Tag Archives: democracy

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

Nationalism Reconsidered

For decades nationalism was a taboo term, but now it’s back. Why are so many people attracted to it, and why aren’t I one of them?


A few weeks after the election, in “Should I Have White Pride?“, I put forward the idea that we now needed to start answering questions we used to write off, and discussing issues we used to think were settled. OK then: Nationalism. What about it?

For decades the concept was in the doghouse, but the Trump administration has put nationalism back into the public conversation. In his 60 Minutes interview earlier this month, Steve Bannon talked glowingly about “Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda” and claimed that “Economic nationalism is what this country was built on.”

Trump himself tends not to use the term, but often invokes the concept. “America First” is fundamentally a nationalist slogan. In his speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, he repeatedly invoked “sovereignty” and stated: “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.

This is a big change. Between and after the world wars, books like All Quiet on the Western Front portrayed nationalism as a kind of collective insanity that induced millions of otherwise sensible Frenchmen and Germans to repeatedly try to kill each other. But in his UN speech, Trump draws a different lesson from the wars. He ignores the nationalism embodied in slogans like “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!” or enacted by Japanese kamikaze pilots crashing their planes into American ships, and focuses only on the “good” nationalism of the Allies:

In remembering the great victory that led to this body’s founding, we must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.

For decades, a “national liberation movement” was at best a phase a Third World society — Vietnam, say, or Zimbabwe — might go through while escaping colonialism and finding its place in the world. But the whole point of international institutions like the UN was to help First Worlders rise above such atavistic motivations. Not any more. Trump’s vision of the UN seems less influenced by Star Trek‘s Federation of Planets than by Robert Frost’s often-misquoted maxim that “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. … Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.

(That quote invites a question: Can different values, cultures, and dreams respectfully coexist within a nation? Or is that a problem?) In the Trump administration, globalism is the dirty word. The nation-state is an end in itself, not something we should be trying to transcend.

Nationalism and essentialism. Before criticizing nationalism, it’s important to understand the attraction of it. The root idea of nationalism is that nations are, or should be, more than just lines on a map. Ideally, a nation represents a convergence of territory, culture, and government. A variety of factors — typically ethnicity, language, religion, and/or shared history — give a population a common identity as “a people”. That people occupies a territory, and expresses its common will through a government that is sovereign over that territory.

In this vision, being English or French or Japanese means far more than simply living inside the boundaries of England or France or Japan, or satisfying the legal conditions for citizenship. It means sharing the almost mystical essence that unites the English, French, or Japanese people.

At its best, this identity as a people gives a country a unity that makes it governable, and a common purpose that allows it to accomplish great things. We can easily see the lack of such a national essence in the failure of American “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is comparatively easy to draw borders on a map, to write a document that defines a constitutional republic within those borders, and to establish a government by holding elections under that constitution. Whether or not that government actually takes hold, though, depends on whether it corresponds to something its citizens can identify with and feel loyal to. Constitutions and elections can be how the popular will expresses itself. If there is no national identity, though, and hence no popular will, elections simply become a way of deciding who will dominate who. Officials will be corrupt, and citizens will show them no loyalty beyond what the police can force out of them.

But nationalism also has a down side: It creates dissonance between the actual citizenry and the ideal citizenry. Some Frenchmen are just “more French” than others. Some U.S. citizens are real Americans, while others are not quite so real. Even if their ancestors had lived in Germany since before there was a Germany, even if they spoke perfect German and loyally paid their taxes, and even if they had fought for the Kaiser in World War I, Jews could never be part of the German Volk.

Nationalism also provokes a disruptive desire to get the boundaries right. Hitler’s initial expansions — Austria, the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, and the Danzig corridor of Poland — were justified by his ambition to unite the German Volk under a single Reich. Similarly today, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the pressure he is putting on the eastern provinces of Ukraine are part of a vision that unites all the ethnic Russians in the nation of Russia.

And if boundaries won’t move, then people must. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are the ultimate expressions of nationalism. If you don’t fit the national identity and you aren’t willing to accept slavery or some other subordinate status, then you have to go.

Finally, national identity often comes packaged with a national mythology that justifies dominating others. It’s no coincidence that nationalists are also the Americans most likely to believe in American exceptionalism.

When nationalism and democracy were allies. One of the key ideas underlying President Wilson’s 14 Points for establishing peace in Europe after World War I was “self determination“. In the 19th century, the world had been dominated by big cosmopolitan empires like Austria-Hungary or the Ottomans. The Czars ruled far more than just the Russians, and the English governed both nearby Ireland and distant India. Even France, if you looked closely, was a polyglot of Normans, Bretons, Provencals, Burgundians, and many others who were only beginning to identify as a nation and speak a common language (for more than just government and trade).

In an era where democracy was only beginning to catch on in Great Britain, the United States, and a handful of other places, cosmopolitan empires seemed normal. Government wasn’t supposed to express the popular will, it was an organizing service offered by a central authority. If the ruling House established trade, promoted the arts, and kept the peace — what more did you want?

But when World War I left Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in tatters, the victorious nations had to decide what to do with the pieces. Their internal squabbles had been the sparks the lit the war to begin with — the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and all that — so the victors weren’t inclined to just prop up new Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman emperors. So what, then?

Wilson’s solution was to identify natural ethnic boundaries and create new nations to match them.

National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. “Self determination” is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.

Having been established around the peoples who lived there, Wilson expected the new nations to be fertile ground for government by the people. In this sense, nationalism and democracy would go hand in hand.

From self-determination to ethnic cleansing. In fact Wilson’s vision was not implemented all that well; the borders established by the Treaty of Versailles involved as much national score-settling as self-determination. But Wilson got perhaps more credit than he deserved for his idealism. (In retrospect, his support for nationalism abroad paralleled his racism at home. Wilson re-segregated government offices, and screened Birth of a Nation in the White House.)

