It’s a tough time to aspire to have civilized conversations about anything related to American foreign policy, obviously. Since a president has more control over it than over domestic policy, Donald Trump has been able to take us into radical new terra incognito. He is openly wrecking our traditional alliances, realigning us with authoritarian powers and their dictators, and implementing Russia’s foreign policy wet dreams. He has pulled us out of long-standing international agreements and started trade wars. More broadly, Trump seems to view all international relations (and thus negotiations and crises) as zero-sum, with a dominant winner and a dominated loser.
[Update: To be fair, Trump also might be able to accomplish some things, like an opening to North Korea that has to be done by somebody, sometime. Putting “America first” doesn’t have to be belligerent and counterproductive, at least in its long-term effects.]
All of this is a profound departure from the consensus foreign policy that was the postwar norm. Yeah, yeah. We dominated the West, not always for the better, perhaps. But ther3 was also a strong consensus in favor of a multilateral and positive-sum approach; a belief that we needed other countries’ cooperation to help maintain U.S. security and prosperity and would prosper best in a rules-based commerce system.
To be sure, Trump’s precise goals and strategy are a bit unclear underneath all of the bluster and tweeting. But, one POV is that if Republican voters and elites continue to back him to the hilt Trump may take the GOP – and all of us – back to its pre-Cold War foreign policy rooted in mercantilism, belligerence, and xenophobia. Who cares about a little brinkmanship?
We all should. Brinkmanship is inherently dangerous and requires very careful attention to both short-term tactics and long-term goals – and empathy with how adversaries think and what they feel. Sound like Trump to you? Worse, bullying and making wild threats until the other side backs down has been Trump’s core negotiating tactic all of his life. He likely will use it as a first resort in almost every situation. The agreement he just cut with North Korea is only going to feed his confidence that making dire threats work like a charm, just like in real estate. Ooh, boy.
Moreover, it’s not just Trump. At least some foreign policy brinkmanship is as American as apple pie. Kennedy used it in the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon and Kissinger played good-cop, madman-cop in Vietnam. Both George Bushes relied on showdown-style tactics in Iraq, with (ahem) varying results. The aforementioned postwar consensus was based on the threat of instant, massive nuclear retaliation after all, as we discussed a few weeks ago. Brinkmanship will always be with us, at least as a tool to pull off of the shelf by any president.
I will start off our meeting with a brief introduction. Then we can discuss whether Trump really is this radical departure from the norm and/or these questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
- When has brinkmanship worked for the United States? Why? When did it fail? When was it not used when it almost/could have been used?
- Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
- How out of control is this guy re threat-making? Who can get him to dial it down? What would the country lose if they don’t?
- Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
- After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- [Way late UPDATE: This is the core of Trump’s new foreign policy.]
- ABCs of brinkmanship as used in the Cold War.
- Trump: Bullying IS the strategy. Under Trump nuclear brinkmanship is the new normal.
- But his blustering/bullying could lead to some good outcomes.
- Putin loves to use brinkmanship, too. (Meddling in our election an news media is exactly that – a dangerous high-wire gamble.)
NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?
How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself? Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?
The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are. Oh, boy.
I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.
To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:
…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.
Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them. See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too. If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.
Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future. Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
- Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
- How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
- Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
- Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
- Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
- They are authoritarians themselves.
- Enablers – Others:
- Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
- Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
- Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
- Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
- After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
- Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
- Sustained (or restored).
- Consistent with both liberty and social justice?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Trump and the rule of law –
- Our lawless president and his many accomplices. We are in a democratic emergency. Both recommended.
- Trump’s assaults on a free press are unprecedented.
- Trump’s tweets and rhetoric are NOT harmless; they are very corrosive to rule of law.
- House Republicans are actively interfering in Mueller’s investigation to protect Trump.
- Lessons from other countries and from Trump’s first year. Recommended.
Less alarmed POVs –
- So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.
NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?
People have been pining for “another Eisenhower” off and on for decades. As with most historical analogies, the desire for another Eisenhower probably says more about the political views of those pining away for him than it does about our current problems and the type of political leadership that could address them.
Wanting an Ike-like president can mean one or more of several different things, I suppose. It can mean a desire to revive an extinct species: Moderate Republicans, along with a leader that can make the GOP accept the Great Society and its extensions the way Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Or, maybe it reflects a yearning for a return of the bipartisan consensus politics of the 1950s and a politics of decency and civility. Or, maybe some folks just like the idea of a successful military leader who can knock a few heads together in Washington. a.
