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”
Thanks to Aaron D. and Rich, we have three months worth of new topics. See here or the various sidebars: Civcon-schedule-2017-#1-feb-June
Hard copies available on Monday.
Linda, who’s a criminal defense attorney in private practice, suggested this topic. Since 1995, the number of U.S. prison inmates over age 55 has roughly quadrupled. They now comprise one-sixth of the entire U.S. prison population.
Why so many aging prisoners? One cause is the sheer size of violent crime wave that roiled the United States from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another is that the country is aging in general, including those that commit serious crimes. But most notoriously to blame are all of those harsh sentencing laws passed by state legislatures and Congress in response to the crime wave and the War on
Some People That Use Certain Drugs. Civilized Conversation has discussed both mandatory minimum sentences and racism in sentencing on separate occasions.
Having so many aging prisoners is a problem for a lot of reasons. As one of the links below says, older prisoners “require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age related disabilities. They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.” Just providing their health care costs a fortune. Many prisons have expensive geriatric wards. Nearly 80% of all deaths in prison are older (55+) prisoners.
Recently, the Obama Administration and some state governments – including California’s – have tried to devise programs to speed compassionate release for the least dangerous elderly prisoners whose further imprisonment makes little sense. This has proven harder than you might think, both administratively and politically. I imagine that the Trump Administration will end all federal efforts and that bipartisan criminal justice reform of any kind is dead. But, who knows?
Below are some rather duh-level discussion questions and a few straightforward readings on the elderly prisoner problem and on mass incarceration. On Monday I will skip my usual opening presentation, except to briefly summarize the issue for any new members that might not have read the background materials.
Linda, with her many years of experience as a defense attorney, will then have the floor.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
- What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
- Solutions: What’s being tried, including by the USG and in California?
How are those going? If not well, why, and what else should be done?
- Mass incarceration: Is the elderly prisoner problem another one of the consequences of America’s disastrous mass incarceration experiment? Or, is it a sad but inevitable consequence of our vast but in-the-past crime wave?
- CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What caused our 20th century violent crime wave and why did it end? Recommended.
- [Late update] The huge affect lead poisoning from gasoline and paint played in the 1960s-1990 wave. Not a joke nor sloppy pop-science.
- Our huge aging prisoner crisis. Recommended best summary, but sorry for the annoying multiple automatic audio plays.
- The human costs are high everywhere. WashPost.
- But, and recommended: Releasing aging violent offenders is controversial even in California.
- Optional, very detailed studies:
- Our mass incarceration problem more broadly:
NEXT WEEK: White male privilege – How real? How important?
What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.
The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.
There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership. There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.
Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.
What’s the bottom line? Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points I will come back to during our discussion:
- There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
- The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful. Politicians panic. Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem? In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
- The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war. How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
- President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.
I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.) Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!
(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The enemy: How terrorist groups and the threats they pose are evolving. Worth knowing.
- Spending too fight terrorism has been staggeringly high.
- Casualties: Ours, as compared to deaths/wounds in other US wars. [Plus 1m or so Iraqi and other foreign civilians.]
- The permanent war:
- Evaluations of GWOT:
- Short: It cost a lot, but do not call our efforts a failure. Recommended.
- Long RAND Corp. (20p pdf): We’ve done pretty well. Recommended
- Long US Army (17p pdf): No, the GWOT has not accomplished most of its objectives. Not
- Donald Trump will…
NEXT WEEK: The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.
Instead of a new introduction to this topic, I refer you to my framing from our meeting of several years ago on “does religion have to be conservative?”
We have had several other excellent discussions of the nature of religion and there were some good links. Here’s a list of those meetings, plus a few more optional readings. For many more fine articles that provide insights into the inherently conservative or liberal nature of specific religions, I refer you to the entire Internet.
Have a great Christmas, everyone and perhaps I’ll see you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACGROUND READINGS –
- 2012 CivCon: Must Religion Be Conservative? Recommended.
- 1011 CivCon: What Is Liberal Christianity?
- 8 principles of progressive Christianity.
- How about eschewing labels like these altogether?
- Can the Christian Left become a real political force in America? Or, this shorter similar article. Either recommended.
- Cool chart: The political affiliation of all major US religious denominations.
- Conservative POV:
Next Week: Are we paying too high a price to combat terrorism?
