Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Biggest Threat

Two weeks ago I suggested that the Republicans would try to undo the expansion of the role of the federal government since 1933, if not since 1901.  I still think that the House majority and many Senators want to do just that, and that Donald Trump would probably go along with it.  This would be a New Deal in reverse, with legislation passed and signed more rapidly than at any time since 1965, when LBJ used his huge majority to push through the Great Society while he covertly began the Vietnam War.  But the tumultuous events of this week suggests that we face an even bigger threat: the advent of anarchy such as we have not seen, perhaps, since the time of the Articles of Confederation.   The threat now comes from both sides of the aisle.

For the last eight years, the Republican Party in Congress and in the courts has done its best to prevent the federal government from functioning.  The nation faced urgent problems relating to energy and the environment, immigration, and gun violence, but the Republicans stopped any attempt to deal with them in its tracks.  They did everything they could to obstruct the Affordable Care Act, and only the vote of Justice Roberts allowed the act to go into operation.  In what I believe to be a move without precedent, they unanimously opposed a major foreign policy agreement, the deal with Iran.  They invited a foreign leader to declare his opposition to that agreement before Congress.  They used their congressional majorities to insist on automatic reductions in the federal budget, another unprecedented move.  They refused to allow Senate debate on many important measures, and refused to consider many Obama appointees for confirmation.

Almost five years ago, I described this strategy as dau tranh--a Vietnamese term describing the Viet Cong's strategy against the Saigon government.  That strategy, which was more political than military, aimed at making it impossible for that government to function effectively, and in 1975 it was crowned with a spectacular victory when the South Vietnamese government and army collapsed in the face of the North's last offensive.  The Republican strategy was shamelessly irresponsible, but it prevented the Obama Administration from doing enough to build a new political consensus, and helped worsen the esteem in which the federal government was held.  Now the Republicans control that government.  This development poses not one, but two grave dangers to its effectiveness, and to the Republic.

One danger, I regret to say, comes from the Democratic Party.  Everything suggests that the Democrats in Congress are going to treat President Trump and his Administration exactly the way that the Republicans treated President Obama and his.  Some of Trump's cabinet appointees are indeed unqualified, but Senate Democrats are voting unanimously against most of them--something the Republicans never did.  They are talking about filibustering the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, an eminently qualified and personally distinguished judge who is completely within the Republican mainstream.  Democrats, as I have mentioned before, say that Trump "is not my president," in defiance of our law and Constitution.  Local and state authorities threaten to defy the federal government on immigration issues.  These tactics, like their Republican counterparts, deny the right of approximately half the citizenry to make their wishes felt in our national government, despite the result of the last election.  They will inevitably bring the Washington establishment into even greater disrepute.  The Democrats need to do more than oppose: they must propose policy alternatives of a different kind.  But they should also show some respect for the institutions we have inherited from our forefathers, and opposition parties generally have throughout our history, except, of course, from 1861 through 1865.

I for one do not want to relive that era.  Secession talk has already begun on the west coast, and it may well spread.  Had Clinton won instead of Trump I have no doubt that it would have started by now in Texas, the Deep South, and elsewhere.  Lincoln in 1861 decided to try to preserve the union by force not to abolish slavery, but rather to save our democratic experiment both for ourselves and for all of humanity.  He succeeded, and within ten years Germany, Great Britain and France had moved much further in the direction of democracy themselves.  As in the 1850s and the 1930s, democracy once again finds itself in crisis around the world.  It has failed to take root in Russia and much of Eastern Europe, it has given way to authoritarianism verging on totalitarianism in Turkey, and it has failed to solve western Europe's problems.  The election of Donald Trump is probably the biggest setback that American democracy has ever suffered, but it is no excuse for giving up on it.  Trump--democratically elected--threatens to reduce us to chaos.  If we cannot use the democratic process to restore order and some semblance of good government, we shall sink into authoritarianism, a catastrophe for future generations here and abroad.  Any attempt at secession would create chaos, if not violence.  The two coasts--the richest parts of the republic--simply cannot disengage from the federal government.