On the ground, ethnic boundaries were never quite so natural as he had imagined, and many Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and others wound up on the wrong side of the borders defining the nations of their peoples. Many moved, while others stayed and were now oppressed by the local majority rather than by a distant emperor. Jews, Roma, and other dispersed peoples were often worse off than they had been in a cosmopolitan empire.

As the remaining empires dissolved in the subsequent decades, national self-determination was often associated with either ethnic cleansing or a semi-voluntary mass migration motivated by fear of the new majority. The British Raj, for example, split into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. But there had never been a clear territorial separation between the two religions, so millions moved or were moved, with much violence on both sides.

In the long run, does democracy require nationalism? It’s worth considering why the Versailles negotiators couldn’t have just declared a unified Republic of Austria-Hungary; written a modern constitution that defended the rights of all the Serbians, Jews, Maygars, and other ethnic groups inside it; and held elections for a new Parliament. For that matter, why couldn’t we do the same today with Earth?

The answer is that the inherent political discord of a democratic republic is only stable if it is an island floating on a broader sea of public consensus. Constitutional rights only matter if the public actually believes in them, so that whoever gains power will feel constrained to defend everybody’s rights, and not just the rights of a particular party or ethnic group. As the U.S. Senate has been finding out over the last decade or so, unwritten but broadly shared standards of fair play are as important — and perhaps more important — than constitutional guarantees.

In many countries, a disputed presidential election like the U.S. had in 2000 would have led to civil war. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled, Gore conceded, and subsequent elections were held on schedule in 2004 and 2008. When Bush’s chosen successor lost the 2008 election, we had a peaceful transfer of power.

That happened because all sides had confidence in American standards of fair play. If Gore’s supporters in 2000 (or the outgoing Bushies in 2008) had believed that they were all about to be rounded up and shot, civil war might have seemed like a more attractive option.

Confidence in the underlying consensus limits the stakes of an election, and allows the losers to retreat and regroup rather than panic. Because of that consensus, we argue vociferously over things like tax rates and health insurance, but we don’t consider killing off all the old people. Anti-gay bakers may or may not have to make cakes for same-sex weddings, but they won’t be sent off to re-education camps. Larger or smaller numbers of undocumented Hispanics may be deported, but Hispanic citizens will not be ethnically cleansed. We may or may not create hurdles to voting that many people will lack the will to jump, but we will not revoke the voting rights of entire races or religions. In some future progressive administration, billionaires may have a harder time multiplying their wealth and passing it on to their descendants, but they won’t become enemies of the people whose estates are confiscated and whose children are impoverished.

In short, we can vote about the things that divide us, and live with the outcome, because we share a broad consensus on the graver issues that large numbers of people would be willing to kill or die for. (When the consensus ruptured on slavery, we did have a civil war.) A country that doesn’t have such a consensus won’t be a stable democracy, no matter what its constitution says.

A nationalist believes that such a consensus can only come from a shared identity as a people, which is based on shared culture, language, religion, and history. Anything that dilutes that identity — say, by bringing in a bunch of immigrants who don’t fit the national identity — undermines the national consensus that democracy depends on.

National identity in America. Trump/Bannon American nationalism has a nuanced relationship with racism. Both will deny that they are racist, and in one sense they are justified. Bannon put it like this:

We look after our own. We look after our citizen, we look after our manufacturing base, and guess what? This country’s gonna be greater, more united, more powerful than it’s ever been. And it’s not– this is not astrophysics. OK? And by the way, that’s every nationality, every race, every religion, every sexual preference. As long as you’re a citizen of our country. As long as you’re an American citizen, you’re part of this populist, economic nationalist movement

But last summer he told Mother Jones that he had made Breitbart “the platform for the alt-Right“, which clearly is racist. Both Bannon and Trump appeal to the racist leanings of their base voters, sometimes pretty explicitly.

Here’s how I interpret the nuance: The national identity Bannon/Trump are trying to defend against dilution is white, Christian, straight, English-speaking, and perhaps a few other things. That’s why Bannon can correct Charlie Rose’s statement about “the Trump base” with “the American people”. To the extent that Americans are “a people”, Bannon sees them as the Trump white Christian base.

But that’s a description of an ideal. Few Americans fit the ideal perfectly; most of us are only “real Americans” up to a point. So Trumpists don’t have to be against any individual Hispanics or Muslims purely because of their race or religion. It’s only when large numbers of people differ significantly from the ideal that dilution becomes an issue. If America stopped being a white country or stopped being a Christian country, that would be a problem for them.

So whether they’re bigots depends on what you mean: They don’t necessarily hate individuals based on their race or religion. But all races and religions are not created equal, at least not if you want to fit in with the American people.

Why I’m not a nationalist. If you look back at American history, our national identity has always been an issue, and in retrospect it is obvious that the people who wanted to defend it have always defined it too narrowly. The Founding generation seriously debated whether Catholics could be good Americans, and most doubted that they could. The flood of German immigrants in the early 1800s (my ancestors) threatened the nation’s English heritage. The subsequent waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and Slavic immigrants were also controversial in their day. How could we possibly assimilate so many of them all at once?

One reason the South hung onto slavery so desperately was that Southern whites didn’t believe that whites and blacks could share a society, certainly not as citizens with equal rights. If blacks became the majority (as they already were in South Carolina and Mississippi) and had equal rights, then they’d define a black society, and whites would be the slaves. Or else there would be a race war, and one would wipe out the other. That’s what Jefferson was talking about when he described slavery as having “a wolf by the ear. We can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” The choice was slavery or genocidal race war, because the national identity had to be either white or black.

In retrospect, the national identity has changed a lot over the years, and the broad consensus underlying our democracy has shifted from one era to the next. Even using the most generous estimates, English-Americans are only 1 out of every 4, and may be less than 1 out of 10. (John Adams, I’m sure, would be horrified.) Whites are less than half of the population of California, and yet democratic institutions continue to function there. White protestants are less than half of the population nationwide, but blacks, Catholics, Jews, and even atheists and agnostics seem to have caught on to being Americans.

