Tag Archives: Presidency

Monday’s Mtg: Brinkmanship as a foreign policy tool.

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 –

  1. What is brinkmanship? How differ from a strong diplomacy backed by a willingness to act?
  2. 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?
  3. Are there any general lessons about when brinkmanship might be necessary or foolhardy?
  4. Trump:
    1. 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?
    2. Will the public and GOP keep supporting his risky foreign policy? Why are they willing to do so?
  5. After Trump? Will brinkmanship go back in the bottle?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together?

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Monday’s Mtg (3/26/18): Do we need another Eisenhower?

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 –

Comparisons –

 

NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

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:

  1. The above bulleted scandals, focusing on their elements that have potential analogs in the Trump era; and
  2. 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 –

October Surprises –

Trump: What we know so far –

History’s lessons –

 

 

NEXT WEEK: Does religion promote empathy or diminish it?

Monday’s Mtg: The Electoral College and the Problem of Minority Rule

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.

  1. 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 –
  2. 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 –

NEXT WEEK:  Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?

Monday’s Mtg: What is the legacy of the 1980s?

If you can remember the decade you weren’t there.  Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.

Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?

Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions,  and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s.  I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
  2. Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
  3. Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
  4. Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
  5. 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Is it hard to be a man these days?

Monday’s Mtg: What Will Be President Trump’s Priorities?

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:

  1. Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 –

  1. Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
  2. Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
  3. Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
  4. Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
  5. Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
  6. 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.
  7. Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What type of president will Trump be?-

Trump’s policy agenda –

NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Donald Trump?

My God.  It can happen here.  And now it has.  Why will be debated for decades. How did Donald Trump easily win the Republican Party nomination for president and garner enough of the popular vote (48%) in the right combination of states to pull off an Electoral College victory against Hillary Clinton?

We’d better come up with an answer fast, because already we are seeing the normalization of Trump by political and Media elites. In a way, what else can they do?  Trump is now the president-elect, chosen in a constitutionally-legitimate election. Yet, history will ask us how, in 2016, we elected the presidential candidate that ran on a platform of using governmental power to ethnically cleanse the country, jail his enemies, retaliate against the press, blackmail our allies, and literally wall us off from the rest of the world – and not the candidate that violated administrative procedures in her government email account.

Before it hardens into conventional wisdom that Donald Trump lies within the normal range of American political and Constitutional norms, I think we owe it to our children to ask who bears the most responsibility for all that is to come.  To me, the comforting answer – “a mere 4% of the voters [compared to Obama’s 2012 performance] plus the antique Electoral College” – is inadequate.

We also must avoid other easy answers.  In a razor close election, any single factor can be cited as being “the” reason for the outcome.  If only 5,000 people in Ohio had voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy, or 600 in Florida for Gore, etc.  I’m talking about something larger.  What made 50+ million Americans desparate enough to take such a gamble on Trump, and to ignore his obvious odious unfitness for office?  Below are some articles,  some pre-election, some post, that takes stabs at explaining it.

I will open the meeting on Monday with a discussion of where, if anywhere, CivCon should go next.  Then, on to greater horrors.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Monday’s Mtg: Feminism’s Successes, Failures, and Next Steps.

Am I crazy or has this election become a referendum on misogyny and sexism?  Maybe it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.  Maybe his ugly rhetoric and antics don’t represent anything larger in our society or tell us anything important about the state of gender equality or the obstacles arrayed against further progress.  He might be wildly popular for other reasons, and it is easy to think the huge gains made over decades cannot be reversed and that history will just keep on edging us forward on equal rights for everyone.

And yet.  Political movements in democracies tend to get the leaders that best express what their adherents stand for. Close to 80% of self-identified conservative Republicans say Trump stands for conservative values and principles. Does resentment of gender equality belong on that list, or is the volcano of hate Trump drilled down into more aimed at Hillary Clinton personally and/or the ideologically left-wing bent of modern feminism?

I don’t know. But, either way Monday will be a good day to discuss the successes, failures, and unfinished business of the feminist movement. We can also vent a little about the election. I’m here for you. I don’t read much on feminism and am not well-versed on the priorities and projects that animate the movement these days. So, I will give a brief opening on Monday that focuses on Hillary’s explicitly pro-feminist rhetoric and policy agenda.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 14): Donald Trump: Who is to blame?

Monday’s Mtg: Which Of President Obama’s Achievements Will Endure?

Between now and next January a lot of retrospectives on the Obama Administration will be penned. I thought it would be helpful for us to get a head start on the debate, since Obama has achieved so much (for good or ill, YMMV) and since Hillary Clinton must run on his record and, if elected, govern with its consequences.