Obviously, Eisenhower’s presidency and 1950s politics and culture were not as rosy as some folk think they were. The 1950s were before civil rights revolution was completed and before equal rights for women and LGBT folks were even on the table. The Cold War was at its most dangerous heights. Moreover, unless you have a “great man” view of history, it is not very enlightening to compare one president’s managerial and personal style and to another’s.
However, I think it could be useful to examine two things. First, we can explore how the social and political structures of the Eisenhower era shaped political decisions and constrained the choices that could be made.
Yes, President Trump seems to make decisions more based on the last thing he saw on TV and desires for vengeance against enemies (real and imagined) than on the normal factors that shape presidential behavior. Still, no presidency is about one person even if this one thinks it is. Comparing today’s political and social climate to the one that Eisenhower and other political leaders of the era faced might be instructive for today – and tomorrow, assuming someday American politics returns from the ledge it has crawled out on.
Second, we could discuss the whole idea of consensus-based politics. Is bipartisanship and cooperation even possible anymore, or desirable? Our nation’s politics are so polarized, its problems are so daunting, and its international position so rapidly-weakening that perhaps a return to the kind of cautious incrementalism that consensus politics usually requires may not make much sense anymore. In my opening summary on Monday I will explain this POV a bit more and introduce some possible historical parallels that might make the Eisenhower presidency relevant to our current crisis.
We probably should get into foreign policy a fair amount, too. Yesterday, Trump picked uber-hawk John Bolton to be his national security advisor. An Islamophobic fringe figure who has repeatedly called for war with Iran and North Korea will control the flow of foreign policy information to our knowledge-challenged president. I cannot imagine a better time to talk about Eisenhower, a fervent Cold Warrior president that was also known to exercise “strategic restraint” and left office warning about the over-militarization of foreign policy.
This week’s optional readings include backgrounders on Eisenhower’s presidency and some comparisons of Ike to Trump and Obama. WWID: What would Ike do? Let’s figure it out Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
His presidency –
Some specifics –
- His famous farewell address was much more than just a warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Read this short speech.
- Ike quietly defeated his era’s most dangerous demagogue: Joe McCarthy. Recommended.
- Ike’s civil rights record.
- Obama was like Ike; he understood the need for “strategic restraint” and did his best work behind the scenes. Recommended.
- Conservative POVs: Conservatives should like Ike. Also, Trump is no Eisenhower and neither was Obama.
NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?
Obviously, investigations of Trump Administration corruption are still in the early stages and we will be talking about the subject many times in the future. Still, it seems like a good time to gain a little historical perspective on what is occurring.
There have been lots of executive branch scandals in American history, as this list shows. Cabinet secretaries have gone to jail. Supreme Court nominations have been withdrawn. White House aides have been convicted of felonies.
But, far fewer scandals have reached all the way into the oval office and up to the President himself and/or his top-most advisors. The list of relevant ones is even shorter if we narrow things down to malfeasance that led to impeachments and near impeachments plus the specific types of crimes/corruption that Trump has been accused of being a part of: Obstruction of justice and undermining the rule of law; personal and family graft, and collusion with foreign powers to help get elected. I‘m thinking of:
- Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
- Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
- GW Bush’s 2006 firing of seven U.S. attorney’s allegedly for purely political reasons.
- Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal (late 1980s)
- Watergate (Nixon resigned 1974).
- A few others; e.g., allegations that candidate Nixon asked the South Vietnamese government to avoid peace negotiations to boost his election prospects in 1968, and that candidate Reagan interfered in Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. (Neither proven; Reagan’s likely didn’t occur.)
Some of these events bring up the tricky issue of how to define corruption for our purposes. Is “unfitness” corruption? Is corruption just personal graft, obstruction of justice, and/or a sex scandal? The Constitution does not specify that impeachment be only for a criminal act. The Founders meant it to be a political solution to an unfit president. And, what about political acts or policy decisions that we think stem from corrupt motives; e.g., Bush’s deregulation or Obama’s deal with the insurance and hospital lobbies to get Obamacare passed? LBJ’s unseemly legislative arm-twisting?
Since the lines get blurry the more we expand corruption’s meaning I will give a short opening presentation that covers only two things:
- The above bulleted scandals, focusing on their elements that have potential analogs in the Trump era; and
- Some thoughts on the types of lessons we can learn from this history. I’ll focus on how the major actors that are supposed to hold a president accountable in times like these have acted or failed to act (e.g., special prosecutors, Congress, SCOTUS, the press, and public opinion).
That’s a tall order, so I will try to be concise. Most of it will come from memory so it isn’t directly supported by the material in this week’s optional background readings. Instead, the links are bare-bones descriptions of past scandals and summaries of what is known so far about Trump’s possible corruption. I did find a few good commentaries directly on point re what past presidential corruption scandals augur for holding Trump and his people accountable.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Major presidential corruption scandals –
- Clinton impeachment. The outrage of it all.
