gay president?

Many thought we weren’t ready for a black one, but when it came down to it, the country in 2008 (enough voters at least) saw more important qualities in Obama than his color. It actually seemed almost immaterial; maybe even a plus (with some people seeing an Obama vote as proving they’re not racist). Would Buttigieg’s gayness fare similarly?

Obama did not run as “the black candidate” and tried to be reassuring to race-anxious whites. Similarly Buttigieg is not running as the gay guy. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but he’s not in-your-face gay, having no stereotyped gay mannerisms. He exudes normality. So perhaps, in light of the five-alarm dumpster fire of depravity that is Trump, Buttigieg’s gayness would look like a minor detail.

Still, with America’s very soul at stake in 2020, I’m concerned that Democrats cannot afford to lose any potential votes. That includes racists, misogynists, and homophobes. True, they’re nearly all Trumpers anyway. But maybe some can be persuaded to vote for a candidate who at least doesn’t wave a red flag in their faces. Running a gay one in 2020 would be a big gamble I’m not sure is prudent.

And if Buttigieg is elected, then what? With Obama, we first thought we’d entered a post-racial nirvana; but how wrong that was. There were plenty of legitimate policy reasons to oppose Obama, but in a lot of people’s hearts his true sin was governing-while-black. Those people went nuts. This intensified what was already bitter partisan division. With a Buttigieg presidency, the god-hates-fags folks won’t slink away under a rock. They too will go nuts.

It will be bad enough even with a plain vanilla president. For many people now just the label “Democrat” is virtually equivalent to “Satanic.” That alone will put them on the warpath. Trump won’t slink away either, he’ll keep tweeting, and the media won’t be able to take their eyes off the disaster scene.

So maybe this infection is really incurable after all, and we must live with it. Keeping it under control with medication — by, year after year, beating it down with our votes. Votes for what is good, decent, honest, and reflective of this country’s highest ideals and values. Making America great again.

“Occupied” — Norway, by Russia

April 12, 2019

Occupied is a Netflix series, a geopolitical thriller, produced in Norway. It’s terrific.

Norway is an oil-rich country. In Occupied, Jesper Berg has become prime minister, heading an environmentalist party, pledging to supplant oil with clean thorium-based nuclear power. However, Europe fears an energy crisis during the transition. Russia takes advantage of this, with a softish quasi-invasion of Norway, to force it to keep supplying oil. Berg accedes in order to avoid bloody military confrontation. But the situation becomes increasingly difficult and oppressive as it develops.

Indeed, this series’ producers succeed in sustaining remarkable dramatic tension throughout. I watch every episode with stomach clenched.

House of Cards was certainly fun to watch; but I kept turning to my wife with snide remarks about implausibility. (Like when the VP shows the President he’s still got the dead body she’d asked him to dispose of. “What does he imagine doing with it,” I said, “without implicating himself in murder?”)

Occupied is never like that. As a close observer of world politics, I find it totally realistic, with not a moment requiring suspension of disbelief.

Real life is full of ambiguity, and that’s certainly true in Occupied. Early, we’re introduced to “Free Norway,” seemingly a dark fringe terrorist group, committing atrocities. But as the picture grows more complex, one’s feelings about “Free Norway” evolve with it. Jesper Berg often seems to have a “deer-in-the-headlights” quality. In Episode 9 my wife remarked he’s acting like a fool. I didn’t agree. From the start, Berg finds himself in an impossible situation, and it progressively worsens. He struggles to deal rationally with a world where everything seems to militate against that.

One thing I did find myself questioning: where, in this story, is NATO, and America? Russia could not have screwed with Ukraine had Ukraine been in NATO — as Norway is. But it turns out Occupied is set in a near future where NATO is no more, and America has no interest in opposing Russia. The series was made in 2015!

I’m reminded of the story about Putin traveling to Finland and going through border control.

“Name?” the officer asks him.

“Vladimir Putin.”

“Nationality?”

“Russian.”

“Destination?”

“Helsinki.”

“Occupation?”

“No, just visiting.”

The tragic Trump foreign policy

April 8, 2019

Foreign policy rarely figures much in U.S. elections. China, Mexico, and Russia were actually prominent in 2016 — though not in a good way. A recent Thomas Friedman column points out that Democratic presidential hopefuls, so far, are focused on domestic issues. As if the rest of the world doesn’t matter.

Many Americans do think that way — “we should worry about problems here at home.” Trouble is, no country is an island. What happens elsewhere can hugely impact us here. Remember WWII?

World history is largely a history of such violent conflicts. Until lately. Steven Pinker has written compellingly about warfare’s decline. A key factor has been American leadership, after 1945, in building a rules-based world order, knitted together through global institutions and organizations, with a broad web of alliances, and by an international trading system, that makes more nations more prosperous. When they get richer, they have more of a stake in the system, and can buy more from us. Spreading democracy too is key, also promoting prosperity and reducing costly violence. Dictatorships feature in virtually all the world’s wars. More democracy, more stability, and more prosperity in other countries, all make America better off.

But this propitious world order is unravelling. And Trump, far from defending it, is actually helping to blow it up. Ripping up its institutional underpinnings. Like the World Trade Organization, promoting commerce through rules-based norms. Trump refuses to fill the American slots among WTO judges, paralyzing it. And he’s egged on Britain’s Brexit crazies, pulling apart the European Union. As if this reckless nihilism somehow helps America.

Friedman explains that the American-built world order is also under assault from not one but three regimes who see their interests as opposed to ours. Notice I said “regimes,” not “countries.” Those regimes aren’t really serving their people’s national interests but their own power (that’s the problem with undemocratic regimes).

