Category Archives: Articles

Let’s Talk Each Other Down

Looking around this week — in the media, among my friends, inside my own head — I observed that a lot of people are freaking out. Because Trump was acquitted, because he has started his revenge tour, because Republicans know he abused his power and don’t care, because the Democrats are doing it all wrong, because a virus is spreading out of control, because the State of the Union was full of lies, because both the National Prayer Breakfast and the Medal of Freedom have been desecrated, because a US senator willfully and illegally endangered the life of a whistleblower, because it’s been 65 degrees in Antarctica, because the Attorney General has given Trump carte blanche to violate campaign laws, because a billion-dollar disinformation project has begun, and because, because, because.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

So if you come to me hoping I’ll tell you it’s all going to be OK — sorry, I can’t do that. But I can tell you this: Uncertainty is the natural state of human beings. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe things will be OK — or something in between, more likely. That’s how life is and always has been. It might be true that the arc of the Universe bends towards Justice, but you can never count on that bend being visible in any given lifetime. If you’ve comfortably lived in denial of that reality until this week, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. It’s not really my fault, but never mind: Accept my apology anyway, because probably nobody else will offer one.

You know something that’s even worse? You might be in this state of uncertainty for the rest of your life. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe we’re not. Nobody really knows. Democracy in America might soon be over, or it might get a reprieve. Truth might finally drown in a sea of disinformation, or maybe it will figure out how to swim in that sea. People are endlessly surprising. Just when you think they’re hopeless, they do something hopeful. And vice versa.

So: Breathe. Breathe again, to make sure that one wasn’t just luck. Keep breathing. You can do this, at least for now.

And try to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.

You can do something to make things better without being sure it’s going to work. Because … well, what else are you going to do? (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried giving up, but I can tell you a little about that too: It’s no fun either. Sometimes when you get worn down, you might think that waiting helplessly for inevitable destruction would be an nice relief. But trust me. It isn’t.)

Affirmations can be useful in a situation like this, but only if you choose to affirm things that are at least vaguely believable. Try this one: I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.

Now say it out loud. “I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.”

Maybe one or two of the things you’ve been trying to do really are doomed, and maybe that’s finally become obvious to you. You can shift your effort to something else. There’s no lack of things to do that still might be useful.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We all like to think that we do, but we don’t.

Now let me tell you something about the particular challenge we’re facing now: Trump. At his core, Trump is a bluffer. He puffs himself up to make people think he’s bigger and richer and stronger than he really is. It’s the only trick he knows, but sometimes it works: He scares people into giving up or going along. (That’s what we just saw happen in the Senate. You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.)

When something like that works for him, he uses it to puff himself up further and scare more people. That’s what’s been going on this week.

Don’t help him.

Don’t run around scaring other people about how big and powerful he is. When a bluffer gets on a roll, you can never predict how far it will go. But we do know one thing about bluffers: When their empires start to collapse, they collapse quickly, because each failure causes more people to think “I don’t have to be scared of this guy.”

You can never predict exactly when that process is going to start. The balloon always looks biggest just before it pops.

Steve Almond put it like this:

We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

I’ll quibble with him using the word optimism rather than hope. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But the key word there is might. If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

Jared’s Plan for Mideast Peace

It’s such a simple idea: If the Palestinians just surrender all their claims and accept whatever Israel is willing to give them, then there will be peace!
Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?


As soon as the Palestinians realize how easily they can achieve peace — just give up — I’m sure they’ll get on board with the “Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People” the Trump administration unveiled Tuesday. How can they refuse if Jared Kushner keeps sweet-talking them like this?

You have five million Palestinians who are really trapped because of bad leadership. So what we’ve done is we’ve created an opportunity for their leadership to either seize or not. If they screw up this opportunity — which, again, they have a perfect track record of missing opportunities — if they screw this up, I think they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they’re victims, saying they have rights.

Such a charmer, that young man. I wonder if he was this endearing when he proposed to Ivanka. (“Say yes. You don’t want this relationship to fail like all your others have.”) Later on in the same interview, we get to this:

The Palestinian leadership has to ask themselves a question: Do they want to have a state? Do they want to have a better life? If they do, we have created a framework for them to have it, and we’re going to treat them in a very respectful manner. If they don’t, then they’re going to screw up another opportunity like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.

Can’t you just feel the respect? Why wouldn’t you want to make a deal with somebody who sees you as a perennial screw-up?

Of course, Jared’s “state” is a euphemism for something far less than a state. As the map above shows, it is a collection of isolated regions, two of which are connected by a fantasy tunnel. Amir Tibon describes it like this in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

The solution that the Trump plan offers to this situation is the creation of a Palestinian “state” that could potentially be established four years from now, in the areas of the West Bank that will not be annexed by Israel. This future state, however, will have none of the actual characteristics of a state. The streets of all of its cities, towns and villages, as well as the roads connecting them, will be under the full control of the military of another state – Israel. It will have no control over its borders, which will also be controlled by Israel.

In addition, this state, despite Trump’s claim that it will have territorial continuity, will in fact be dissected by Israeli settlements that will remain as “enclaves” inside its territory and will be under full Israeli sovereignty. This means that Palestinian citizens of the future “state” could still stand at Israeli checkpoints – not at the border points between their state and Israel, but well inside their own state, between one town and the next. The official reason for these checkpoints could easily be given as the need to protect the Israeli communities located within Palestinian territory.

The chance that any Palestinian leader agrees to accept such a “state” under these conditions is nonexistent. What the Trump plan is offering the Palestinians is basically to take the existing reality – living under Israeli military occupation, with settlements spread in-between their cities, towns and villages – and to enshrine it by labeling it as a state.


The animating philosophy of the proposal is Might makes Right. Israel is stronger, and the Palestinians will never get rid of their Israeli overlords by force. So they should just give up. Forget about the ways they’ve been victimized, stop talking about having rights, and just take whatever the Israelis are willing to offer. Because if they don’t, the next offer will be worse. Israeli news anchor Eylon Levy said as much in the Washington Post:

[The plan] recognizes that any solution has to work with the fact that Israel has basically won, instead of denying it or attempting to reverse it.  … Throughout history, the victors have always dictated the ultimate terms of peace. Is that fair? Maybe. Is it how the world works in reality? Yes. Conflicts don’t end when both sides agree they are tired of fighting; they end when one side, the loser, recognizes it can’t keep up the battle and decides to get what it can before things get worse.

You’d think a culture that makes a shrine out of Masada would understand: At some point you just don’t care that the other side is stronger. You’re not expecting victory any more; you’re just trying to make your enemies respect you.


Coincidentally, Jared’s argument resembles the one Trump used to make to the contractors he shafted: It doesn’t matter who’s right. My lawyers can bankrupt you, so just take whatever I decide to pay you and be happy.


The announcement of the plan made a nice media-distraction event for Trump and for Bibi Netanyahu. Trump, of course, had an impeachment trial going on in the Senate, while Netanyahu is under indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu’s administration said the cabinet would vote Sunday to annex the major Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the ones that just about every country but the US and Israel think violate international law. But that vote didn’t happen, and Kushner is suggesting that it be delayed until after the Israeli elections in March.


Saturday, the Arab League unanimously rejected the plan.


For what it’s worth, I keep repeating the same analysis of the conflict. I see four possible resolutions.

  1. Two states, Israel and a new state where Palestinians have actual territory and self-determination.
  2. One democratic state, in which Palestinians become citizens of Greater Israel, and may eventually become a voting majority.
  3. One Jewish ethno-state, where Palestinians are a subject population, possibly with a puppet-government to save face.
  4. One Jewish ethno-state, from which Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed.

Every year, (1) and (2) seem less and less likely. Getting to either one involves building trust — Northern Ireland could be a model — but both sides seem intent on building distrust instead. Partisans of either side can give you a long list of events proving that the other side can’t be trusted and doesn’t really want peace.

The status quo is basically (3), and Jared’s peace plan seems designed to kill off (1) and lock (3) in place. Even so, though, (3) seems unstable to me. I don’t think the Palestinians will ever accept it, and at some point I think the Israelis will decide that the Palestinians are ungovernable.