These changes can be disturbing if you are part of a declining majority. (I still get edgy when I am surrounded on public transit by people speaking a language I don’t understand.) But it’s important not to confuse personal discomfort with a danger to the Republic.

In short, I see a wide gap between a white/Christian/English-speaking identity and the national consensus that keeps democracy functioning. The idea of America has always been more flexible and resilient than the Americans of any given era have imagined. People come here because they find the idea of America attractive, and not because they want to tear it down. But they have also always tried to hang onto part of the heritage of the old country, wherever it was.

I have much more faith in the American people than I have in our ability to define what makes us a people, or to determine what kind of people we should be in the future. We will evolve, and in another 250 years we’ll be as unrecognizable as today’s America would be to a young Ben Franklin. That is as it should be.

Fascism as a Unifying Principle

Trump is scary when he tries to divide Americans against each other. But his vision of unity is even scarier.


The televised speech Donald Trump gave last Monday evening was billed as the introduction of a new military strategy for Afghanistan, but it began with a plea for national unity.

During the previous week, the President had been taking heat for his statements about the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which he said was attended by “very fine people” in addition to the obvious Nazis and Klansmen. The rally’s violence, which culminated in a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, was the fault of “both sides”.

Critics (like me) saw Trump siding with racists and bigots, and refusing to hold them to the same standards he applies so enthusiastically to Hispanics and Muslims. Across much of the mainstream liberal-to-conservative spectrum, pundits wondered: Couldn’t he at least try to be a little bit presidential and say something unifying rather than divisive?

In the Afghanistan speech, he tried. I don’t want to take him out of context, so I quote at length:

Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds — they achieved total immortality.

By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together — and sacrifice together — in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.

The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget: that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.

Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.

The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win — let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

I got chills listening to that, but not in a good way.

Probably most Americans who heard the speech didn’t share my sense of ominous foreboding. If you’re a Trump supporter, you probably heard the kind of bold patriotic sentiments you wish our leaders would express more often. And even those who listen to Trump cynically probably heard only boilerplate rhetoric: Our country is good, our soldiers are brave, so let’s all wave our flags and try to get along.

But there’s something deeper going on in this passage. It expresses a vision deeply at odds with the traditions of the American Republic.

The vision of the Founders, which they embodied in the Constitution, is of a social contract: In order to secure our own rights, we recognize the rights of others. Because we want respect for ourselves, we grant respect to to our neighbors. “As I would not be a slave,” Abraham Lincoln said when he was running for the Senate not quite four-score years later, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Lincoln said nothing about “loving” the slaves, because in the American tradition that’s not where rights come from. America has never been about love, neither love for each other nor even love for the Nation as an abstract entity. (On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, many were denying any emotional connection at all with the Nation. The States, they held, had merely formed a confederation, which had no claim whatsoever on the loyalty of individuals.)

What Trump is describing on the other hand, is a sort of emotional socialism. In economic socialism, the Nation collects money and redistributes it to make sure everybody gets a share. But in Trump’s vision the Nation is the focus of our love, which it then redistributes to all our fellow citizens. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.”

This is not a new idea for Trump; it was in his Inaugural Address:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The basic pattern goes back much further, to a Masonic phrase that was taken up by many 19th-century Christians: “The brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.” You should love other people, because you love God and God loves them.

But Trump’s formulation has one very significant twist: America is playing the role of God. In a nutshell, that’s what nationalism is: an idolatry in which the Nation becomes the central object of worship — God the Fatherland.

Now look at the other concepts Trump is presenting: total allegiance, loyalty, patriotism, heroes sacrificing themselves to become immortal, the obedient military as the ideal to which the rest of society should aspire, and our dead heroes as the symbol of the moral debt we owe to our country.

These are the emotional underpinnings of fascism.

You may not recognize them as such, because all our lives we’ve been told that fascism is ugly. These sentiments, though, don’t seem ugly at all, at least at first glance. On the contrary, they are moving and inspiring, noble and even beautiful in their own way. We all want to be immortal, we want see ourselves as selfless heroes, we want to love and be loved by those around us. Particularly at this cynical moment in history, we want to believe that something is worthy of our total allegiance.

We are like crusaders who have trained all our lives to battle a dark and hideous Devil, and so are completely unprepared when we encounter Lucifer, the Morning Star, the shining Angel of Light.

Fascism in its original form wasn’t all book-burnings and death camps. It was also a good job building the autobahn, wholesome outings with the Hitler Youth, and a feeling that your country was moving again; France and Britain weren’t going to kick it around any more.

I’ve urged you before to watch Triumph of the Will, the classic propaganda film that recorded the pageantry surrounding the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. You will find nothing ugly in it, other than your own knowledge of what comes next. In one rally after another, different groups of Germans focus their love on Hitler, the symbol of the German Fatherland, who reflects it back to them.

It’s beautiful. Hitler talks not about himself, but only of Germany and the greatness of the German people. He calls for them to be unified as never before. A group of infrastructure workers march by, in uniform, each carrying a spade as a soldier would a rifle (because the military is the model all should aspire to). Hitler tells them:

The concept of labor will no longer be a dividing one but a uniting one, and no longer will there be anybody in Germany who will regard manual labor any less highly than any other form of labor.

To a group of children he says:

We want to be a united nation, and you, my youth, are to become this nation. In the future, we do not wish to see classes and castes, and you must not allow them to develop among you. One day, we want to see one nation.

Only in hindsight do we see the flaw in this system: If we focus our love on the Nation (and on the Leader who symbolizes the Nation), and the Nation reflects that love to its citizens, then the Nation can cut off the flow of love to anyone it decides no longer belongs to it. In Germany, the exclusion process started with Jews and Socialists, and then spread until it reached people like Martin Niemöller. The suffering of the excluded wasn’t worthy of compassion, because they were never respected for what was inherent in their humanity. Germans had only loved them because they thought (wrongly, as they were later informed) that such people belonged to their Nation.