It’s kind of a holiday weekend. But, I really like this topic idea of Aaron’s asking whether universal democracy should still be considered a kind of “Manifest Destiny” for the 21st century. Yes, it has been conventional wisdom for more than a decade that democracy around the world is in retreat. Authoritarianism has descended on country after country. The Arab Spring was stillborn and Iraq and Syria flew apart. Eastern Europe’s promising “color revolutions” petered out with help from a newly-aggressive Russia. Chinese democracy is still a no-show and the country has entered a new period of repression. In the West, right-wing political parties are surging all over the EU and we elected Donald Trump. So much for the end of history and all of that post-Cold War democratic triumphalism, maybe.
Or, maybe not. History is rarely a painless and quickly-triumphant march of progress, is it? There was bound to be a backlash to the post-Cold War spasm of democratic reforms in fragile countries, wasn’t there? And the 2008 financial collapse and growing economic inequality had to at least postpone the party, didn’t it?
FWIW, I think the relationship between economic and social change and democracy is really complicated. For example, globalization can either spur democratic and liberal reforms or a backlash against them. Religion often gets in the way of democratization, but it also binds societies together. I also try to take a long view. I think developing countries are going through the same highly-disruptive, painful struggle the West endured in its century of rapid industrialization and cultural change during 1848-1945. Like we did, the non-West will evolve its own forms of popular governance and institutions to empower and contain government. Results are going to vary a lot country to country and region to region.
Anyway, here are a small number of readings on the topic of the “democratic recession” we are currently experiencing and some speculation as to why and what might happen next. They are all general (not country-specific), but a few are long and/or a bit complicated. We don’t need lectures on basic stuff in this group. So, I will give open us up by highlighting a few of the tensions inherent between rapid econ/social/cultural change and emergence of/persistence of democracy.
- West: What is the Western model of democracy and how does it vary?
- Rest: Have other democratic models emerged outside of the West? Why?
- Retreat: Why has democracy been in retreat lately? Which causes are specific to countries/regions and which any common causes?
- Complexity: What tensions exist between: Democracy and liberalism? Democratic rule and individual rights? Globalization and democracy? Transnational governance and national/local control? Religion and democracy?
- Future: How will we all deal with all these tensions in the future? What’s the future of democracy worldwide?
- Our Role: Is USA leadership necessary, or is our absence? Doing what, exactly?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why is democracy in retreat? Easier read but 5 years old here. Recommended.
- Six preconditions for democracy.
- Democracy’s retreat is only temporary. Recommended, or this longer (pdf) Democracy is NOT in decline worldwide.
- Lefty: Neoliberal globalization threatens democracy.
- Conservative: USA should be cautious and realistic about democracy promotion. (Long historian Walter Russell Mead)
- Will Trump abandon U.S. leadership on democracy promotion? Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: What is progressive religion?
In CivCon we deal with a lot of fast-moving topics and issues. But, I can’t think of any more in flux than the future of the news media. Nor as vital. A healthy press is one of the linchpins of our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and countless others since have said. Yet, even before the rise of Donald Trump and the unprecedented challenges he presents to the institutions and underlying conventions of journalism, the mainstream media (MSM) was in crisis.
As is common knowledge, the century-old basic business model of journalism (especially print but also other formats) has collapsed. The Internet drained away news companies’ advertising revenue and new competitors emerged to razzle-dazzle away the public’s attention and dim its desire (and willingness to pay) for hard news. The big MSM companies reacted by massively consolidating and moving into cyberspace as best they could. But, it hasn’t been enough to halt the downward slide of the industry. Pre-Trump and depending on who you asked, the big issues that threatened the news media’s future included:
- The basic 20 year-old failed business model problem.
- Concentration of Media ownership (now AT&T wants to merge with Time Warner).
- Print journalism’s dim future, especially newspapers.
- Fragmentation of the news audience.
- Rise of social media and personalized news feeds, which have turned passive news consumers into active distributors and producers of news.
- Shift to and concentration of power away from traditional content providers (like TV networks & newspapers) to new “platform oligopolies” (like Facebook, Google, and Twitter).
- Next generation issues, like those associated with the “Internet of Things,” wearable devices, and other future transformative technological change.