That leaves (4), which is what I think will eventually happen. It will be a traumatic thing for the Israeli people to see themselves do, which is why it will take another couple decades for them to work up a sufficient self-justification. But the extreme right wing of Israeli politics is there already, and that seems to me to be the direction everything is drifting.

If Obama …

A series of thought experiments Democrats have been running for the last three years is the “What if Obama did this?” genre. It most recently showed up Wednesday, when House Manager Adam Schiff created a fantasy about Obama’s race against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Romney, of course, is now a senator and was sitting in the room.)

[Schiff] suggested the hypothetical example of Obama telling [the Russian president at the time Dmitry] Medvedev, “I know you don’t want me to send this money to Ukraine cause they’re fighting and killing your people. I want you to do me a favor though,” Schiff said, echoing wording in Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he allegedly asked him to investigate the Bidens.

“I want you to do an investigation of Mitt Romney and I want you to announce you found dirt on Mitt Romney,” Schiff continued with his hypothetical. “And if you’re willing to do that quid pro quo, I won’t give Ukraine the money to fight you on the front line. “

Schiff then asked senators if there is any question Obama would have been impeached for that kind of conduct.

“That’s the parallel here,” he said.

At times I wonder about the usefulness of if-Obama thought experiments, because they’re based on the assumption that the same moral rules ought to apply to everyone. In recent years, though, more and more Republicans have adopted a purely tribal point of view which rejects any reciprocity between Our Side and Their Side. Of course it would be wrong if Obama had done the same thing that is right when Trump does it, because by definition Obama is wrong and Trump is right. [1] Republicans seem to be losing the capacity to feel shame about this kind of hypocrisy. [2]

Even recognizing that, though, I can’t resist one more if-Obama thought experiment, because I don’t think Schiff’s fantasy goes quite far enough. Instead of 2012, let’s think about 2016, and suppose that Obama believed — as he undoubtedly did believe — that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the country.

Let’s take one further step and imagine that Obama understood what Vladimir Putin was capable of. Already in July of 2015, Trump is telling Russian agent Maria Butina that he would revoke the sanctions Obama had placed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. [3] So Putin has good reasons to want Trump elected. But what if Obama goes to Putin and puts in a higher bid for his support?

Maybe he says something like: “During the transition period after the election but before the new president takes office, I’ll be in a position to help you out in Ukraine — at least if the election turns out the way I hope it does. We’ll forget about sanctions, and if you want to take over the rest of Ukraine, that would be OK too; we wouldn’t do anything. Of course, we’d expect something in return. But anyway, I just wanted you to know that you should be rooting for Clinton, the same way I am.”

Obama doesn’t want to be guilty of a criminal conspiracy, so he doesn’t spell out what he wants, other than for Putin to “root”. But let’s say Obama’s personal lawyer — just to make it specific, let’s choose Greg Craig, a Democrat who was indicted in a Mueller-related case, but found not guilty — talks to some of Putin’s people and lets them know that Putin should do for Clinton all the stuff he had been planning to do for Trump. Again, nothing specific — just do it.

So Putin does: His people hack Republican computers and Trump campaign computers, then pick out the most embarrassing stuff and release it (drip, drip, drip) via WikiLeaks. They use their social media resources to push hundreds of anti-Trump fake news stories to exactly the kinds of wavering voters Trump needs. And all that stuff doesn’t happen to Clinton.

When Clinton wins, Obama does exactly what he said he would. He cancels the Russia sanctions, and stands by idly while Putin carves up the rest of Ukraine.

On the one hand, this is all reprehensible: My fantasy of Evil Obama has torpedoed an ally, put the rest of eastern Europe at risk of Russian expansion, and invited foreign interference in a US election. But by the standards put forward by Trump’s current defenders Obama has done nothing wrong.

  • He never specified what Putin should do, so there was no deal. He hinted and Putin understood what he meant, possibly due to more roundabout channels of communication, but that doesn’t matter. As Jim Jordan said about Trump’s Zelensky phonecall: “Tell me where the quid pro quo was.” If it’s not spelled out, it doesn’t count.
  • Laws were broken — anti-hacking laws, campaign finance laws, etc. — but because Putin broke them without Obama’s direct instructions, that’s crime doesn’t count against Obama. There may have been all kinds of collusion between Obama’s people and Putin’s people, but (as the Mueller Report says) “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” If there’s not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, there’s no problem.
  • Whether or not to defend Ukraine is a policy decision that is within the president’s power. He can’t be officially called to account for exercising his legitimate prerogatives, no matter how destructive to the national interest those decisions turn out to be. “Maladministration,” Alan Dershowitz tells us, “is not a ground for impeachment.”
  • But what about his corrupt intent in making this deal-that-wasn’t-a-deal? His party may have gotten political advantage from it, and national security may have suffered, but that doesn’t make it corrupt because Obama honestly believed Clinton’s election was in the public interest. Serving his party’s partisan interest above the national interest is not an abuse of power, because in the President’s mind, his party’s partisan interest is the national interest. As Dershowitz put it: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” It would be even less of a problem if he thought somebody else’s election was in the public interest.

So: trading Ukraine to the Russians to get Hillary Clinton into the White House — you may not like it, but it’s just one of those things. “Get over it,” Mick Mulvaney would say.


[1] This shows up most clearly in the Republicans whose beliefs about impeachment have made a 180-reversal since Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and his trial in 1999. Lindsey Graham is the most obvious example; he proposed a very expansive definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Clinton then but a very restricted one for Trump now. Mitch McConnell looks just as bad. In 1998 he asked the question: “Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?” This time around, he’s on the side of dodge, weave, and evade.

Lawyers who testified for the Republicans have also reversed themselves since Clinton. Then, Alan Dershowitz said “you don’t need a technical crime” to impeach Clinton. But as he watched these last two decades from his seat in the Afterlife, James Madison must have changed his mind. Because for Trump “the Framers intended that the criteria be, high crimes and misdemeanors — that is, existing criminal statutes.”

Jonathan Turley likewise didn’t think Republicans needed to prove that Clinton violated any specific law. “While there’s a high bar for what constitutes grounds for impeachment, an offense does not have to be indictable. Serious misconduct or a violation of public trust is enough.” But it’s not enough now that Democrats have impeached a Republican. “This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Given this context, I’m not surprised that Republican senators don’t worry about the precedent they’re setting for a future Democratic administration. The precedent is that the rules are looser for Republicans than for Democrats. I expect them to uphold that precedent in any future impeachment.

In case you’re wondering, I laid out my criteria for impeachment before I knew what Robert Mueller would report, and long before the Ukraine scandal erupted. The current articles of impeachment fit them perfectly:

(1) Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. … (2) The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. … (3) The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).

[2] I wonder how much this tribal perspective is related to the increasing identification between the GOP and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals see no similarity between their own sins (which God forgives) and other people’s sins (for which they will burn in Hell). So Trump is forgiven and Clinton is not — end of story.

[3] The 2015 video of Trump responding to Butina is worth watching for another reason: It demonstrates how much mental deterioration Trump has suffered in the last five years. In this video, he is asked a question and he answers it. He stays on topic for two whole minutes and speaks coherently the whole time. How long has it been since you’ve seen him do that?

Can Bankers Become Allies Against Climate Change?

The people who run the global financial system are beginning to recognize that “the stability of the Earth system is a prerequisite for financial and price stability”.


Bankers are easy to demonize. They are generally more interested in money than in people, and when they do show interest in people, it’s usually not the ones who are poorest and most in need of concern. On the contrary, they often align with large corporate interests that squeeze profits out of anyone they can victimize.

In short, if you approach the world from a moral perspective, you will often find bankers on the wrong side of the issues you care about. (At least in their role as bankers. In private life some may, for all I know, vote Green and write checks to the Sierra Club.)

But no matter how often they side with the dark angels, bankers are not themselves demonic. They are not into evil-for-evil’s-sake, and (unlike certain religious sects) they would rather not hasten the apocalypse. They just look at the world through a particular lens, and moral concerns have to bounce off several distant mirrors before hitting that lens.