You can already see a similar exclusion starting to happen in Trump’s speech. Did you catch that “one nation under God”? Where are America’s atheists and agnostics in that vision? When we love America, do we love them as well? Or have they already been cast out?

And how specific is Trump intending to be when he says “God”? Americans who worship Allah or Brahma or some larger pantheon — are they under God, as Trump and his evangelical base understand the term? What about Jews or Unitarians, who fail to recognize two-thirds of the Trinity? Or liberal Christians, who may have a more deistic, impersonal view of the Creator? When we unify as “one nation under God”, who are we intending to leave out?

Another (largely Catholic) group is so obviously excluded that it need not even be mentioned: immigrants from Hispanic or other not-recognized-as-white cultures. They are being cast out in a literal, physical sense. So when ICE knocks on their doors in the middle of the night, we can avert our eyes and feel nothing. We need not inquire where they are going or what will happen to them. No one should be held accountable for abusing or mistreating them. The Nation and its Leader does not love them, so neither should we.

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?


I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.


[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

The Peril of Potemkin Democracy

Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler to bring an end to the Republic.


One of the most difficult puzzles of the Trump administration is figuring out which dystopian scenario to worry about. Depending on who you listen to, everything Trump does is a feint meant to misdirect us away from the main threat, which is somewhere else.

Maybe Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts“, Stephen Miller’s assertion that the president’s power “will not be questioned“, or the president’s own declaration that CNN and the other mainstream news sources are “enemies of the American People” are assaults on the fundamental basis of democratic governance, or maybe they’re shiny objects intended to distract the press from digging into Trump’s radical appointments. Or maybe putting a buffoon like Rick Perry in charge of our nuclear energy programs is itself meant to split Congress on partisan lines so that neither party will get around to investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia. Maybe Russia is a red herring, and we ought to be paying attention to all the ways Trump and his cronies are setting themselves up to profit from his presidency. Or maybe the profiteering is small potatoes next to the alt-right influence of Steve Bannon, whose prophecy of a global war with Islam might be self-fulfilling if Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban recruit enough young people into terrorism. Or maybe the Muslim ban is just a stalking horse meant to produce a clash with the judiciary, which Trump hopes to crush in the ensuing constitutional crisis.

I could keep going. Like a comic-book villain, Trump seems to be advancing towards the Apocalypse in all directions at once. Does that mean all roads need to be guarded equally? Or are all but one or two of the threats just distractions intended to split opposition forces? Is each proposal just the first step on a long march towards tyranny? Or is Trump like any other new president, checking off boxes on his list of campaign promises and hoping his various constituencies will be satisfied with a few symbolic baubles, so he can eventually focus on the things he really cares about? And what are those things?

Uncertainty of threat leads to uncertainty of response. Should we focus on throwing Trump’s allies out of Congress in 2018, or will that be too little too late? Right now, should we be calling our congresspeople? Marching in the streets? Planning our escape to Canada or Sweden? Or stockpiling arms for the inevitable civil war? Is paranoia making you worry too much? Or is denial making you too complacent?

A key point in Trumpian strategy is to keep your opponents rattled, and in that he is definitely succeeding. Probably the best line in SNL’s People’s Court skit wasn’t trying to be funny at all. The judge says: “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” Lots of us do.

So, acknowledging the uncertainties and the twin risks of paranoia and complacency, let’s see if we unrattle ourselves and focus our concern in the right places.

Why do people do what they do? This observation isn’t terribly deep, but it does help organize my analysis: What people do is always a combination of what they intend and the opportunities they happen across. For example, some people are in the careers they’ve pictured since they were kids, while others went wherever the jobs were when they graduated. Two people might work across a desk from each other, but one got there through a long-term plan and the other happened into it.

World leaders are the same way: They do some things because that’s why they set out to become world leaders in the first place. They do other things because the opportunity presents itself or some situation thrusts itself upon them. Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society because that’s what he always wanted to do; he saw himself as a protege of FDR, so he wanted to be remembered as the president who completed the New Deal. But his response to an unanticipated challenge also made him the Vietnam War president.

So there are two parts to figuring out what to fear from Trump. First, what drives him, so that he will set out to make it happen? And second, where are the opportunities he might try to exploit?

Drives. Let me start by saying that I’ve never met Donald Trump, so all my opinions about him come at a distance. But at the same time, he has been in the public eye for decades and hasn’t exactly hidden his personality, so I’m not just shooting blind.

My take on Trump is that his drives are all personal, and he has no fixed political goals at all. This is the biggest reason why comparisons to Hitler are misguided. Hitler was ideological. Any unscrupulous German politician might have opportunistically used anti-Semitism to rabble-rouse. But Hitler was so identified with it that he carried out the Final Solution in secret, and speeded it up as the war began to go badly. He seemed haunted by the idea that he might lose power before he finished his genocide. Similarly, he was always planning to attack Russia; the German people needed to expand in the east at the expense of the racially inferior Slavs.

You’ll search in vain for any similar fixed political goals, good or bad, in Trump. He’s been both pro- and anti-abortion. He’s been a libertine and the candidate of the Religious Right. He was for the Iraq War until he decided he had always been against it. During the campaign, his policy prescriptions were all over the map: The government spends too much, but should start a massive infrastructure project. It should both get out of healthcare and make sure everybody gets covered. He is simultaneously a hawk and an isolationist, a champion of both the working stiff and the billionaire who keeps wages low.

One reason Congress is so frozen at the moment is that even after face-to-face meetings where public pandering can be put aside, Ryan and McConnell still have no idea what Trump really wants them to do. Even ObamaCare repeal — which every Republican from Trump on down pledged to do on Day 1 — is frozen, largely because Trump has not committed himself. He has left Congress to face the real-life difficulties of healthcare, while he floats vaguely above them, ready to tweet out his wrath if Congress’ program doesn’t fulfill his impossible promises.