Now, of course, we can add at least two more problems arising from our last (so to speak) election: President Trump and fake news. In the campaign, Trump played the MSM like a fiddle, garnering virtually 24-hour a day coverage. Nobody had ever hacked the Media like this. And, he routinely threatened reporters and media companies. Trump is all but sure to use govt power to bend the news media to his will. There is even talk that “Trump TV” will be created despite his victory, so we may soon have a news network that’s literally loyal only to the President! More broadly, Trump’s presidency poses unprecedented challenges to long-established MSM conventions of neutral reporting of a shared objective reality.
Second, we have the emerging problem of fake news. Fake news is outright false propaganda disseminated by groups hiding their true identities and allegiances. Its purpose is to undermine public confidence in any and all other news. From Breitbart and Info Wars to Russian government news trolls, this poison has always been around, but its impact might be very large in a socially networked world.
Gee, where to start? Fortunately for our discussion, I think many of these problems are related. The MSM is consolidating because even the biggest players need to control content, distribution, and users’ personal information to survive. They’re easy to manipulate because they are financially unstable. Fake news works so well because social media let anybody be their own producer and distributor of news. Etc.
Here are some readings on some of these big, crosscutting problems in journalism these days and some musings on what the future holds. On Monday I will take the first five minutes or so to connect a few of these dots so that maybe we can focus right off on the fundamental problems. We have several journalists in the group, so I will then ask them for their thoughts to start the general discussion. I’ll see you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The crisis today –
- “The State of the News Media 2016.” An annual Pew Center report. Recommended: Summary + fact sheet on your favorite subtopic.
- Newspapers are dying but the news will survive them.
- Social media: Some key points re their use.
The rise of fake news –
- Russia hacked our election! (h/t John M.)
- Trump voters buy into a lot of fake news.
- The challenge to the news media and to Facebook in particular. Recommended.
Journalism in the Age of Trump –
- Yes, the news media elected Trump. Recommended. Optional and extra fury/anguish here.
- As thanks, he’ll try hard to intimidate and silence our free press.
- Maybe this would help.
The Future of news –
- Facebook, Google, Twitter and other big platform companies will determine the future of news. Recommended.
- A radically different future is coming. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is worldwide democracy inevitable?
People all over the world have long anticipated that the 21st century will be “Asia’s century.” According to this point of view, long-term demographic and economic trends already have begun to shift the dynamic center of the global economy from the West to the East. China will keep rising and become Asia’s main hegemon, perhaps challenged by India and other emerging Asian powers. The West will slowly (or maybe rapidly) decline, at least in relative terms, and a new global order will emerge that is anchored in the East, not in Europe or in North America.
CivCon member Aaron (The Younger) asks an important question: Is it all true, or is it just the latest wave of Western declinism? China’s government and people sure believe it, spurred along by the global but U.S.-based 2008-09 financial crisis, from which China was basically immune. President Obama believes it, or at least he has attempted to “re-pivot” American foreign policy towards East Asia and away from our endless preoccupation with the Middle East and a declining Russia.
I have a few questions of my own, as shown below. Here are some of them, and some links on the basic idea of an Asian-centered 21st Century, obstacles to it, and different ways the United States might respond.
With Donald Trump still forming his administration – and his recent bizarre, disturbing phone calls to world leaders, some in direct contravention of longstanding U.S. policy – it’s hard to guess what U.S. policy might be the next four years. Still, global politics tends to follow its own internal logic, plus (the main point of this topic, IMO) is that many things lie beyond U.S. control. So, all of these questions will stay relevant pretty much no matter how badly our foreign relations are screwed up in the near future.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Which major trends presage an emerging Asian century?
- What evidence of a shift to the East have we seen so far: Economic/financial activity? Political and diplomatic? “Hard power” military and alliance shifts?
- What could Asian powers do to screw it up for themselves?
- Specific Countries:
- New/old leaders: China? India/South Asia? Japan? SE Asia?
- Bad actors: Russia? North Korea? Iran?
- How would a huge shift to Asia harm the USA? Could it benefit us?
- How should we and the West react: Bilaterally? Alliances? Militarily? Reforming global institutions?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Have we jumped the gun?
- [Update Sunday night] I should have had you read this seminal article arguing China’s rise will challenge the US-centered world order and likely lead to war.]
- Wrong probably. Rethink the Asian century: They have too many problems + Western values/institutions/free markets are too dominant. Recommended, from AEI.
- There will be no Asian century in the sense no Asian country will dominate (Clyde Prestowitz).
- No one’s century: There will be no single, dominant power. Recommended.