Stability. One thing bankers do value is stability. Morally, that is sometimes a bad thing; it’s why they can be friendly to tyrants and skeptical of even the most justified revolutions. (In the lead-up to the Civil War, for example, few bankers were abolitionists, even in the North. Slaves represented a huge amount of capital, which collectively collateralized loans of enormous dollar-value. What would happen to the economy if all those people suddenly belonged to themselves, rather than to the owners who had borrowed against their value?) But stability is also a mirror in which they can see the threat of climate change: What could be more unstable than a world going through a climate catastrophe?

This week the Bank of International Settlements (described by the NYT as “an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks”) put out a report: The Green Swan: central banking and financial stability in the age of climate change. A lot of that report is full of banker-speak and is hard for non-bankers to read. But nonetheless I think environmentalists would do well to pay attention, because central banks could become allies in certain fights if environmentalists learn how to talk to them and recruit them. (The same might be said of generals, because the Pentagon also recognizes the dangers of climate change).

Perhaps more importantly, a lot of powerful people who don’t trust environmentalists or care about polar bears do trust bankers and care about the risk of financial collapse. Quoting the BIS (or the subsequent reports I hope to see from the Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank) will carry more weight with such people than quoting Bill McKibben or a report from the Environmental Defense Fund. Learning the language financial people use to express their climate concerns could help mobilize a larger coalition.

Background: black swans. One thing you need to understand about serious central bankers and macro-economists is that the Great Recession shook their confidence. A lot of them look back on the 2007-2008 collapse and think “Who knew that could happen?” Risks that they had been modeling as independent variables turned out to be correlated in ways nobody expected. So when the dominoes started to fall, the chain reaction went much further than anyone would have predicted.

That experience has led to interest in what have become known as “black swan events“. Black swans are an old metaphor for a simple fallacy: If you see a large number of things that look very similar (white swans), you start to assume that something radically different (a black swan) is impossible. But in fact black swans do exist. The term was popularized in financial circles by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who had the good timing to publish The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable in 2007.

The simple version of the black swan fallacy is that just because you’ve seen a lot doesn’t mean you’ve seen it all. You may feel confident because your data goes back 50 years, but what if there are catastrophic events that only happen every 100 years or 500 years?

The more complex version of the black swan fallacy is that statistical analysis often assumes that risk variables obey a normal distribution when the distribution actually isn’t known. That mistake can make extreme events seem far more improbable than they actually are. (When you hear statisticians talk about “long tails”, that’s what they mean.) Maybe something you’ve modeled as a once-in-500-years event is actually a once-in-40-years event that is overdue to happen.

Worse, there is a difference between risk and uncertainty. A risk is something that can be known and modeled. (A insurance company is taking a risk when it sells me life insurance, because I might die before I pay enough premiums to make them a profit. But the odds of a man my age dying in some particular future year are well understood.) Uncertainty is something you just don’t know. (Will Trump wind up in a war with Iran? How could you attach a number to that possibility?) Modeling something as a risk when it is actually uncertain can fool you into thinking you understand things much better than you do.

Green swans. One big problem climate-change activists have is that they are predicting things no living person has seen before. So rather than sober risk-managers, they can sound like religious fanatics. After all, somebody is always predicting the end of the world, and yet here we are.

We’ve seen a lot, so we think we’ve seen it all. And we’ve never seen Iowa turn into a desert or Miami get swallowed by the sea. (Until recently, though, we’d never seen Australia on fire either.) A very natural human response to such predictions is to say “That never happens.”

So the first challenge the BIS report has to overcome is its readers’ temptation to write the whole thing off as Chicken Littleism. That’s the point of its key image: the green swan. Green swans, like black swans, are unprecedented and largely unpredictable shocks to the system. But they don’t just surprise us because we’ve mis-estimated their probability; rather, they surprise us because we’ve entered new territory that we don’t really understand.

A green swan … is a new type of systemic risk that involves interacting, nonlinear, fundamentally unpredictable, environmental, social, economic and geopolitical dynamics, which are irreversibly transformed by the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate-related risks are not simply black swans, i.e. tail risk events. With the complex chain reactions between degraded ecological conditions and unpredictable social, economic and political responses, with the risk of triggering tipping points, climate change represents a colossal and potentially irreversible risk of staggering complexity.

Two kinds of shocks to the system. Green swan events are of two major types: physical shocks and transition shocks. A physical shock is something that happens in the natural world: fire, drought, flood. Normally such things happen on a local scale that local systems can more-or-less take care of. But climate change could cause much larger physical shocks; for example, if a major ice sheet slid into the ocean all at once, raising sea levels suddenly rather than gradually. Think about this not from a human perspective, but from a central-bank perspective: Port facilities around the world all get wrecked at the same time; all the beachfront property in the world has suddenly dropped in value; banks that hold mortgages on that property are insolvent, as are insurance companies. As in the Great Recession, the financial dominoes start falling; you can’t pay me, so I can’t pay the other guy, and bankruptcies cascade to people and businesses nowhere near the ocean.

A transition shock is the market’s sudden revaluation of some class of assets, maybe because of a new government policy (like a carbon tax) or because some herd instinct causes investors to all change their minds at the same time. Dealing with climate change is going to involve revaluing a lot of assets. The biggest example is the value of fossil fuels still in the ground. Energy companies carry those assets on their books and value them at trillions of dollars. But if the world gets serious about climate change, most of those fuels will never be burned, so they’re not worth much at all. What happens to the world financial system if trillions of dollars of assets are suddenly worthless?

The two kinds of shocks trade off against each other: If we transition to a low-carbon economy quickly, we’ll see fewer physical shocks, but more transition shocks. If we move slowly, there won’t be so many transition shocks, but bigger physical shocks are coming.

The tragedy of the horizon. This is another bit of econo-speak that environmentalists can use. Every economist understands the “tragedy of the commons”, when a shared asset gets ruined because each individual can profit by overusing it.

So like “green swan”, the “tragedy of the horizon” plays off a well-understood concept. This time, the tragedy is that typical financial analysis happens on a timescale that minimizes climate effects. This is a “tragedy” because there’s no villain; financial analysis just isn’t trustworthy over long timescales, so practical people have learned to ignore it. (Example: Estimates of next year’s US federal budget deficit are usually pretty good, but nobody believes the ten-year estimate.)

This is what Mark Carney (2015) referred to as “the tragedy of the horizon”: while the physical impacts of climate change will be felt over a long-term horizon, with massive costs and possible civilisational impacts on future generations, the time horizon in which financial, economic and political players plan and act is much shorter. For instance, the time horizon of rating agencies to assess credit risks, and of central banks to conduct stress tests, is typically around three to five years.

One challenge the BIS report sets for the financial community, but does not solve itself, is how to overcome that tragedy. To appreciate the full scope of climate change, you have to look 50 or 100 years into the future. A climate plan that just tells us how to get by for the next ten years is all but useless. But how can that kind of thinking interact with models of inflation or unemployment or GDP that are pure fantasy at those timescales?

Epistemological breaks. A lot of the subtext of the report is that bankers are going to have to get used to living with uncertainty. Climate change is a large-scale multi-disciplinary problem that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of precise econometric modeling a central banker would like to see. (An unpredictable drought may cause an unpredictable migration of refugees and an unpredictable glut in the labor market of the sanctuary country.)

The term the report uses for this is the “epistemological break”. In other words: the way you’ve been thinking about things just doesn’t work any more. The kind of “knowledge” you’re looking for doesn’t exist.

The report calls for two epistemological breaks: First, to place less importance on predictive analysis based on past data (i.e., next year’s earnings estimates), and instead to stress-test against a variety of forward-looking scenarios (i.e., how would this bank do in case of a sudden jump in the cost of carbon emissions?).

[T]raditional approaches to risk management consisting in extrapolating historical data based on assumptions of normal distributions are largely irrelevant to assess future climate-related risks. Indeed, both physical and transition risks are characterised by deep uncertainty, nonlinearity and fat-tailed distributions. As such, assessing climate-related risks requires an “epistemological break” (Bachelard (1938)) with regard to risk management. In fact, such a break has started to take place in the financial community, with the development of forward-looking, scenario-based risk management methodologies.