But Trump is a bundle of personal drives: He wants to be the center of attention, to be admired and idolized. He needs to win, to never be wrong, and to be better than whoever people might compare him to. Fame and TV ratings and crowds are a few ways he measures his success, but the biggest is money and the appearance of money.

Politics is just another game that he can win, and so prove his superiority. And if being president also makes him a lot of money, that’s a double win. Everything else is just a move in that game. Does he hate Muslims or Mexicans? Not really, I think. But a lot of people do, and they’ll cheer for him if he says and does anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican stuff.

While he is not ideologically racist, he is favorably inclined towards any argument that justifies his own superiority. In practice, that can sometimes lead to the same result. Sexism, I believe, runs a little deeper: Women are simultaneously individuals to be dominated as well as chips in his competition with other men. Being shown up grates on him, but being shown up by a woman is doubly galling.

What I don’t see in him is an urge to remake society in his own image. He has no vision like a thousand-year Reich, a new Soviet man, or anything else that would lead to a micro-managed totalitarian system.

The opportunity that doesn’t exist. Even if Trump didn’t intend to go there, you might still imagine him opportunistically drifting into a Hitler-shaped or Stalin-shaped hole in American society. I firmly believe that there is no such hole. The 21st-century authoritarian model is quite different (as we’ll discuss below).

Germany in 1933 and Russia in 1917 were both countries in great economic distress, dealing with the aftermath of a humiliating defeat in war. Both had nostalgia for a former era when a strong ruler was firmly in charge.

Trump’s appeal is based on a dim echo of that situation. Many Americans are disappointed in their economic prospects, but compared to Depression-era Germany, few are desperate. (Wondering whether your salary will ever justify your student loans is a world away from wondering what bread will cost next week.) America’s persistent inability to wipe out enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria is frustrating, but doesn’t compare to Russia’s or Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.  Trump’s rhetoric is nostalgic, but the leaders of those warmly-recalled eras were grandfatherly men like Eisenhower or Reagan, not iron-fisted czars or kaisers.

Trump has many fans, but Trumpism runs shallow compared to Hitlerism. In 1933, virtually every part of German society had its own Nazi movement eager to take power. In 2017, it’s hard to picture what a Trumpist takeover of the universities or of California would even mean, much less who would do it or how. The difficulty Trump is having staffing his administration is a symptom of this shallowness. He won with 46% of the vote, after all, and many who voted for him were not happy about it.

The appeal of Potemkin democracy. While America as a nation is not experiencing the kind of despair and defeat that leads to totalitarianism, many groups within America have seen a long-term decline in their influence and status, with no end in sight. Many members of these groups are deeply nostalgic, and prior to Trump’s election felt the kind of hopelessness that yearns for radical change.

These are the people I described in 2012 in “The Distress of the Privileged“: whites, men, conservative Christians, native-born English-speakers, and so on. These groups have never been oppressed in America and face no prospect of it, but they used to dominate society to an extent that they no longer do. That relative loss of power feels like persecution, even if in reality it is nothing more than a loss of privilege. [1]

But many of them experience that pseudo-persecution intensely, and believe it is being thrown in their faces constantly: when their doctrines are no longer taught or their prayers recited in public schools; when they have to compete in the workplace on near-equal terms with blacks and immigrants and women; when courts take the side of gay couples against the Christians who want to discriminate against them; when they express their distress in public and do not see their problems move immediately to the top of the agenda; when history classes call attention to the flaws of their heroes, or to the contributions of members of other groups; and on many other occasions. Those who look for these insults to their pride, and seek out media that highlights and exaggerates them, can find something every day.

These are the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s base, and who will be willing to watch democracy crumble if it allows them to regain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. While the extreme edge of this group contains open white supremacists, theocratic Dominionists, and even self-proclaimed Nazis, for the most part its members are not that radical: They’re happy with an American-style democracy as long as they’re comfortably in the majority and the elected government favors them. That’s what they’re nostalgic for.

But as they have sunk towards minority status, more extreme methods have begun to appeal: suppressing other voters in the guise of preventing “voter fraud”, gerrymandering legislative districts so that their minority of votes can dominate Congress and the state legislatures, shutting down immigration from people not like them, suppressing protest with police violence, and so on.

For the most part, their ideal America would be a Potemkin democracy. It would have the appearance of free institutions: elections, media not directly controlled by the government, opposition politicians not in jail, and so on. But the outcomes of those elections would never be in doubt, and democratic methods would never be sufficient to achieve equality for non-whites, non-Christians, or those that white Christians disapprove of (like gays).

The autocracy model that works. In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Frum described how democracy slipped away in 21st-century countries like Hungary, South Africa, and Venezuela. The Washington Post paints a similar (if less fully developed) picture of the year-old populist government in Poland.

What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

In Poland:

In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

The national broadcasting network has lost much of its independence, and the Catholic media outlets are happy with the new regime, so the overall news coverage is positive. Cosmopolitan Warsaw is dumbstruck, but in the countryside the new government is quite popular. Some say its economic policies — subsidizing couples with children and lowering the retirement age — aren’t sound in the long term, but facts and numbers aren’t making much of an impact on the public debate.

The ultimate model of a 21st-century autocrat, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose praises Trump often sings. Putin’s situation gives him many advantages that Trump lacks: Pre-Putin Russia in many ways resembled the pre-totalitarian societies I discussed earlier, with extreme economic distress, national pride wounded by defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of its Soviet empire, and nostalgia for past dictators. But even as Putin becomes (by some accounts) the world’s richest individual, and as his hold on government is increasingly unassailable, Russia continues to have many of the trappings of democracy. There are elections, even if it’s hard to participate in them. [2] Some limited media criticism is tolerated, though sufficiently annoying critics do sometimes drop dead under suspicious circumstances. Putin even respected Russia’s presidential term-limit law, stepping into the Prime Minister’s role for a term to let someone else serve as a figurehead president.

Frum sums up:

Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.