As we’ve discussed in meetings on other presidents (e.g., LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Wilson), it can take decades for a president’s true legacy to become fully visible. Even then, reputations are colored by the politics of whoever is doing the judging and wax and wane as new events shed new light on old decisions. I think our assessment of Obama has to be especially tentative because so much of what he accomplished has been incremental. At practically every juncture (health care, financial reform), Obama chose to achieve what he could, rather than go down in a blaze of ideological purity. Many of his accomplishments also were done via executive actions (immigration, civil rights enforcement), so they are easily reversible by a Republican president.

Still, when taken together, Obama’s eight years of incremental and contingent changes have added up to…a big f***ing deal, as VP Biden likes to say. No matter your political POV, the scale and breadth of the sum of those achievements are simply stunning. Obama entered office with a collapsing economy, two failing wars, and a political opposition dedicated to his destruction. Yet, he managed to affect major changes in almost every area of national government policy, including in

  • heath care;
  • energy, climate, and environmental policy;
  • education (K-12 + college);
  • financial market regulation and consumer protection;
  • labor law and civil rights enforcement;
  • immigration;
  • criminal justice reform; and
  • tax policy.

His foreign policy was not as, let’s say, action-packed and transformational as his immediate predecessor’s. But, Obama

  • continued the struggle against Al Qaeda;
  • wound down the Iraq and Afghan wars (and now shares responsibility for their aftermath);
  • negotiated a global climate treaty, historic nuclear agreements with Iran and India, and several major trade agreements; and
  • pivoted (kind of) U.S. foreign policy towards Asia.

Shocking disclosure: I’m a big fan.

So, are we just going to spend Monday evening listing our most (or least) favorite Obama accomplishment?  No, I hope not. In my opening I will briefly remind us of some of, IMO, Obama’s most important but less well-known accomplishments, like in energy and climate actions, education, and civil rights enforcement. But, with Republicans are committed to what they have told their supporters for almost a decade: All of Obama’s policies are disasters and they will reverse as many of them as they can, as soon as they get the chance.  So, my real idea behind this meeting is for us to explore this question:

  • What is it that makes a president’s achievements endure rather than be reversed and forgotten?

Do the policies have to “work;” i.e., solve the problems they’re intended to solve? Must they be popular? When do future leaders feel free to roll back what a predecessors did and when do they feel constrained?

Anyway, enough rambling. I don’t have time to add a lot of links this week. But, here are some assessments of the Obama presidency and related matters. I’ll keep my opening remarks short, especially if we have a big crowd like last week’s 22 souls.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Lists of accomplishments –

Assessments –

Conservative POV –

Next Week:   Are science and religion inherently in conflict?

Monday’s Mtg: Trumpocalypse and the Future of the GOP

As I sit here on Thursday night Donald Trump has just finished delivering his shocking, openly authoritarian victory speech at the Republican Party convention. I am beside myself.  I have never been more frightened for my country. The Republican Party has destroyed itself and may destroy us all.

Trump’s speech (and entire campaign) is an audition to be America’s dictator. When he paints his terrifying portrait of a helpless and exploited United States preyed upon by criminals and foreigners, he is describing a nation near its final, apocalyptic collapse and arguing that only he can prevent it. “Law and order” is means one-man rule, Constitution and checks and balances be damned. Make no mistake.

So, what is a group called Civilized Conversation to do? Talk seems so pointless now, so strongly must we all fight to stop this monster and the political party he now speaks for. The election will be close – count on it. This man is guaranteed 45% or so of the national vote and the party he is molding in his image holds more legislative power than at any time since the mid-1920s. I think tonight’s speech is so well-written, passionately-delivered, and rousing that the entire GOP leadership will cave in now to his grotesque spell. For now, it’s Trump’s party, body and soul, an enraged, terrified White nationalist party.

But, hold on. The future isn’t written yet. Only with time will we learn whether Trumpism really is a movement or just a man. I think we can discuss in a civilized (-ish) fashion how the Republican Party is likely to evolve from here. The GOP’s future will depend on many things besides November’s outcome. Leadership. Organization. The corporate, evangelical, and other wings of the Party. Media. Events. Even how the Democratic Party comports itself!

On Monday I will give a brief introduction on what the future of the GOP might depend on. This will be future-focused. For “theories of Trumpism” I refer you to our meeting we had on him last November. It is going to be very hard to turn the Republican Party from this path, given Trump’s immense talent at fear-mongering and persuading a crowd that he has the easy solutions he promises. But, maybe it can be done, and maybe the GOP can be something other than what it has become.

(Oh, and we should also discuss the many ways in which Trump is NOT conservative. The man has shredded conservative orthodoxy on trade, foreign policy, immigration, and much else, and I’m not sure what that signifies and where the Party will go.)

Civilized conversation? Always. But, after that strong-man oration and the crowd’s adulatory response? Saving our civilization is a part of the discussion now, too.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Causes and Lessons of Trumpism –

Future of GOP and Trumpism:

Next Week: The Democrats’ Turn – How far Left will the Party move?