And second, to be proactive in pushing both governments and the private sector to implement carbon-limiting policies.

Whereas they cannot and should not replace policymakers, [central bankers] also cannot sit still, since this could place them in the untenable situation of climate rescuer of last resort

Central bankers like to portray themselves as “above politics”, but they certainly express opinions about taxes and deficits; they should do so about climate policy as well. (The report regards some form of carbon tax or carbon pricing as a no-brainer. Governments should do at least that much.)

So what’s a central banker to do? Typical central banking picks up the pieces after disasters happen. That’s what banks and governments did after the Great Recession: bought up troubled assets and created a lot of new money to get economies rolling again.

The report says that won’t work as a green-swan policy, because of the “limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital”. In other words, if the Earth stops producing the stuff humans need to survive, giving people money won’t help. In a limited disaster, money allows the people affected to import resources from elsewhere. But in a global disaster, there is no elsewhere.

Central banks’ main power is in creating money and setting interest rates, but they also regulate the banking system, which in turn influences the companies the banks deal with.

The ways in which accounting norms incorporate (or not) environmental dimensions remains critical: accounting norms reflect broader worldviews of what is valued in a society (Jourdain (2019)), at both the microeconomic and macroeconomic level. From a financial stability perspective, it therefore remains critical to integrate biophysical indicators into existing accounting frameworks to ensure that policymakers and firm managers systematically include them in their risk management practices over different time horizons

The report (in some of its more technical passages, which may have gone over my head) proposes a number of ways central banks might use this power to change the economy as a whole. By defining new measures of sustainability and demanding that client banks report those measures, a central bank can alter the overall financial culture, with the result that “climate-related risks become integrated into financial stability monitoring and prudential supervision”.

[A] systematic integration of climate-related risks by financial institutions could act as a form of shadow pricing on carbon, and therefore help shift financial flows towards green assets. That is, if investors integrate climate-related risks into their risk assessment, then polluting assets will become more costly. This would trigger more investment in green assets, helping propel the transition to a low carbon economy (Pereira da Silva (2019a)) and break the tragedy of the horizon by better integrating long-term risks

Adding up to this:

Faced with these daunting challenges, a key contribution of central banks and supervisors may simply be to adequately frame the debate. In particular, they can play this role by: (i) providing a scientifically uncompromising picture of the risks ahead, assuming a limited substitutability between natural capital and other forms of capital; (ii) calling for bolder actions from public and private sectors aimed at preserving the resilience of Earth’s complex socio-ecological systems; and (iii) contributing, to the extent possible and within the remit of the evolving mandates provided by society, to managing these risks

What’s it mean for us? The direction of the world seldom changes all at once, and different sectors catch on at different rates. As different segments of society change their minds, it’s important to let them do so, and to encourage them. Each will have its own language for talking about its new ideas, and they can’t be expected to learn our language just because we got there first.

During the transition period, people whose worldview comes from that sector will have both the new frame and the old frame in their minds simultaneously, and either can be activated depending on how you approach them. (This is similar to what George Lakoff says about swing voters. It isn’t that they have a well-worked-out in-the-middle worldview; it’s that their minds contain both a liberal frame and a conservative frame. Depending on how they are approached, one frame or the other will be activated.) If you want to get such people on your side, it helps if you learn the language of their new frame and bypass obsolete arguments, rather than sticking with the old terminology and insisting on winning those arguments.

Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)

By focusing attention on comparatively minor policy differences, the debates are obscuring a broad Democratic consensus that voters need to hear about.


Several years ago I was having lunch with a friend when the Democratic candidate for Congress came through the nearly empty restaurant, shaking the few hands available. After she left, our young waitress came to the table, and I could tell that she had a question unrelated to food. I expected her to ask whether we knew anything about the candidate, but her actual question was much more basic: “Do you know anything about Congress? Is it, like, important?”

That encounter taught me a lesson I have not forgotten: People who pay attention to politics often talk about “low-information voters”, but most of us have no idea just how low-information they are.

Back in 2004, Chris Hayes learned similar lessons from the undecided voters he canvassed in Wisconsin.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn’t name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The “issue” is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It’s what makes up the subheadings on a candidate’s website, it’s what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it’s what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it’s what we always complain we don’t see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … The undecideds I spoke to didn’t seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Year after year, elections come out they way they do because people like my waitress or Hayes’ undecideds vote one way or the other or stay home. Those decisions are made on a much simpler level than we usually imagine, and the arguments we find so convincing often miss their targets completely. If such voters are persuaded, it is more likely because of our earnestness or our tone or something we said in the first ten seconds. Or maybe we inadvertently convinced them to vote against our candidate for some similarly tangential reason.

That’s what I was thinking Tuesday as I watched the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus, which will happen February 3. Debates draw out differences, and when candidates share basic goals and values, their differences are often deep in the details of policy. Those policy distinctions — like Medicare for All vs. Medicare for All Who Want It vs. adding a Medicare-like public option to ObamaCare — mean nothing to most low-information voters.

Worse, the squabbling over programmatic details hides the candidates’ vast areas of agreement. The New York Times, justifying its decision to endorse both progressive Elizabeth Warren and moderate Amy Klobuchar this morning, wrote:

The Democratic primary contest is often portrayed as a tussle between moderates and progressives. To some extent that’s true. But when we spent significant time with the leading candidates, the similarity of their platforms on fundamental issues became striking.

I believe that those points of consensus should be the central message of the campaign against Trump. That consensus is the best definition of what it means to be a Democrat, and is a better predictor of what the next Democratic administration will accomplish than any particular candidate’s program — even the winner’s. (In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan had an insurance mandate and Barack Obama’s didn’t. But when Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, it had a mandate. So if you voted for Obama over Clinton to avoid a mandate, you failed in your purpose.)

Political wonks are always tempted to dive down into the weeds of policy and argue why Candidate X’s plan is superior to Candidate Y’s. And I understand how those differences can seem terribly significant when you are in the throes of a primary campaign. But I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to be doing when we get rare moments of national attention, as we did Tuesday. What the public needs to hear are the principles that unify Democrats and set them against the current administration, not the fine details of policy that differentiate one Democrat from another.

Charles Blow made a similar point Wednesday morning:

Trump has laid out his vision for America: It is the racial Hunger Games. … The Democratic candidates, too, would be well warned to stick to a vision — a diametrically opposite and dynamically animating vision that will activate and energize the targets of Trump’s aggressions.

If I see Trump as a pestilence I may not see in your tome of plans a cure.

Here’s where I stand: If Candidate A’s policies are analytically superior, but Candidate B is the more convincing proponent of the Democratic consensus, I want to vote for B. That’s the difference I’d like to see the debates showcase. That’s not “electability” as it is commonly discussed; it’s who we should want as our spokesperson.

What do I think is in the Democratic consensus? I thought you’d never ask.

1. If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.

If you showed this statement to the 20-odd candidates who have run for the Democratic nomination in this cycle, I firmly believe they would all agree with it.

Their differences are all about how to get there: What is the most efficient way to deliver that much healthcare? How would the country pay for it? What’s the most politically expedient path forward?

Bernie Sanders wants to get there in one fell swoop, with a government insurance plan that eliminates private insurance and is paid for by taxes. Most of the other candidates on the debate stage (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar) don’t believe they could pass such a plan, so they want to take a smaller step in the same direction by building on ObamaCare. (Once the public sees how that works and develops confidence in it, take another step.) Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between, proposing a Bernie-like program with a phase-in period.

That’s what they’ve been arguing about. Trump, on the other hand, has sabotaged ObamaCare, tried to repeal it in Congress, and is still backing a lawsuit that would declare it unconstitutional. Despite a lot of rhetoric about “replacing” ObamaCare, he has never released a plan for doing so. The upshot is that if he succeeds in his aims, tens of millions of people will lose health coverage.