First steps. It’s not hard to find steps Trump has already taken down the Potemkin democracy path. As often as he verbally attacks CNN, there is virtually no chance of troops seizing its studios in a totalitarian coup. But Jared Kushner has already met with a high executive of CNN’s corporate master, Time Warner, to criticize CNN’s coverage of the new administration. According to The Wall Street Journal, he called out two commentators by name: Van Jones (a black) and Ana Navarro (a Nicaraguan immigrant). The implied threat is all too obvious: Billions of dollars hang on whether the Trump administration approves Time Warner’s proposed merger with AT&T.

There is no need for Trump critics like Jones or Navarro to wind up in Guantanamo. It is sufficient if he can get them shunted off to media outlets that only liberals or people of color pay attention to.

Similarly, Trump has talked about expanding the scope of libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations. Melania is already suing one, using the lawyer that Peter Thiel used to kill Gawker. The point, apparently, is not to recover damages, but to put critics out of business.

Under the guise of “reforming the bureaucracy” or “draining the swamp”, Trump seeks to populate government service with people loyal to him rather than to the missions of their departments.

His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business empire, his lack of transparency about his finances, and his flagrant use of his position as president to promote his profit-making properties are all part of this pattern. Frum projects these trends into 2020:

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

The repeatability of 2016. As Trump is fond of reminding us, the experts said he couldn’t win in 2016, and they were wrong.

But it’s worth considering exactly what they were wrong about. What made Trump’s victory so implausible was that he consistently spoke to a base that was nowhere near a majority of the American people. It seemed obvious that his appeal could not translate into a majority of the votes cast.

And it didn’t: He got 46% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48%, a difference of nearly three million votes. What everyone failed to see was that:

  1. The combination of sexism, a long-term build-up of anti-Hillary hype, Trump’s relentless lock-her-up negativity, and unethical meddling by Russia and the FBI would make Clinton unacceptable to enough voters that the election would be close, despite Trump’s general unpopularity.
  2. The inherent gerrymandering of the Electoral College would allow Trump to win despite being outvoted by a clear margin.

After taking office, Trump has continued to speak only to his base, which is still an electoral minority. Unsurprisingly, a whopping 55% of Americans now view him unfavorably after only one month of his presidency.

But couldn’t the same strategy work again in 2020? Given enough repetition, a sufficiently cowed media, new illicit meddling (maybe by a Trump-tamed NSA this time), and relentless efforts to smear whoever the leading Democrat turns out to be — “Pocahontas” Warren, for example — couldn’t he repeat the same trick and be re-elected with no more popularity than he had in 2016?

What to expect. What Trump wants and has always wanted is to make vast amounts of money, to be courted by his fellow billionaires, and to have the power to take revenge on those who slight him. The repressive kleptocracy model offers all that.

To stay in power — and ideally to hand power off to a chosen successor like son-in-law Kushner or daughter Ivanka — Trump must keep the loyalty of his distressed/privileged base. In order to do that, he will offer them some substantive benefits. But ultimately he has no loyalty to them, so he will consistently attempt to give them symbolic victories that cost him nothing, or to take credit for far more than he actually does. The most efficient way for him to maintain their loyalty is to keep them constantly agitated by imaginary insults from their enemies, which Trump will defend them against. [3]

That base will continue to be an ever-shrinking minority, but by making it increasingly harder for others to vote, for immigrants to enter the country, for resident aliens to become citizens, for opposition parties to bring their case to the general public, and for voting majorities to achieve actual power, Trump will endeavor to enlarge that minority’s power far beyond its numbers. In doing so, he will simply be extending and exaggerating policies the Republican Party and the conservative media have pursued for many years.

Accompanying these policies will be the constant attempt to increase public cynicism. Sure, Trump lies, Trump profits from government, Trump bends the rules in his favor, but that’s just politics. Everybody lies, everybody cheats, all news is fake.

The threat, then, isn’t that some Reichstag-fire incident will set off a well-planned takeover that overnight makes America unrecognizable. On the contrary, America in 2020 will be very recognizable, as long as you don’t look too deeply.


[1] This is not to say that some members of these groups don’t have genuine problems worthy of government help — ex-workers of dying industries in dying-industry towns, like West Virginia coal miners, for example. But even here, what thrusts them into public attention isn’t the degree of their distress, it’s that they’re native-born English-speaking white men in distress. It’s the my-problem-should-move-to-the-top-of-the agenda privilege.

Tim Wise comments:

When white people are hurting economically we’re supposed to feel their pain and “bring the jobs back” to their dying rural towns. But when people of color lack jobs in the cities (in large part because of the decline of manufacturing over 40 plus years, as well as discrimination) we tell them to “move,” to go to school and gain new skills, and we lecture them on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps because the government doesn’t owe them anything. But apparently we DO owe white coal miners and assembly line workers their jobs back because remember, out of work white men are “salt of the earth” while out of work people of color are lazy.

[2] Garry Kasparov discusses the difficulties of getting on the ballot and campaigning in Russia in his book Winter is Coming. For example, the rules require your party to have a nominating convention of a certain size, but what if no one is willing to displease the government by renting you space for it?

[3] A good example was his rally this week in Florida, which Melania opened with the Lord’s Prayer. Not only does that give conservative Christians a we’re-still-in-charge-here thrill at no cost to Trump, it allowed the pro-Trump side of the media to further their Christian-persecution narrative.

Supposedly liberals were up in arms about the prayer, but I would never have heard about it if not for Fox News’ coverage of how up-in-arms people like me are. The liberal web sites I regularly cruise didn’t find it worth mentioning. (Fox’ sources are social-media posts by ordinary people. You could find similar posts objecting to more-or-less anything that happens.)

In fact, a campaign rally is a private event, so opening it with prayer does not violate church-state separation. If Trump wants to signal to non-Christians that they are not welcome at his rallies, that’s up to him. I was not offended and I suspect very few liberals were.

How Populism Goes Bad

Perversely, sometimes “We the People” are anti-democratic


The word populism sounds like it ought to mean something close to democracy. Both are based on ancient words for “the People” (demos and populi), so you might expect them to be just different ways of saying the same thing: rule by the People.