Well before the elections of 2018 and 2020, however, we may need a bipartisan movement to preserve a functioning government.  The Trump Administration in its first few weeks has been highly incompetent, and the President seems incapable of steering the ship of state.  Oddly enough, his tweets are not entirely unprecedented for a President. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson both railed against their opponents in the same way.  But they lived in a different age, when they could not instantly share their thoughts with the public, and knew enough to keep them within their inner circle. Trump does not--nor does he understand the need to project real authority.  To fire General Flynn while announcing that he was unfairly treated by the media was disgraceful.  If Flynn had done something wrong (as he evidently had) the President should have taken responsibility for removing him. If he had not he should have stood by him.  On Wednesday the President also spontaneously backed away from the two-state solution in the Middle East, and answered a question about rising antisemitism by bragging about his total of electoral votes.  In his meeting with sheriffs he obviously had no idea what asset forfeiture was.  His team has filled only a tiny fraction of the vacant positions in the federal government, and it is apparently planning an adversarial relationship with the civil service (another dream which Nixon knew enough not to turn into reality.)  The administration's economic plans seem certain to bust the budget, and any number of its planned economic steps might trigger a recession.  It seems quite likely that within a few months, the government will be entirely at sea.  It also seems subject to unprecedented foreign influence.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to undermine the authority of the government.  Today's New York Times leads with Trump's plans to appoint a billionaire friend of his to conduct a special review of our intelligence agencies, an obvious attempt to intimidate him.  But it also includes an op-ed detailing how a Virginia federal judge ruling on the immigration order has argued, in effect, that President Trump cannot exercise recognized constitutional authority because he has expressed animus towards Muslims.  Our government will fail if we will not allow its officials, from Presidents down to civil servants, to exercise their legal authority.

Many Democrats--especially younger ones--believe that progressive Democrats can sweep the next two elections and turn the tide.  I frankly doubt this very much.  Much of the country seems immune to their appeal in any case and gerrymandering will protect many of the House Republicans.  The Democratic establishment evidently remains strong.  After the civil war--the crisis which clearly most resembles our own--the country benefited from the prestige of President Grant, and then, after the disputed vote of 1876, reached a compromise in which each side got important concessions.  A similar compromise may be our only hope for national unity--one that will sacrifice important interests of both parties.  I would not be so bold as to speculate what shape it might take, but I hope politicians and citizens will start thinking about it.  The armed subjugation of either blue or red states is not an option.  There is no evil comparable to slavery that it could eliminate, and it took a long time after 1865 for it to restore real harmony to the two sections.  We cannot do without our federal government and we need it to function with minimum effectiveness. That may require the legal removal of the President, but it will surely require the discovery of some common ground between the two parties.

My posts about Steve Bannon have brought many people here for the first time, most of them liberals.  I could write those posts because I have been open to original ideas.  Had I not become interested in the ideas of William Strauss and Neil Howe twenty years ago, Bannon never would have heard of me and interviewed me and I would not have gotten any insight into who he was and what he might do.  But that same openness to different ideas means that you will not find standard liberal boilerplate here.  You will find ideas you will not see anywhere else, and I hope you can regard that as a plus rather than a minus.

I once heard Alistair Cook quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that Constitutions were meant to reconcile men of differing opinions.  (I cannot find the quote myself and would welcome any assistance.)   Holmes had been wounded four times fighting for the Union and knew whereof he spoke.  We are in terrible trouble partly because both sides hold other principles in higher esteem than our Constitution.  For the right these principles are religious and economic; for the left, they stem from the left's vision of a higher morality.  The framers gave us the Constitution because they believed so deeply in the role of government.  We shall suffer disastrous consequences if we cannot once again recover some of their fervor for the only principles and institutions that can hold us together.


NoOne said...

Found a link to "Flying Dreams: Episode 13, The More Abundant Life" (http://america.flyingdreams.org/#abundant) where Cooke apparently quotes Justice Wendell Holmes as saying "A Constitution is made for those of fundamentally differing opinions."

Mark Stock said...

David, I think this might be the quote you were looking for...

"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Bozon said...


While I can't agree with every detail, great sweeping summary.

We are in a long developing political and ideological cul de sac.

I'm finally taking a look at later European history.

It took the Austro Hungarian Empire centuries to fall with WWI.

We have done it in only a matter of decades.

All the best,

Unknown said...

I'm sorry, but talk of the "equivalence" of the parties is madness. Trump is a madman, a fascist, and a traitor. To tut-tut about the Dems "treating him like the Repubs did Obama" is absurd. Imagine for a moment if the shoe was on the other foot. A Dem President, elected by a significant popular vote minority, with--at the very least--the enthusiastic cooperation of a foreign despot. And much more likely, acting consciously as his agent, probably because of blackmail. The Repubs would be taking to the streets, and openly calling for a military intervention. Fox "news" would be hyperventilating 24/7. Red states would be openly engaged in nullification, at the very least. Everybody knows this would be the case. A civil war might already have started. Absolutely nothing on the Dem side is comparable to this. A few rumblings from California about "secession", which no one takes seriously? Please. There hasn't even been any serious talk about impeachment--and Ryan and McConnell, in that hypothetical, would already be well beyond that. And the worst of it is, Trump s just a symptom, not the disease. I believe that the GOP, as it currently stands, is deliberately trying to destroy liberal democracy. Trump is their true and legitimate representative. As you say--we're in the worst crisis since 1861-77. The best we can hope for is an attempt at a American Glorious Revolution, with Dems and sane Repubs trying to reach a compromise. It would end up more like 1850--and how did that work out? In any event, there aren't enough sane Republicans for it to work. I think we will be very lucky to avoid a Hungarian and/or Russian march towards one-party authoritarianism. And the American Experiment will have failed in the end.