2. We can and should do much more to slow down climate change.

President Obama did a number of things to slow down climate change, but Trump has undone almost all of them: Obama joined the Paris Climate Accord; Trump withdrew from it. Obama substantially raised fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; Trump initially froze them at the old levels, then agreed to a minor increase. Trump reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from plants that generate electricity. Trump’s plan to roll back standards on methane emissions is too radical even for some oil companies.

All the Democratic candidates want to do more than Obama did, not less. They disagree about how much more and how fast it can happen.

None of the candidates denies or tries to minimize the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change: It is real. We already are seeing the effects. It is caused primarily by the carbon emissions that happen when we burn fossil fuels. It will reach catastrophic levels if the world does not substantially reduce its carbon emissions.

3. If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.

Trump has reason to crow about the unemployment rate, which is very low right now. (Whether low unemployment is due to any policy of his, or is just the continuation of trends that started under Obama — that’s another debate.) But a lot of the people who have jobs are still not making a wage they can live on.

The federal minimum wage is still $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. The purchasing power (after inflation) of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. (The value of 1968’s $1.60 wage is $12.00 today.) In none of the 50 states is a two-bedroom apartment affordable on a full-time minimum wage.

President Obama tried to raise minimum wage to $9, but couldn’t get Republicans in Congress to go along. All Democratic candidates want a much greater increase. Both Bernie Sanders (the most liberal Democratic candidate) and Joe Biden (one of the least liberal) are calling for $15.

Democrats across the board want to create jobs paying good wages by repairing our country’s roads and bridges, modernizing the electrical grid, and shifting to renewable energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change.

4. The burden of taxes should fall primarily on those best able to bear it.

The benefits of the Trump tax cut went almost entirely to large corporations and the very rich. Despite the promises he often made during the 2016 campaign and repeated early in his administration, the new tax rules particularly favor people like him. In fact, many of the tax breaks that the law preserves or extends seem to be targeted precisely at benefiting Trump himself or his family. (That’s one reason he doesn’t want you to see his tax returns.)

This is part of a long-term trend that has lowered the tax rates paid by the super-rich.

(Sometimes you’ll see an article claiming that the very rich carry more of the tax burden than they used to, but these claims are deceptive: The very rich have seen their incomes go up many times faster than the rest of us. They get a much bigger piece of the pie than they used to, but while their share of the tax burden has gone up somewhat, it has not gone up proportionately.)

Corporations are also carrying a much smaller tax burden than they did in decades past. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy lists 60 corporations that among them made nearly $80 billion in profits, but paid no taxes in 2018 under Trump’s new law.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit (which Republicans thought was an existential crisis when Obama was president, but have since forgotten about) has nearly doubled under Trump — from $665 billion in FY 2017 to a projected $1.1 trillion next year. This comes at a time in the economic cycle when the deficit ought to be going down, because it will rise even further when the next recession comes.

All the major Democratic candidates would reverse most of the Trump tax cuts, and all call for shifting more of the tax burden back to the rich. Elizabeth Warren is the most vocal about this, calling for a 2% wealth tax on fortunes over $50 million. The rest don’t go quite that far, but all  agree that the rich should pay more.

5. If you want to develop your talents through education, money shouldn’t stand in your way.

States used to put big money into their university systems, but they no longer do. As a result, college of any kind has become unreasonably expensive — far more expensive than it was a generation ago. (Until 1970, the University of California charged California residents zero tuition.)

As a result, too many of our young people face a terrible choice: Give up on developing their talents after high school, or take on debts that they may never be able to pay off. Or their parents face the choice: See their children stuck in dead-end jobs, or take all the money they had hoped to retire on and hand it to a university.

Wasted talent isn’t just a personal tragedy, it’s a loss for all of us. If our young people don’t learn 21st-century skills, American businesses will have a harder time finding good people, foreign companies won’t want to open branches here, our economy as a whole will be less prosperous, and the professionals we have to deal with in our personal lives (doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, etc.) won’t be the best people. There is also a more subtle cost: the loss of the American dream. When only the rich can afford to send their children to college, the upper classes become entrenched; where you are born is where you will stay.

Democratic candidates have a variety of plans to do something about this: Some want to make public colleges free for everyone, or maybe just free for people whose parents aren’t rich. Some want to forgive all student debt, or only part of it. As with healthcare, the difference isn’t in the general principle, it’s in how to bring it about and who will pay for it.

The Trump administration’s priorities are diametrically opposed: They are constantly looking for ways to cut back on student aid or student loans, or to make them harder to pay off. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has consistently shown more interest in for-profit colleges that rip students off than in the students being victimized.

6. America should be a positive example to the rest of the world. When international cooperation is necessary to solve global problems, our country should lead.

We’ve fallen a long way from the “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan used to brag about. These days, if you’re a third-world dictator and you want to torture people or channel government money into your own pocket or use your law enforcement agencies to investigate people who cross you or accuse the press of being “the enemy of the people” or claim a phony emergency to grab power from your legislature, you just point to the United States and quote its president. It’s fine. All the best countries are doing it.

We’re now a country none of the other countries trust, because our word means nothing. Imagine how shocked our loyal allies in Canada were when we raised tariffs because we considered Canada a risk to our national security. Or talk to the Kurds, if you can still find any.

Historically, America has been an idealistic nation. Since World War II, it has led the community of nations towards higher standards of human rights and a freer exchange of ideas and people. The US has been key in setting up regional alliances for mutual security, with NATO being the shining example.

Today, the world faces many problems that no nation can solve on its own; most significantly, climate change, but also terrorism, nuclear proliferation, floods of refugees fleeing wars or climate-change-related catastrophes, and several others. But the Trump administration has chosen to step back from world leadership with a go-it-alone policy. Given our military power and central role in the world economy, no other nation can take our place.

Democrats want the US to be a good citizen of the community of nations, and to rally the nations of the world to confront the unique challenges of this century.

7. Every American should be encouraged to vote, and all votes should count equally.

For the last decade or so, Republicans all over the country have been putting obstacles in the way of people who want to vote, particularly if they are poor, black, HIspanic, or in school. Even if such people do manage to vote, gerrymandering can concentrate them in a small number of districts so that they wind up with fewer representatives in Congress or state legislatures. You can see the result in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans maintain power no matter how the people vote. (In 2018, 54% of Wisconsinites voted for Democratic candidates for the state assembly, but those candidates won only 36% of the seats.)

The first bill Democrats passed when they got control of the House of Representatives last year was House Resolution 1 of 2019: The For the People Act. That law would end gerrymandering, extend voting rights, and set up a program to limit the power of large donors to political campaigns. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

Ultimately, Democrats would also like to get rid of the Electoral College — which allowed Donald Trump to become president even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes.

8. All Americans should be equal before the law, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, religion, or any other characteristic that isn’t relevant to the purposes of the law. All citizens should be treated with equal respect by law enforcement.

“Liberty and justice for all” is a key part of our national identity, but we haven’t been doing a good job of delivering it. Race makes a difference at every level of our justice system: Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, leading to more arrests. Arrested blacks are more likely to be charged with crimes; charged blacks are more likely to be convicted; convicted blacks on average get longer sentences. The result is that a substantial portion of the black male population is in jail. (Laws preventing felons from voting, even after they leave prison, are a major way that minorities are prevented from exercising political power proportionate to their numbers.)

Far too often, black men and women die in encounters with police without ever reaching the justice system.

These problems existed long before Donald Trump took office. But as with climate change, the Obama administration was trying to do something about them, and the Trump administration has undone all that progress. In particular, Trump’s Justice Department has all but stopped oversight of racism in local police departments. Trump himself has actively encouraged police to physically abuse suspects.

Any Democratic candidate for president would get back on the Obama/Holder track of trying to reduce the racism in law enforcement and the legal system.

9. As much as possible, politics should be insulated from the corrupting influence of concentrated wealth.

Briefly, controlling campaign finance looked like a bipartisan issue. Republican Senator John McCain made it a central plank of his first presidential campaign in 2000, and he teamed with Democrat Russ Feingold to produce the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002.

But Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents have subsequently declared unconstitutional just about any substantive limits on political spending. One of the few remaining options for controlling big-money politics is disclosure (i.e., letting the public know who is financing political ads, rather than letting big-money interests hide behind shell organizations with vacuous names like “Concerned Citizens Against …”), but the Republican Senate has blocked any such legislation.

This is one of the clearest differences between the parties: Republicans want big-money donors to have as much power as possible, while Democrats want to limit the power of money in general, and (to the extent that those limitations prove impractical) enhance the power of small donors.

10. The basic constitutional covenant is still necessary and should be respected: majority rule that respects minority rights, three branches of government that check and balance each other, and an appropriate balance between the public good and individual freedom.

For years, preserving or restoring the Constitution has played a major role in Republican rhetoric, but President Trump has made a mockery of all that. This is one of the major issues in his impeachment, and should be a major issue in the 2020 campaign as well.

The Constitution assigns Congress the “power of the purse”, which means that no money can be spent without Congress’ approval. But when Congress refused to fund Trump’s border wall last year, even after a lengthy government shutdown, he declared a phony “state of emergency” and seized the money from other programs. He also illegally held up money that Congress had appropriated to aid Ukraine.

Congress has a constitutional duty to keep oversight over the executive branch, but Trump has routinely refused to provide subpoenaed documents and witnesses, arguing in court that he has “absolute immunity” against any investigations whatsoever. His legal arguments are absurd, but will serve to delay things in the courts long enough to keep the public from finding out what he’s been doing until after the election.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but he committed an act of war against Iran without consulting Congress.

Again and again, Trump has shown that he admires dictators: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping, and many others. (The New Yorker’s satirical Borowitz Report says “Ayatollah Mystified That He is the Only Dictator Trump Dislikes“.) That’s because he wants to be one.

In spite of decades of Republican rhetoric, Democrats are now the party that stands for the Constitution.

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.


In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.


[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

The Decade of Democracy’s Decline

When a decade ends, it’s always tempting to look back and come up with a single defining theme. Often that exercise winds up being artificial and its conclusion a bit forced. But as we approach the end of 2019 the theme seems clear: The story of the Teens was the decline of democracy.

2010 in the United States. On New Year’s Day in 2010, we were living in a very different world. Barack Obama had been elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing huge Democratic majorities to both houses. The first major sign of a rightward pendulum swing — Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the Senate vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death — would happen soon (January 19), but the extent of November’s Democratic wipe-out was not at all apparent yet.

Brown’s victory ruined the filibuster-proof Senate majority that the Democrats had maintained for a few months (since Al Franken had finally been seated in July), but Nancy Pelosi maneuvered her House majority and the reconciliation rules to get ObamaCare passed anyway by the end of March.

The economic disaster of 2008 was finally starting to resolve. When Obama took office, the economy had been hemorrhaging jobs, bankruptcies were starting to cascade, and the possibility of a Great-Depression-style collapse had seemed possible for the first time in almost 80 years. (One sign of the looming apocalypse: In September of 2008, a major money-market fund “broke the buck” and stopped redeeming its shares at $1.) The balanced-budget rules most states lived under had been forcing them to make the problem worse: As revenues fell, they had to stop construction projects, cut safety-net programs, and lay off teachers.

But by 2010, a variety of government interventions had begun to stabilize the situation: TARP and a loose Federal Reserve policy had stopped the banking collapse; a federal bailout saved the US auto industry; Obama’s $800-billion stimulus program had cut taxes, shored up state government finances, and started restoring the country’s infrastructure. Unemployment was still high and many people were still suffering, but the feeling that the bottom was about to fall out of everything had passed. A slow-but-steady economic expansion began, and has continued for the rest of the decade.

As the Republican revival took the form of the Tea Party, it was possible to believe in that movement’s grass-roots sincerity, despite the billionaire Koch money behind it. Perhaps large numbers of people really were alarmed by the rapidly growing federal debt, and by the government’s role in the economy, which the bailouts had at least temporarily increased. (By now, of course, we know that concern about the debt was entirely bogus. Trump’s looming trillion-dollar deficits disturb none of the people who angsted about Obama’s.)

Despite the Tea Party, though, the Republican establishment seemed firmly in control of the GOP’s direction. The Reagan policy configuration was unchanged: strong defense, a forceful American presence in the world, free trade, low taxes, low regulation, traditional sexual mores, and an immigration policy that accommodated business’ need for cheap labor.

But more than that, Republicans still participated in a national consensus on democracy so widespread it could mostly go unstated: The two major parties competed to persuade a majority of the American electorate, and whichever party succeeded in getting the majority of votes would, of course, control the government. Despite Republicans’ knowledge that they did better in low-turnout elections, and their occasional efforts to make voting harder for poor and non-white citizens, at least in public they had to acknowledge that voting was a good thing, something the public should be encouraged to do.

As the party of the rich, Republicans had always found it easier to raise large sums of money than Democrats. But controlling money in politics was still at least partly a bipartisan issue, exemplified by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. As a practical matter, Republicans were more likely to oppose campaign-finance rules than Democrats; but open defenses of plutocracy were rare.

For the most part, Republicans were still part of a nationwide consensus on fair play. This was best exemplified by a moment in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which a woman questioning McCain said Barack Obama was “an Arab”, and seemed ready to go further if McCain hadn’t taken the microphone away from her.

I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Violations could be found on both sides, of course, but the general consensus (at least in public) was that candidates should not smear each other in ways that would make it hard for the winner to govern.

A number of rules of fair play held in Congress as well. The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments, but both parties exercised this power with some restraint. For the most part, the president was allowed to get his way unless there was something egregiously wrong about a particular nominee.

There had been a few rumblings in the other direction. On democracy, Tom DeLay’s 2003 Texas redistricting plan intended to net more Republican seats in Congress just by shifting boundary lines, without the need to persuade any voters. As for fair play, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, had no qualms about blowing racist dog whistles in Obama’s direction, or accusing him of “pallin’ around with terrorists“. But these seemed to be excesses rather than signs of the future.

2010 around the world. Internationally, Europe was having a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than the US, and the biggest threat to the unity of the EU was that struggling economies like Greece might need to escape EU austerity rules and the discipline of the euro. The Syrian Civil War, with its consequent Syrian refugee problem, hadn’t started yet. (The entire Arab Spring, with it’s brief promise of democracy, had not yet bloomed and died.) Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment existed in Europe, but was nothing like the continent-wide issue it later became. Far-right parties in France and Germany had yet to take off, and Brexit was a notion from the lunatic fringe of British politics.

But the biggest difference was in eastern Europe. It was already clear by 2010 (to those who were paying attention) that Vladimir Putin was an autocrat running a government-shaped crime syndicate. But no one yet appreciated the threat he posed outside Russia, or foresaw that his democracy-to-autocracy model would be imitated in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Brazil, and even the United States. (My best description of that strategy is probably the one in the review of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, or possibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)

I would argue that Putin has been the single most influential figure of the 2010s. Russia in 2010 was (and still is) a relatively minor economy dependent on an industry with little long-term future (oil). And yet, look at all he accomplished: His ruthless intervention in Syria pushed millions of immigrants towards Europe, where his simultaneous information-warfare campaign inflamed anti-immigrant feelings and boosted nationalist populist movements across the EU. His thumb-on-the-scale was arguably the difference in both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. At the end of the decade, a foreign-policy goal of every Russia leader since Stalin might finally be in sight: the dissolution of NATO.

In 2010, it was even possible to believe that China would eventually find its way to democracy. The theory went like this: Sooner or later, the rising Chinese middle class would seek a voice in government. But while Chinese prosperity grew through the Teens, if anything China moved the other way politically. Power has increasingly become centered in President-for-Life Xi.

The Republican embrace of minority rule. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (reviewed here), Daniel Ziblatt examined different European nations’ paths toward democracy and found a key difference: It mattered how the old ruling class felt about yielding its power to democratic institutions. Britain developed a viable conservative party that (through its alliance with the Church of England and its traditional morals), saw a way to continue to compete for power in a democratic system. But Germany’s upper classes never stopped seeing democracy as a threat, and were constantly tempted to seize power in non-democratic ways, eventually producing Hitler rather than Churchill.