The Trump campaign has been widely (and I think accurately) described as populist. He has constantly talked about “giving government back to the People”. The Tea Party rhetoric he built on was all about “We the People”. I don’t think that rhetoric was cynical: Tea Partiers really believe that they represent the People.

And yet Trump has also been widely described (again accurately, I think) as authoritarian and anti-democratic. Populist and anti-democratic: How is that even possible?

Like this: Populism differs from democracy in a few important ways:

  • In populism, “the People” isn’t everybody.
  • While democracy is “government of the People, by the People, and for the People”, populism can get so focused on the for that it stops caring about the of and by.
  • Because democracy is of and by the People, democratic government is defined by process. But populist movements want results.

Let’s go through that in more detail.

Who are the People? By its nature, populism is oppositional. In addition to the People, there is also an Elite they need to struggle against. As John Judis puts it in The Populist Explosion:

Leftwing populists champion … a vertical politics of the bottom and the middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.

But in fact the problem in rightwing populism lies even deeper. In my Conservative-to-English Lexicon, I make fun of the Tea Party practice of describing some Americans as more “real” than others.

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”
Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

But this isn’t just a quirk of language, it points to a genuine difference in worldview. For comparison, consider what people mean when they describe someone as “a real man”. Being biologically male isn’t the half of it. To be real, a man has to match a cultural ideal of how men are supposed to look, think, and act. So gays are out, as are men who have effeminate voices or gestures, are too fat or too skinny, or  aren’t interested in sports.

Similarly, in populism “the People” are the real people — the real Americans, real British, real Poles, real Austrians. There is an implied ideal of the kind of people the nation is “for”. Some people match that ideal model and some don’t.

For Trump/Tea Party populists, the real Americans are as I described: mature white conservative Christians. They’re also English-speaking (with a native-born accent), straight, and pro-capitalist. They are comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, and if they happen to be unemployed, divorced, or without children, it’s not their fault; they identify as hard-working family people, whether they really are or not.

If you define the People that way, then I suspect Trump did win the “massive landslide victory” he claimed. The “millions of people who voted illegally” he tweeted about might be a pants-on-fire lie, but the notion in his supporters’ minds that millions — even tens of millions — of votes were cast by someone other than the People is absolutely true. Black lesbian Spanish-speaking atheist socialists voted, and those votes counted just as much as their own. It doesn’t seem right to them, because America is for real Americans, not just the people who satisfy the legal requirements to become citizens and vote.

This is why they aren’t bothered by what Democrats describe as “voter suppression”. If blacks or immigrants or people who don’t speak English have to jump through some extra hoops before they vote, and if some large number of them get frustrated and give up before they manage to cast their votes, that’s all good. The franchise wasn’t really meant for them anyway.

A lot of liberals interpret this attitude as hatred of the left-out groups, but it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. More accurately, it is a sense of ownership and entitlement: It’s my country, not your country, but I’m content to let you live here in peace as long as you recognize that. The hatred only shows up when that ownership feels challenged.

For, not of or by. As the Trump administration took shape after the election, most of the key positions went either to billionaires, generals, or people connected to Goldman Sachs. The top-level departments (State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Intelligence) are all to be headed by white men. Of the top White House staffers, all are white men but Kellyanne Conway, who holds the vague title of “counselor”.

It’s been a long time since an administration looked so little like America.

The white male dominance comes from what we just talked about — who “the People” are, and what it means to be “real”. (Real women don’t want to rule the world. Even Conway had to explain how she could work in the White House but still put her family first. Nobody raises this question about Trump’s male appointees, and Trump himself has no similar worries about his responsibilities to his 10-year-old son Barron, who at least for now will remain in New York with Melania.) But it’s hard to understand how the stereotypic white-working-class Trump voter can see himself in the 3G (Goldman, generals, and gazillionaires) axis.

And the answer is: He doesn’t expect to see himself, any more than he sees any resemblance between his own life and Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle of celebrity and wealth. Trump is supposed to be his champion, not his buddy. Likewise, he expects the Trump administration to be for him, but not to listen to him or be filled with people like him.

Results, not process. If you look at the Constitution, you’ll see that it says practically nothing about results. The Preamble is a mission statement expressing broad hopes about what the new government might accomplish with the powers the Constitution defines. But beyond that, the document is all process: This is how you pass a law. This is how you elect Congress and the President. This is how judges get appointed, treaties get approved, and so on.

It doesn’t tell you much of anything about the results that will come out of that process: who will serve in the government and what laws or treaties they might approve. It doesn’t specify a maximum tax rate, a balanced budget, the size of the army, an official language, or much of anything else.

The reason for that focus on process is that government of and by the People doesn’t happen by itself. A constitution for an absolute monarchy could just be one line: “Do what the King says.” But any large group of people is a cacophony. The larger the group and the more democratic it wants to be, the more processing it needs. (Occupy Wall Street encampments were famous for their General Assemblies, whose meetings could go on for hours each day.)

But populists typically don’t care that much about simply being heard or having representation. They are fighting a battle against the Elite (whatever that term means in their particular situation) and they want to win it.

To his critics, one of the most mystifying aspects of Trump’s nomination and election has been why the voters didn’t hold him responsible for his repeated violations of democratic norms. Every major-party candidate since Nixon has released his tax returns, but Trump never did and apparently never will. Presidents since Lyndon Johnson have used blind trusts or generic investments like government bonds or index funds to avoid financial conflicts of interest, but not Trump.

His supporters don’t seem to care. If foreign governments want to put money in Trump’s pocket by holding events in his hotels or by giving regulatory favors to his construction projects, they’re free to do so. It may seem incestuous for Trump to have regulatory authority over banks he owes money to, but so what? Who cares whether he holds press conferences, whether there’s any way to make him answer a question, or whether his answers bear any resemblance to reality (or even to what he said last week)?