- Andrew Johnson’s impeachment is described in another link.
- Iran-Contra affair.
- GW Bush’s firing of seven U.S. attorneys.
October Surprises –
Trump: What we know so far –
- Re: Russia. (87 indictments this week alone, so hard to keep current.)
- Re: his profiteering will enduringly corrupt the office of the presidency. Either recommended.
History’s lessons –
- Nixon: Unlike Nixon, Trump probably will not be held accountable. Recommended.
- Clinton: Three lessons from his impeachment. Recommended
- The closest analogy to Trump is to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. See here for more on this. Recommended.
- Impeachment should never be rushed – like it was in 1998.
NEXT WEEK: Does religion promote empathy or diminish it?
This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.
We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.
What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.
- The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
- Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.
For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.
I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The case against the Electoral College. Recommended, or see here for more.
- Why we even have it by a historian of the Constitution. Recommended.
- A conservative says abolish it.
- In defense of the Electoral College:
- National Popular Vote initiative:
- The Republicans’ current structural advantage in American politics. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?
Has the worm really turned on federalism? Can blue states successfully resist the ultra-conservative agenda emanating for Republican-controlled Washington? A lot depends on California. In the words of one observer (see link below):
“California is the Trump administration’s most formidable adversary, not only on matters of immigration, but on damn near everything. No other entity—not the Democratic Party, not the tech industry, surely not the civil liberties lobby—has the will, the resources, and the power California brings to the fight. Others have the will, certainly, but not California’s clout.”
Yes, the GOP and Trump have been slow and incompetent at enacting their program. But it is still coming, and some of it will hit California hard (and is aimed specifically at us), including on climate and energy policy, immigration, health care, and even housing and transportation. A lot has already happened. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and others have been talking tough – and passing laws and filing lawsuits – on almost every conceivable front. This week’s links give some of the details.
How successful CA’s “resistance” to Trump/GOP will be in the long run will depend on all of the usual factors in federalism disputes: Law, legal strategies, and judges; public opinion; congressional priorities; media coverage and sympathies, and so forth. It also will depend on wild card factors of a kind that has become an exhausting staple of the Trump era: Things like the President’s volatile personality, congressional GOP foibles and schisms, and God knows what else.
On Monday, I will go over a few of the main policy battleground areas and talk a little bit about the shape of the legal and political terrain ahead. I’m not up to date on all the details in the news, but maybe some of you who focus more on state politics are.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What are the main Trump/GOP policies that will be aimed at CA and its interests? Which ones require new law v. merely regulatory changes?
- Which ones are top priorities for the GOP and/or Trump? What’s coming next?
- Pols: What has California done so far to oppose specific GOP/Trump actions? Other states? How is GOP trying to crush it?
- Points: Who’s winning so far? Who decides and (how) will the fight end?
- People: Do Californians support all of these actions? The broader U.S. public? Does public opinion really matter?
- Principles: Is federalism just a tool for hypocrites? What actual and enduring principles are at stake here and is anybody being consistent?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Not all Californians:
- GOP is going to crush blue state federalism just because they have the power. Recommended.
- CA Democrats suddenly love federalism.
- Climate/energy: CA is…
- More: Internet privacy, national monuments, and the all-important 2020 census. The list is endless.
NEXT WEEK: Is there a “New American Nationalism?”
Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.
Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.
Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.
Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.
- U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
- Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
- A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
- The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
- Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?
So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.) But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?
It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.
(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Fascism and Trump –
- Is Trump a fascist?
- No, Trump is not a fascist, for many reasons and the label is not useful. Recommended. (h/t Rafael)
- Regardless, Trump will never be a dictator and fascism will never triumph in America.
Is U.S. democracy really at risk?
- Democratic institutions have stood up to Trump pretty well so far. Recommended.
It’s not just about one man’s character –
- The rise of American authoritarianism.
- It’s the culmination of the GOP fanning extremism for 20 years. The Republicans’ age of authoritarianism has just begun. I link you decide.
- Forget fascism, it’s anarchy we have to fear.
- Ultimately, our democracy’s survival depends on how strong our institutions really are. (Long and wonkish but great)
Conservative Voices –
- From a pro-Trump (Alt-Right?) website.
- Liberals are the real fascists. Worth knowing. (Fun rebuttal here)
- Ron Paul: Fascism is a bipartisan affliction.
NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?
The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?
It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.
Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy. For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV. Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.
Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach. But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.
Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.
Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk. So, we have some good substance to cover. Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.
Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
–> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
–> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
- Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
–> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
–> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
- Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
- Results: What’s likely to be happen? Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed? Will global problems be neglected?
–> How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
–> Any benefits to us from this?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Was global order at risk before Trump?
- Yep, it’s dying.
Trump’s foreign policy vision –
- A 19th century foreign policy. Recommended.
- One that’s allied with and identical to those of the European far right-wing. Recommended.
- An “Alpha Male foreign policy.”
- Or: A more realistic and pro-American foreign policy. Semi pro-Trump POV.
Its Consequences –
- It will end the American century. Recommended.
- “The Return of Self-help.” Other nations will have to rely more on themselves and each other. Recommended.
- Trump’s budget would gut funds that support U.S. soft power, making war more likely. (h/t Aaron)
- Will Trump blunder us into a major war?
Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –
- Rebuild Americans’ trust in foreign policy by making it work for them.
NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”
Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.
Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.
For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?
Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.
Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead? How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?
My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
- Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
- Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
- Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
- What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
- Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
- Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
- Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Is there hope for Democrats?
- Yes, because Trump is so unpopular and can be made more unpopular.
- Yes, because 2020 is the election that really matters and Dems are likely to win it. Recommended
- Why did trump win? An honest assessment of Dems’ mistakes. Recommended.
- A basic, 10-step strategy. Recommended.
- Resisting autocracy:
- The 25th Amendment option, explained.
- GOP: How to resist the GOP agenda since fighting Trump is not enough.
- Maybe stop calling it a “resistance.”
Republican/conservative POVs –
- The GOP Congress should do what it was elected to do – without overreaching. Recommended.
- Democrats should oppose within normal limits but not “resist.” Opposition should be inclusive not further divide us.
NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?
How can we possibly predict what kind of president Donald Trump will be? He may not know. His inaugural address did prove one thing that no one should still have been doubting: Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail. He wants to be a transformative president or at least to be seen as one. It was not performance art or reality TV. It was him all along.
Beyond that, though, divining his main priorities is tricky. Supposedly, VP Pence and others have a large list of specific to-dos for the President to accomplish on Day 1, by Day 100, and beyond. But, they are being very secretive about the details. Partly that’s to build the suspense and drama. But I think it’s mainly by design. In the next month expect to see a blitzkrieg of executive orders and legislation. The showy, popular ones will suck up all of the media attention and shield the many highly unpopular decisions from public scrutiny. (But not from Civilized Conversation’s scrutiny.)
Other factors conspire to make it even harder to guess what Trump really wants. He is such a bizarre character: Mercurial, narcissistic, quick to lie. He has no idea what government does or how it’s organized or functions. His Administration barely exists yet and the few appointments he has made add up to no coherent governing strategy. It’s tempting to look at how Trump will govern as an exercise in abnormal psychology.
But, that would be a big mistake, IMO. He’s the president now. He has (or will have) an entire Administration and a GOP Congress. I think if we look at the many available clues, we can get a pretty good idea of what the new president’s main policy priorities will be and what his governing style will look like. Possibilities include:
- Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
- Conventional: Trump leads, but helps the Republican Congress implement almost its entire long-dreamt-of policy agenda. Trump takes the credit/blame. Despite the inaugural address, this is the odds-on favorite to me.
- Hyper-Nationalism / White Nationalism: Something brand new: Trump remakes the GOP in his image and pursues a true right-wing populist agenda. Some mix of genuine help for working people at home (except for internal “enemies”) and hyper-nationalism abroad (aimed at external – mainly Islamic and Chinese – enemies).
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think talking about broad-brush priorities is a good place to start with any new administration, even this one. What does President Trump really want to accomplish, in terms of both policy and politics, and whose agenda will it be?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
- Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
- Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
- Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
- Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
- Personal: Trump’s authoritarian personality, impulsive nature, belief in his own genius? à Corrupt influences: The role in setting priorities of Trump family members, biz interests, cronies, Putin, etc.
- Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What type of president will Trump be?-
- Three paths a Trump Administration could take. Recommended.
- Four leaders to model: Trump will be either Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, or (least likely), Mussolini. Recommended.
- The CEO President: Trump lets Pence handle most domestic policy and Flynn foreign policy.
- Government by gimmick?
Trump’s policy agenda –
- Plutocracy, not populism: Trump’s agenda = GOP’s agenda of upper-bracket tax cuts, deregulation, privatization. Recommended.
- Clues from the inaugural address:
- It had five major themes.
- It augurs radical change, if you know how to read between the lines.
- Clues from Trump’s nominees and advisors. Recommended.
- Clues from the campaign (long) and the new White House website (short).
- A list of the major things Trump might do in his first term.
- Foreign Policy: What is the right label?
NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”