The big story of the Teens in the US was the loss of a conservative party committed to democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly found itself at odds with democracy, and instead has openly embraced minority rule. In the Trump Era, Republicans no longer even attempt to attract majority support: 46% was enough to produce an electoral college win in 2016, and Trump has spent the last three years talking almost exclusively to that 46%.

In fact, it’s worth looking at all three elected branches of government. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump got 62,984,828 votes (46.1%) while Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 (48.2%). In the 2018 elections for the House, Republican candidates got 50,861,970 votes (44.8%) and Democrats 60,572,245 (53.4%).

Computing the Senate popular vote is a little more complicated, because it takes six years for all the seats to come up, so you have to total across three elections. In 2014, Republican candidates got 24,631,488 votes (51.7%) and Democrats 20,875,493 votes (43.8%). In 2016 it was Republicans 40,402,790 (42.4%), Democrats 51,496,682 (53.8%). In 2018, Republicans got 34,723,013 (38.8%) and Democrats 52,260,651 (58.4%).

That works out to a total of 99,575,291 Republican votes and 124,632,826 Democratic votes. (The totals are roughly double the House totals because each state elects two senators.) That 25 million vote margin for the Democrats (roughly 55%-45%) has produced a 53-47 Republican majority.

Think about what that means: The American people voted for Democrats to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but in fact they only succeeded in giving Democrats control of the House.

The retreat from fair play. So far we’ve just talked about anti-democratic elements inherent in our government’s constitutional structure. But during the Teens, Republicans used that minority power to entrench minority rule further.

The 2010 census was the beginning of a redistricting wave that has gerrymandered both federal and state districts to lock in Republican majorities. On the federal level, the Democratic wave of 2018 (53.4%) was considerably larger than the Republican wave of 2010 (51.7%), but produced a smaller majority (235 seats in 2018 vs 242 in 2010).

But it is on the state level where democracy has truly vanished. I could pick several states as examples, but probably the clearest is Wisconsin, where gerrymandering has locked in a large Republican majority in the legislature that the Democratic majority in the electorate is unable to oust.

Despite Democrats winning every statewide office on the ballot and receiving 200,000 more total votes, Republicans lost just one seat in Wisconsin’s lower house this cycle. And that victory was by a razor-thin 153 votes. Democrats netted 1.3 million votes for Assembly, 54 percent statewide. Even so, [Assembly Speaker] Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.

Republicans in Wisconsin: Losing the vote, but holding the legislature.

Far from being embarrassed by their minority support in the electorate or cowed by the mandate voters gave the new Democratic governor, the Wisconsin Republican majority in the legislature responded to the voters’ rebuke by passing laws to cut the new governor’s powers.

And those totals are after considerable efforts to suppress the vote of blocs likely to support Democrats. The one-two punch of minority rule is

  • Make it hard for Democratic blocs to vote.
  • Herd them into a small number of districts so that even a majority of Democratic votes can’t oust Republican majorities in the legislature.

This works because of minority rule on the federal level: A minority president and a minority Senate get to stack the judiciary with judges who are fine with tactics that entrench minority rule even deeper. That’s how we wound up with a conservative Supreme Court that has refused to block voter suppression and gerrymandering, and has opened the door to unlimited money in political campaigns — including unlimited money to influence Senate approval of judges. So the initial anti-democratic tilt built into the Constitution has been amplified.

You might think this reliance on a minority would be an embarrassing secret for Republicans, but in fact it is not. More and more openly, they defend the notion that the majority should not control the government.

For example, the Electoral College used to be seen as a historical relic that wasn’t worth the trouble it would take to get rid of it. But now it is actively defended by conservative publications like National Review and politicians like Senator Mike Lee. The fundamental unfairness of the Senate is cast as the great wisdom of the Founders, who apparently foresaw that Californians wouldn’t deserve to have their votes count for as much as Alaskans.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t shameful any more, they’re just how the game is played. And unlimited money is “free speech”. Even violence is no longer beyond the pale: Trump has repeatedly warned of violence if his followers don’t get what they want, and Trump supporters like Robert Jeffress even talk about “civil war“.

The drift towards autocracy. Most worrisome of all, in my opinion, is Republicans’ increasing tolerance of and support for autocratic words and actions from their leader. I can find no parallel in American history for how Trump has handled Congress’ refusal to fund his wall: He declared a phony emergency and seized money appropriated for other purposes. Even a congressional resolution to cancel the emergency was unavailing: Trump vetoed it, and held enough support in Congress to block a veto override.

So the precedent is established: As long as a president’s allies control 1/3 of one house, he can ignore the power of the purse that the Constitution gives Congress.

Republicans in Congress have also refused to protect Congress’ oversight power. Since Democrats gained control of the House, the administration has blocked all attempts to investigate his administration.

Nazi comparisons should always be handled with care, but this one seems appropriate to me: It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do, as Germans brushed off the more outrageous sections of Mein Kampf. What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

Already, everyone responsible for launching the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has been hounded out of the Justice Department. Amazon has been denied a large Pentagon contract because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is critical of Trump.

It’s a mistake to write this off as “Trump being Trump”. If he acquires the power to inflict more punishment, as he well might if Congress fails to impeach him and the Electoral College re-elects him (once again against the will of the voters), more punishments will happen.

Trends are not fate. George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” So it is a mistake to despair. Trends often reverse right at the moment when they seem most unstoppable, and often the reversal is only apparent in hindsight. But it is also foolish not to notice the trend, which for the last ten years has run counter to democracy, particularly in the United States.

Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today

Nearly 200 Evangelical leaders responded to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which I discussed at some length last week in “The Evangelical Deal With the Devil“. How they chose to respond says a lot about how Trump appeals to their flocks.

CT’s case had three main points:

  • Trump is guilty as charged: “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
  • Beyond the articles of impeachment, Trump has conducted himself in a grossly un-Christian way: “[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
  • Religious leaders who defend Trump are distorting the Christian message and damaging the credibility the Evangelical movement: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Protestant Christianity has a long history of “remonstrances“, where some religious leader attempts to tell his colleagues that they’ve taken a wrong turn. (Arguably, Protestantism began with a remonstrance: Luther’s 95 theses.) So we know exactly how honest and sincere Protestant leaders respond to such challenges: They answer the points in the context of their faith.

In this case, a thoughtful counter-remonstrance would argue that Trump is not guilty, or that his overall behavior is not immoral, or that defending him is an appropriate example of Christian witness, not a distortion of it. You might expect a response full of Biblical texts and comparisons to proud moments from the history of the Evangelical movement.

The letter from the 200 does none of that. Not a single point from the editorial is confronted directly. Neither Trump’s impeachable actions nor his general morality is mentioned. The loss of credibility that comes from identifying Christianity with Trumpism is not addressed. Instead, the 200 responders make two points:

  • They feel insulted. The particular statements that they believe insult them are not actually in the CT editorial, but were made by the author in interviews. As so often is the case when conservative Christians claim offense, they are the ones who decided that the shoe fit them. The CT editor talked about “evangelicals on the far right”, but did not name any.
  • The author of the CT editorial is an elitist who looks down on less educated believers, so the majority of Evangelicals shouldn’t identify with him or pay attention to what he says.

Like so much of Trump’s defense in the larger culture, this argument is entirely tribal, and not at all based on facts or principles: Trump is one of us, and if you oppose him, you’re not one of us.

The one time the letter alludes to the Bible is an up-is-down distortion.

We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.

But Trump does not at all fit the model of a tax collector (like Matthew) or a “sinner” (like Mary Magdalene). He is a head of government, like Herod, who does not repent his immoral actions or seek to change. The Bible contains no example of Jesus (or any prophet) pandering to power in the way these Evangelical leaders have.

Quite the opposite, the prophets repeatedly confronted immoral rulers, as I have observed at length before. The Christianity Today editorial fits well into this prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. The letter responding to it does not.

The Evangelical Deal with the Devil

and why it won’t help them win the culture wars


When Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office, as “a matter  … of loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”, it acknowledged an argument in his favor:

his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy

but it characterized those benefits like this

no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

It worried that ultimately, as Christian leaders tie themselves to this “human being who is morally lost and confused”, Christianity itself will be tarnished.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency…. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.