China and India –
- Not quite yet is it China’s century. (click at page bottom for 6pp pdf) Recommended.
- But It’s all up to China.
- China’s authoritarian govt will keep holding it back.
- India may be better poised than China. Recommended
Trump and Asia –
- An “epochal” change for the worse almost certainly. Recommended.
- Asians may bail on the United States with Trump in charge.
Asian-Americans and our future –
- Will Asian-Americans be the rocket fuel of the U.S. economy in the future?
Next Week (Nov 28): What future does the news media have?
This one was Bruce idea, as a kind of follow-up to our 2015 meeting on the Founders’ view of government powers and in expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Now, of course, President Trump will fill the Supreme Court seat that congressional Republicans stole by refusing to fill Justice Scalia’s vacant seat for a year. Funny, but I can’t find the passage in the Constitution that allows the Party of strict constructionists and originalism to do this.
At any rate, no shift away from the long, conservative arc of constitutional law is going to happen in the next decade. Quite the opposite. That list of possible SCOTUS appointees that Trump issued during the campaign came straight from the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. An ultra-conservative constitutional restoration is on the launching pad, in the lower courts as well as SCOTUS.
Nevertheless, understanding progressive views (there are more than one) of constitutional interpretation is still relevant, for several reasons. First, presidents usually find a way to appoint federal judges that share their highest constitutional priorities. For example, the liberal Obama appointed judges that agreed with his expansive view of executive power in anti-terrorism matters. Donald Trump is an authoritarian figure unmatched in American history and he might try to stack the judiciary with cronies that place loyalty to him above ell else. If Trump does this and the GOP refuses to stand up to him, progressives and their living Constitutionalism will have to bear the full weight of opposition.
Second, being in the wilderness sharpens the mind. Over the next four years the Democrats must decide whether and how to revamp their message. A lot of people feel that the New Coke must include a version of constitutional interpretation that can compete with the simplistic but effective “original intent” and “obey the written Constitution” marketing slogan of the Right. Lastly, esoteric matters of law aside, the public is on progressives’ side on most major constitutional issues. They do not believe that Medicare, federal aid to education, and Social Security are unconstitutional. They don’t want Roe overturned or the last limits on corporate campaign contributions to be swept away.
Unfortunately, the progressive POV on constitutional law does not easily fit on a bumper sticker. The Left views the Constitution as a “living document,” one that laid down timeless principles but that still must be interpreted non-mechanically in order to apply it to the today’s real world. But, beyond that commonality, progressive experts differ on specific methods and priorities. There are competing camps with catchy names like “ordered liberty,” “progressive originalism,” “democratic constitutionalism,” and others.
I’m not qualified nor interested enough to explain these nuances. But, I do know a bit. I will open our meeting on Monday with the basic ideas behind progressive constitutional interpretation as I understand them. Then, we can talk.
- Originalism: Why do progressives consider it unworkable and even kind of fraudulent?
- Basic liberal stance: Why do progressives say the Founders intended the Constitution to be a “living document” that must be interpreted for modern times?
- Rules for deciding: Okay, but how? What rules/priorities do progressives think we should use for interpretation? Original meaning, precedent, societal consensus, modern values, outcomes? Can these add up to a coherent philosophy?
- Differences/Labels: What are the biggest disagreements among progressives on this stuff and how do they end up as “democratic constitutionalism, “ordered liberty,” “New Textualism,” etc.
- Future: How will progressive react to the coming conservative constitutional revolution? Will they find any common ground with (some) Republicans?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why constitutional theory should matter, including to progressives. Recommended.
What might have been and what will be –
- How a liberal SCOTUS would have changed America.
- Trump’s SCOTUS will be radical — if he gets a 2nd pick. Recommended
- Some conservatives are afraid, too.
Critique of Conservative Methods –
- It is wrong to think Constitution not meant to be flexible. Easy read, recommended.
- A measured critique of originalism and defense of a living constitution.
- A conservative rebuttal.
Progressive constitutional interpretation –
- The Founders intended a flexible, non-dogmatic Constitution. Easy read.
- A progressive Constitution. Harder, recommended.
- More: The “Framers’ Constitution” is progressive. It is a “Distributive Constitution.”
[Update: I should have linked to the New Textualism – the best of the 3 articles.]
NEXT WEEK: Are we living in the “Asian Century?”