Energyflow said...

I have read that the inteligence community is in revolt, leaking to sabotage. Others suggest Trump should fire thousands os disloyal people. Since 9/11 security apparatus has massively expanded. On the surface point of contention between Trump and the left seems to be values and Russia. Old consensus was Russia is enemy.Trump wants detente. Mccarthyite forces want to use neo redbaiting to topple him.

Now imagine 50s conservatives using same tactics against their cultural enemies of the left. Pinko commie liberals were smeared as Soviet spies. Really this was an internal USA culture war. The same is happening now. If anyone of conservative values professes high regard of Putin's emerging Orthodox Russian conservatism and macho values he is brandmarked by the coastal elite press, hollywood and CIA leaks as a traitor in neo McCarthyite manner. Destroy the othr side by association with sworn enemy in a witch hunt. Only this time he witch hunt is against the president himself by elite of the left who have created a martyr mythos out of 50s witch hunt, 60s civil rights movement, women's and gay rights movements into 70s. Russia is the permanent stand in 'black hat' figure for the internal American Psychodrama. I am certain the excessively intelligent, erudite Russian leaders get this point and are patient, hoping the West, with its long history of 'progress' will come out of its turmoil in a better state of mind, not hping for destruction or being vengeful. Chaos hurts everyone in the end.

Perhaps in a sense this is about the continual expansion of rights, privileges, economic and social since the enlightenment period due to industrial growth and democratization. Growth has hit a roadblock as there is no permanent growth. Chinese core adult population has peaked, 10-25 years after Japan, USA, Western Europe and consumption along with energy use is in decline. India and Afria cannot take up the slack so a shrinkng global growth is to be a permanent feature of the future. With selling of US bonds by Chinese and others, life on debt will run down in USA. This means military, social welfare state, bureaucracy all have to shrink. State, national, local pensions, health care will suffer. When Eurasians use yuan, etc.to pay each other for trade, USD will declne in popularity. A single lifestyle with cultural diversity in an urban setting is dependent on high cost infrastructure, future xpectations of pensions, employment, etc. Without all of this state involvement one falls back on multigenerational fmily structures, traditional crafts, farming, rural life.

Rome went from metropolis to village after expansion maxed out. 7.5 billion people with massive environmental destruction, energy usage parallels previous imperial expansions but on a global scale. Moral decline(in absolute terms historically, corruption, non conservative behaviour, etc.) in imperial centers of America, Europe show that we believe that progress is linear but history is cyclcal. What goes up must come down. Population growth, energy consumption, resource consumption and waste disposal(co2, plastics in ocean, landfills, etc, mass extinction , deforesting, water tables drying out, desertification globally) parallel one another in exponential manner unlike historical pattern pre 1800 of 1% popuation growth per century or similar.

Energyflow said...


So the privileged and entitled in imperial center start a civil war over who deserves what, causing a downward spiral into a maelstom of chaos and bloodletting.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is important here.As long as bread can be bought, water and housng is available a bloody revolution will be avoided. Sexual freedoms are way down the scale. If people get hungry then banker bonuses plus gay protests and safe spaces arguments look out of place. I saw a graphic which showed that latinos took 60% of new jobs since recession, blacks a third and whites had lost ten percent, as they were in factories which were closed.( minority job growth in city cheap service jobs). That alone should tell you much of the story. All the mony isgoing to the top .1% in liberal areas or even at low end to urban minorities. So since people have already moved to ideological zip codes, dividing nation and gerrymandering completed that politically, we only need official civil war tocomplete unofficial divorce,( like livng one year apart requirement here in Germany).

Dan Wilton said...

"... for the left, they stem from the left's vision of a higher morality."
That sounds like balderdash and an adjunct to the argument that the left should continue to play nice while the right pees on our shoes. For my money it is long passed time when the left stands by while a noisy conservative minority claims the mantle of legitimacy because of noise and confrontation.

The right has been able to discredit the left. PERIOD. Which in turn discredits any liberal/center led government. Ergo only liberal led governments are at risk not the entire system. Only as each of us is more personally menaced over time will we as a nation recognize how invigorated our government has actually become under the rightist banner. RESIST. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

DAngler said...

I agree that we are on the verge of anarchy. The constant stream of propaganda has so inflamed our populace that it seems impossible to quell the pending breakdown. The quickest way to settle things down would be to get control of the news sources and stop the propaganda. Good luck with that; and good luck keeping the country unified without that.