The three are Russia, China, and Iran, all trying to bully their way to regional dominance, in order to whip up nationalistic fervor at home. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine and forcibly seized Crimea, the most brazen of attacks on post-WWII global norms. Russia also works to wreck democracies by subverting elections. China violates international law by grabbing and militarizing a huge expanse of the Pacific, and aims to ensnare many other countries in debt traps.* Iran spreads its influence through destabilizing proxy wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria (where Russia also makes murderous mischief).

Friedman further explains that while these bad actors all grow stronger, some other countries grow weaker — the “failed state” syndrome that creates more big headaches. Including fleeing populations that are politically destabilizing in the better-off nations they try to reach.

Climate change exacerbates all this, further disrupting the world. And while in the past our biggest fear was nuclear war, today a host of miscreants have a panoply of potent tools for causing havoc. A cyber-attack, for example, targeting vital infrastructure (like the power grid) is practically just waiting to happen. And even if we dodge that bullet, the gathering tsunami of technological change is up-ending the world’s economic game board. These are all global problems that require global thinking.

Yet Trump’s America is retreating, abandoning leadership, pulling up the drawbridge. Venezuela is the exception proving the rule (its mistake is using the hated word, “socialist”). But mainly it’s disengagement; a glaring example being the recent escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed. Time was, America would actively work to defuse such crises. The Trump administration’s response was instead, “Go at it.” In fact, he hasn’t even bothered to name an ambassador to Pakistan! Nor to Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.

And where America disengages, bad guys are all too eager to exploit the vacuum. Thus Russia’s messing with Syria, in response to America’s passivity (which began under Obama).

Some see a tension between a moralistic foreign policy and pursuing national interest. But happily, doing what is right most often actually serves our national interest, if viewed in proper perspective. It is good for America to have a world where morality and democracy thrive; and good for America when others throughout the world see us as standing for morality and democracy. That’s America’s tremendously potent “soft power.”

Trump doesn’t grasp this most basic of concepts; indeed, he’s actually in opposition to it. His foreign policy is assertively amoral. Aligning America not with the angels but with the bad guys. Like when Kashoggi’s murder implicated the Saudi ruler, Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. And professed being “in love” with Kim Jong Un, a truly vicious dictator. These things speak volumes to people throughout the world, who used to look up to America.

But it’s too charitable to see any theme at all in Trump’s foreign policy. It is really just incoherent and brainless. We have a president astonishingly ignorant about global realities; thinking he knows everything, and most of it is wrong.** In fact Trump’s erratic behavior shows he has no idea what he’s doing and is too arrogant to take sensible advice. This makes all the “America First” chest-thumping a tragic joke. (It’s also terrible for the future of the world’s other seven billion people.)

Trump recently announced U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, bragging that no previous president had acted so boldly. Well, there were very good reasons why none did! (And the great deal-maker gave Israel’s prime minister this gift for nothing in return.)

We desperately need to push the foreign policy re-set button with a new president who is on his or her game — bigly. One with the experience, understanding, seriousness, competence, sanity, and moral center to engage intelligently with world problems. To restore our precious web of invaluable global partnerships — with countries that share our democratic values — partnerships that Trump has been shredding. Some of the damage will be very hard to undo after four years (God forbid eight), but we must try.

Otherwise you can take your “Make America Great Again” hat and eat it.***

* Don’t know what I’m talking about? Do some reading.

** Am I presumptuous (or worse) for daring to think I know more than the president? Fact: I have forgotten more about world affairs than Trump ever knew. (Reading helps.)

*** My original draft had a cruder suggestion. But I exercise restraint.

Trump’s clearancegate

April 5, 2019

Asked whether he’d had any role in Jared Kushner’s security clearance, Trump said no. Turns out he lied. Ivanka lied about this too.

In fact, Trump directly ordered Chief of Staff John Kelly to ram through security clearances that had been denied for Kushner and Ivanka, his nepotism advisers — and for over twenty others whose clearances had also been denied by the White House security office with responsibility for such matters.

Those determinations were for reasons including drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness, criminality, and foreign business entanglements, all of which could be exploited to compromise these appointees. In several cases the denials were said to be for “very serious reasons.” Kushner in particular was stated to have “too many significant disqualifying factors.” Certain countries were known to be discussing ways to manipulate him by exploiting his financial vulnerabilities and extreme lack of relevant experience.

The whistleblower here, Tricia Newbold, an 18-year career official, reported that because she wouldn’t play ball on these clearances, she was the target of various sorts of harassment, including suspension without pay.

This administration’s reckless trashing of established security protocols is unprecedented. No previous president is known to have thusly corrupted clearances. The process is aimed at protecting sensitive classified information, to which officials like Kushner are privy, from getting into the hands of hostile foreign powers. It’s extremely important. Trump is driving a truck through our national security firewalls. (He himself irresponsibly handed sensitive classified material to the Russian ambassador, right in the Oval Office.)

Another day, another travesty. I’m committed here to let none (well, no big ones) pass unremarked. Precisely because that’s what’s happening in the wider world. This clearance scandal, in any past time, would have been hugely explosive. Certainly it’s a vastly graver threat to national security than Hillary’s emails. But in the raging Trump shitstorm, this hardly even registers as a blip.

We also now hear Trump is appointing Herman Cain (remember that whacko creep?) to the Federal Reserve Board. Caligula supposedly appointed his horse to a consulship. That was probably ancient fake news. Like Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. But America is burning, and Democrats are fiddling over Biden’s hugging.