CT’s editor Mark Galli, who wrote this editorial, is too benevolent to use this term, but the Christian tradition (not the Bible itself) contains a perfect description of the kind of bargain he is describing, in which worldly advantage is obtained in exchange for moral corruption: It is a deal with the Devil.

You might think Trump would deny such an implication, but in his tweeted response, the Artist of the Deal emphasized the transactional nature of his relationship to Evangelicals:

No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.

In other words: You got a good price for your soul, so why are you complaining?

The moral cost. An inescapable feature of a deal with the Devil is that there is always more to it than you bargained for. And so it is here. A simple votes-for-judges bargain might have made pragmatic (if not moral) sense for conservative Christians, and might even make it defensible (if distasteful) to “brush off … immoral words and behavior” when Trump or his policies are grossly incompatible with Christian ethics. But instead of just ignoring sin and injustice, Evangelical leaders have been drawn into actively promoting and defending it.

When the public became aware of the policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, some prominent Christian leaders stepped up to deflect blame away from Trump:

“It’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for these kids, who must be dealing with a great deal of pain and confusion,” [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins wrote in a June 15 statement. “But the origin of that pain and confusion isn’t U.S. law or the Trump administration. That burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” …

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, acknowledged the plight of the detained and separated children, but said he backs the president’s policy.

“Anybody with an ounce of compassion has to be disturbed by the scenes we are seeing at the border,” Jeffress said. “The only thing more gut-wrenching than the children separated from their families at the border is seeing children like Kate Steinle separated forever from her family.”

Kate Steinle was 30, not a child, when she died, and Jeffress did not explain how Steinle’s death might have been prevented by taking immigrant children — some as young as four months — away from their parents, or (if it could have been) how a Christian might justify such a moral trade-off. (This kind of reasoning is the exact opposite of the argument abortion opponents make against a rape exception: The child-to-be should not be punished for the sin of the father. “You are valuable no matter who your parents are, no matter the circumstances of your conception.”)

After the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (in which a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28), Jerry Falwell Jr. invented reasons to defend Trump’s pandering to the white supremacists in his base, and vouched for his character:

Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described “fine people” on both sides.

“One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct, he says what is in his heart,” Falwell told ABC’s “This Week” program. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Think about that: Standing against Nazis is being “politically correct”, while defending them is not racist.

What about sex? You might at least expect Evangelical leaders to denounce Trump’s sexual offenses. After all, we all saw him on the Access Hollywood tape confess to a pattern of sexual assaults, after which two dozen women came forward with corroborating testimony. But Falwell heard only “somebody bragging in a locker room-type environment about something they never did”. Falwell could have stayed silent; he could have withheld judgment — but no, he actively stood up in defense.

When it came out that Trump had cheated on Melania with porn star Stormy Daniels, and then paid for Daniels’ silence just before the 2016 election (a campaign-finance offense for which Michael Cohen is in prison), Perkins thought Trump should “get a mulligan“, as if the entire sleazy mess were just a bad golf shot.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies and author of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, remains unshaken:

I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage, but I still support [Trump’s] actions as president. I’m glad he’s president, and I would vote for him again.

Nancy Allen, a Baptist who wrote Electing the People’s President, Donald Trump can read the same Twitter feed that CT characterized as “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”, but somehow she has invented a New Trump, who (without confession or repentance) has been washed clean.

Donald Trump has changed. I believe that with all my heart. He has changed. He hasn’t had any more affairs. Now he’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect person. We know that there has been a change in his heart, and he respects our beliefs and values. And I believe he has some of the same beliefs and values.

Even Christian theology has been corrupted. Numerous Evangelical leaders have paved for Trump (and presumably him alone) an entirely new path of salvation from the one I learned about in Lutheran confirmation: He can be forgiven even while continuing to claim that everyone who accuses him is lying.

 

But why? By many accounts, the justification for the deal is a sense of desperation: Conservative Christians are losing the culture wars, and have to fight back harder. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Perkins echoes this sentiment.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

You may find it bizarre that Obama, who (unlike Trump) was scrupulously polite to his opponents, is seen as “the bully”. As best I can tell, liberal “bullying” consists mostly of recognizing same-sex marriage, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and requiring Christian businesses to offer their employees a full range of healthcare benefits.

But in addition to these actual affronts to Christian dominance, an array of imaginary threats have been concocted: Christianity will be criminalized! There will be widespread violence against Christians! Civil war! Christians are “one generation away” from a Nazi-like oppression!

Where actual offenses are lacking, terrifying ones can be envisioned in the future.

Why it won’t work. Selling out Christianity for Trumpism might even be justifiable for Evangelical leaders, at least temporarily, if Trumpist “street fighting” did what the Falwells and Jeffresses want: turned the country back towards the kinds of values Evangelicals promote — strict gender roles that reject homosexuality and female promiscuity, and postulate male/female as an either/or fixed at birth.

But the deal with the Devil won’t produce this outcome, because it’s based on a false diagnosis. Evangelicals aren’t losing the culture wars because they haven’t been tough enough. They’re losing because they’re wrong.

At its best, morality provides a way to skip bitter experience, because it offers you the same conclusions you would eventually come to yourself after years of pain and failure. How many people look back on failed relationships, estranged children, lost friendships and think, “If only I’d been honest with everybody from the beginning.”? How often do people confront a tangled web of cover-ups and wish they’d never cut the corner that got it all started? How many grasshoppers reach middle age and envy the ants whose consistent application of higher values have produced thriving careers, loving families, and valued places in supportive communities?

But not all attempts at moral rules work out that way. Some moral rules are arbitrary and bureaucratic. You keep them or you break them, and (unless you’re caught) life goes on with no obvious difference. Other rules are perverse: breaking the rule is the decision you look back on with pride and satisfaction. The regret you live with isn’t “Why did I do that?”, but “Why didn’t I see through that sooner?”

That’s where American culture is with traditional gender roles. We can see this most clearly in the public’s sudden acceptance of same-sex marriage, which went from an absurdity to a majority position in a little over a decade. In most other ways, that decade (roughly the early Oughts to the early Teens) was not a time of tumultuous change in social mores and attitudes. Politically, liberal waves in 2006 and 2008 were followed by a conservative wave in 2010, while approval of same-sex marriage continued to rise.

What changed? As gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more and more straight Americans got to know something about their lives, and came to rely on their own judgments of real people rather than the scare-stories promoted by Evangelical preachers.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t “presaging the fall of Western Civilization itself”, as James Dobson proclaimed in 2004 (and I think as far back as 1998, though I can’t find the link). As real experiences replaced stereotypes, same-sex marriage became the two guys who were renovating the house across the street, or the lesbian couple whose kid belonged to your kid’s playgroup. It was the cousin who could start being herself, or the son or daughter who now felt hopeful about life. Gay and lesbian couples weren’t engaged in some horrifying sham whose purpose was to undermine marriage for the rest of us, they were seeking many of the same happily-ever-afters we all were.

The reason American young people in particular are so accepting of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is that they have grown up with out-of-the-closet friends. (I love the unconflicted coming-out story the CW Network wrote for its new Batwoman character. In 7th grade, when Johnny told everybody Kate was a lesbian, “I said ‘So what?’ and punched him in the mouth.”) They have seen the reality of the situation, and so will never be convinced that their classmates are minions of Satan.

Occasionally I hear white racists opine that blacks were better off under slavery, but I’ve never heard an African-American make that claim. In the same way, I’ve never heard a gay person say, “I wish we were all still the closet.” The era when homosexuality was a shameful secret, like the era when women could aspire only to “ladylike” futures, was a Dark Age. Nearly everyone cares about somebody whose life would be ruined if we really did “Make America Great Again” by going back to the values of the 1950s.

And for what? What possible benefit to straight white men would be worth rolling back the liberalizing waves of the last sixty years?

If the majority of the American people have anything to say about it, we’ll never find out. Not because some demon has tricked them, because of the authentic morality their life experience has taught them.