I have a really good friend who is staunchly Republican, and he is bewailing the fact that the Democrats are trying to stop everything that Trump wants. He sees this as purely evil -- but can't see that they did precisely this same thing for 8 years. I grant that returning evil for evil never produces good outcomes. But I also see that double standards are the root of the evil. In short, it is my belief that if we can't quell the propaganda, the constant vilification of the other side, we can't prevent the fruit of it -- anarchy.

So, we agree on where we are headed, but I suggest that the Democrats playing by the rules will fail. We should do what is right, just because it is right; but it will fail unless we can quell the indoctrination.

Molly said...

This what you're looking for?

"But a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the State or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States." Lochner v New York, 199 U.S. 45. Mr Justice Holmes dissenting.

egan said...

Very interesting summary, but if Democrats are compromising, and Republicans are not, does not the government, its policy, and the country as a whole then automatically slide right? Blocking Obama's Supreme Court nominee prevented the balance that nominee would have brought, and led to the Republicans nominating an "eminently qualified" yet still rightwing judge that had no business ever being elevated (potentially) to that position. That's the Republicans' entire plan, it seems to me, to block when out of power, and depend on Democratic compromise when in power to allow policy to slide rightward by default. This is a formula for disaster, just a slower one than mutual obstruction.

Energyflow said...

I read a discourse explaining leftist ideology as beiing that the only truth is no absolute truth, everyone has their own truth. This is why every minority be it ever so small should have a saxy at the table, every sexual orientation is equally respectable as well as every religious or nonreligious perspective. This nontruth is held to be the absolute trth. The truth of relative perspective. The right holds that this makes us ungovernable as the leading edge of the culture is 7.5 billion individuals. There is no majority consensus, e.g. conservative catholicism in Spain or buddhism in Thailand with corresponding well understood ethnic dominance and traditional sexual behaviour.

Perhaps the modern state with its postmodernist non-ideology and metropolitan mixture of races and cultures tries to define reality away by simply accepting and tolerating any behavior, concepts, non-judgementally. The drawing of hrd lines in the sand seems to be the moral equivalent of war to the left. The only thing they cannot tolerate is intoleance. In this sense they are intolerant of a common cultural norm. However without common cultural norms we will be torn apart in difficult times. In times of broad, long-term economic expansion the good life, lifestyle diversity, special rights for every odd doctrine or sect or repressed group will be tended to out of sympathy and as a hobby of wealthy bored housewives or activist university students. In hard times everyone is careful to be extremely conformist and has no time, money or interest in even the most needy of causes('I have my own problems').

The right's striving towards a traditional majority ethnic european and judaeo-christian religious consensus with overlay of greco-roman philosophy, architecture, democratic, republican forms should seem to be enough to satisfy the left. However in postmodernist theory, social marxism, Western Euopean traditions and peoples ae considered as being intolerant and racist per se. So history, philosophy, literature taught from a European perective is increasingly neglected in universities in favor of 3rd world history, asian literature or philosophy, minority or women's or gay history. If We have become the enemy then how can we lead? If one is ashamed of one's own skin color, se, sexual orientation, tradition, literature, philosophy and as a 20 year old throws it in a garbage can without ever having red a line or given it a chance as 'grandpa was a racist, misogynist, cultural-, ethnocentric homophobe' then this shows a distinct lack of maturity. I respect my father's catholicism, my mother's anglicism, my brother's fundamentalist christianism, ex teachers and profs love of literature, philosophy and sciences. Myself I have developed a long term interest, belief in yoga, hinduism, esoteric beliefs grounded in Western skeptic traditions and christian conservatism.

Absolute moral relativism destroys a family(affairs, promiscuity), a country(corruption of elected officials for business inteersts) and the international community(opportunistic wars, treaty breaking, coups). All religions have values. The charter of human rights, enlightenment values are an extension of our religious culture, secularized.

If American culture becomes 'ahouse divided against itself which cannot stand' as it has diversified too quickly to integrate emotionally the various groups and concepts, then the pace must be slackened of cultural change. A gear backwards isnecessary. Tolerance of intolerance is callec for.

David Kaiser said...

Several things:

1. Mark Stock, I tried to email you but your address may have changed. Please email me KaiserD2@gmail.com I'd love to hear how you are doing.

2. NoOne: That is the quote and that's exactly where I heard it. But as you probably discovered, Uncle Google is unfamiliar with it.

3. Ed Boyle: your last post diagnosed the problem accurately. I'm increasingly inclined to believe that societies can't function without some consensus, and if they can't achieve it peacefully it will be imposed.

kfr said...

A scholarly and well articulated argument for the immorality of discriminations of all kinds. Well done. I could not disagree more.