Those are process issues. His supporters want stop illegal immigration, and perhaps legal immigration as well. They want manufacturing jobs to come back from China, and coal miners to be able to make the kinds of wages their fathers did. They want to stop gays from getting married and women from getting abortions. They want terrorist attacks to stop, ISIS to fall, and America’s enemies to be sorry they messed with us.

They’re sick of good process, and of politicians who check the right boxes and say the right things, but don’t get the results they want.

How democracies die. Democracy does have a way of getting tangled in its own processes, and American democracy has gotten more and more tangled as polarization has increased. Back in October, I listed a series of situations where the country is stuck in a status quo that nobody wants: millions of undocumented immigrants living off the books, a budget process that yields perpetual deficits and lurches from one threatened government shutdown to the next, unfilled judicial vacancies, and a Medicare system that creeps ever closer to bankruptcy.

At some point, people stop caring about good process, they just want it all fixed. If a Julius Caesar can come in and make things happen, that sounds like an improvement. (I’ve been discussing this prospect for a while in my “Countdown to Augustus” posts.)

But all those processes are there for a reason, as countries that discard them usually find out fairly quickly.

How populism turns very, very bad. If a populist movement’s definition of the People matches the voting rolls closely enough, or if it includes a lot of people who can’t vote but wish they could, then that movement will be pro-democracy, as Occupy Wall Street or the Bernie Sanders campaign were.

But that’s not the only way things can go. If a populist movement feels blocked by the checks-and-balances of democracy, or by the votes of people it thinks shouldn’t have a vote at all, then democracy itself can become the enemy. If it is forced to choose between democracy and the results it wants, it may choose the results.

That’s why authoritarian populism is not a contradiction. The pattern of a popular dictator enacting laws to defend the common people against an entrenched aristocracy goes back not just to Caesar, but before that to the Greek tyrants. (The word tyrant didn’t pick up its cruel, negative connotation until Plato — an aristocrat — wrote about tyranny generations later.)

The ultimate example of populism gone bad is Nazism. We don’t usually tell the story that way: In pop-culture references, Hitler’s regime is usually presented as a totalitarian pyramid of fear, which nearly everyone would have liked to topple if they hadn’t been so intimidated. [1] And many certainly were cowed into submission, but most were not. The sad truth of Nazism is that for most of its reign, the Hitler regime was popular.

This comes through in a book I mentioned last week, They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. After the war, Mayer went to Germany and befriended ten low-level Nazis in a small town. Almost unanimously, they faulted Hitler only for making tactical errors, like attacking Russia. But until the war, or even until the war started going badly, they felt that Hitler had come through for them: He pulled Germany out of the Depression. Good jobs were plentiful. Roads got built. Social services (for the People) improved. Law and order was restored. Germany was great again.

Unless you were Jewish, of course, or belonged to some other disapproved or disloyal group. But if you were a member in good standing of the German Volk, you were probably doing OK. A few thugs were expected to do horrible things in the name of the regime, but most people only had to avert their eyes from time to time, and not wonder too much about those who had been sent away.

Having a restrictive definition of the People, letting a leadership cadre govern for you without much oversight, ignoring process issues to focus on results … it doesn’t necessarily have to go to a bad place, but it certainly can.

The present moment. It’s usually a mistake to invoke the Nazis in a political discussion. [2] In our pop culture they’ve become cartoon villains [3], so associating them with your opponents often becomes a cheap shot.

So I should explicitly state that I don’t think Trump is Hitler, and I have no specific reason to think he wants to be. A few of his supporters are openly Nazis, but the vast majority are not. I invoke the Hitler regime as a cautionary tale, not a prediction.

If we want to make sure that the Third Reich continues to be nothing more than a cautionary tale, though, we need to learn its lessons.

  • It’s dangerous to exclude anyone from the People. Any time some infringement of rights has an implicit justification of “It’s only Muslims” or “It’s only inner-city blacks”, that implication needs to be called out. It’s hard to explicitly defend the contention that certain people don’t count, but it’s easy to slip such an assumption into the background.
  • The inability of democratic government to make progress on widely recognized problems is itself an argument for authoritarianism. So Democrats need to be very careful about how they use obstruction. “Turnabout is fair play” is a dangerous principle. We should block things because they’re bad, not just because we want to be as big a nuisance to Trump as Republicans were to Obama.
  • While continuing to call Trump to account for ignoring good process, we can’t make our stand entirely on process issues. We always need to be looking for the connection between bad process and bad results. It’s not enough to point out that there’s a hole in the fence; we need to catch the sheep getting out or the wolves getting in. For example, it’s not going to bother most Trump supporters if he profits from being president, but it will bother them if he sold them out.

We always need to keep in mind: Trump a the symptom, not the disease. Healthy democracies don’t get taken down by demagogues. Trump’s version of “the People” may not be everybody, but it is a lot of folks. The way to save democracy is to make it work for everybody, them included.


[1] That’s the reason so many believe the Hitler-confiscated-the-guns myth that so often comes up in gun control debates. He certainly didn’t want Jews to have weapons, but Jews were not part of “the People” as he defined it. Racially pure Germans (as Hitler defined them) remained armed, because there was no reason for them not to be. By and large, they supported the regime.

[2] I could also have used the Reconstruction South as an example. Here the People means Southern whites, and the KKK is their champion against the Yankees above and the blacks below. A semblance of democracy is maintained, but only after blacks are disenfranchised. This is justified by the assumption that America isn’t really for blacks.

[3] An occasionally disturbing exception is the current Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle, which often brings out the ordinariness of the American Nazi regime, and at times even shows how human generosity can still express itself. In an early episode of the second season, Juliana, who has been approved as racially pure, is being resettled in the Reich by the wife of an SS officer. The officer has ulterior motives, but the wife doesn’t know that. “I don’t know what to say,” Juliana tells the wife.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she responds. “You’ve come a place where good people take care of each other.” If good means “racially pure”, she’s not entirely wrong.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.


We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.


[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.