Saturday, March 17, 2018

Nixon and Trump

Q.  How much, really, does Donald Trump resemble Richard Nixon?
A.  A lot.

Q.  What has changed in the last 45 years?
A.   The world around them.

In October 1971--long before Watergate, but subsequent to the Pentagon Papers release and the formation of the Plumbers unit--Richard Nixon saw something on the evening news that he did not like.  An INS California regional director named George Rosenberg had ordered a raid on a company owned by Romana Banuelos, whom Nixon had nominated to be Treasurer of the United States, and arrested dozens of illiegal immigrants.  Nixon called Attorney General John Mitchell the next day with specific instructions.

 "The fellow out there in the Immigration a kike by the name of Rosenberg. He is to be out. He is to be out. Transfer him to some other place out of Los Angeles. I don't give a goddamn what the story is.

There's one thing that I want done and I don't want any argument about it. I want you to direct the most trusted person you have in the Immigration Service that they are to look over all of the activities of the Los Angeles Times — all, underlined. And they are to send their teams in to see whether they are violating the wetback thing.

"Now let me explain, 'cause as a Californian, I know. Everybody in California hires them. There's no law against it, because they are there, because — for menial things and so forth. Otis Chandler — I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he's a wetback. Is that clear?"

Nixon had come to Washington in 1947 (the same year that I did, via a different route), when the Republican Party had been railing for 15 years against the bureaucracies created by FDR's New Deal, and had joined the hue and cry about socialists and Communists within the government.  His view of the bureaucracy was the same as Trump's and Fox News's view of the "Deep State": that it teemed with hostile forces determined to do him in.  He centralized power over foreign policy under Henry Kissinger in the White House, and after his re-election, he planned a significant purge of the bureaucracy--a plan that had to be abandoned because of Watergate.    In this instance, he combined his prejudice against bureaucrats with his prejudice against Jews.  (The whole exchange can be heard in the HBO documentary, Nixon in His Own Words, which reproduced many choice excerpts from the Nixon tapes.)  The media was an even more common target of such outbursts, both in writing and in print, and was every bit as convinced as Trump that the New York Times and the Washington Post were purveyors of "fake news" and deserved retaliation for it.  In retrospect it is not surprising that the Pentagon Papers set him off the way they did, since it involved those two newspapers and a Harvard-educated intellectual bureaucrat of Jewish ancestry named Daniel Ellsberg,.

Nixon was worried that Ellsberg and unknown co-conspirators might release more secrets about his own Administration that might torpedo his Vietnam policy, and that is why the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers Unit (to do things the FBI would not do) and eventually to Watergate.  But the case of George Rosenberg was more typical of what happened after Nixon's outbursts.  Nothing happened to him, as far as is known, because Nixon's subordinates knew better than to take that particular order seriously.  Nor did the public learn anything about Nixon's vendetta towards Rosenberg for many decades.

Like Trump, Nixon was a narcissist who could not accept any opposition to himself personally or to his his policies.  He too felt the need to vent his hatred on almost a daily basis.  But Nixon had grown up in an era in which bright young men understood that they had to make a good impression on their elders, and keep their nastiest feelings to themselves.  In public he almost always maintained an iron self-control, and his aides collaborated in keeping his inner self away from the public.  That is why the American people were so shocked by the language in the tapes that were released in 1973-4, even though they had to wait much longer to hear the most revealing ones.

Trump, on the other hand, grew up while his contemporaries were joyfully tearing down traditional emotional restraints, as well as restrictions on language, clothing styles, and what could be seen and heard in movies and on television.  He built his persona on unrestrained excess, and when he entered politics, he built his appeal around unrestrained hatred, free of any code words.  And Trump, unlike Nixon, communicates directly with the public.  So it was that, at about 1:00 AM last night, Trump broadcast the following tweet, which represents a new low in Presidential conduct.

Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!"

McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the FBI, had risen to the position of deputy director of the Bureau under James Comey, and had played key roles in investigations, or projected investigations, into Hillary Clinton's emails, the Clinton foundation, and the Trump campaign's connection to Russia. What seems to have turned him into a prime target of Trump and his administration is that his wife Jill had run for Virginia State Senator (before 2016) as a Democrat and had received six-figure contributions from long-time Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe. (President Trump, with customary fidelity to the facts, claimed in a tweet last July, "Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!" After pressure from the White House, McCabe agreed to retire from the bureau early this year and took a leave of absence. That was not good enough for Trump and Jeff Sessions, and an internal FBI investigation has found him guilty of a lack of candor regarding an investigation of a Wall Street Journal article in October 2016 about the FBI and the Clinton probes. The specific accusations remain secret, and there is no hope that the current Congress will look into this episode. McCabe's firing, which could possibly cost him his pension, is a new building block in the false narrative that Trump needs to fire Robert Mueller and end the investigation of his links with Russia.
Nixon came into office when the prestige of the US government was still
very great, both at home and abroad, and when Presidents were still in some sense answerable to both their own party and to the media and the public at large. That kept him in check, in many ways, for much of his presidency, and eventually brought him down after he had stepped outside the bounds of normal behavior. There are no similar cultural of political checks on Trump, who is now the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party, who is terrorizing his leading subordinates into obedience, and who speaks with the American people directly through Twitter and in other ways. I am pretty certain that we have never--literally never--had a President who publicly talks about political opponents and bureaucrats the way he does, because every previous President recognized that he and his office stood for something bigger and had a dignity that he had to try to preserve. Trump comes from my generation which believed that it was not bound by any previous standards. Little did we know half a century ago, when Mark Rudd was orchestrating the collapse of Columbia University, that another Mark Rudd would some day occupy the White House.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The last 13 plus years

Last week I marked the 1,000,000th visit to, and it occurred to me that I might repost an early effort today to provide some perspective on what had happened since then.  Instead, I have decided to do a quick survey of the most important changes in American and world culture sine the late fall of 2004, when I debuted.  It was a very long time ago and that galaxy already seems pretty far away.

At home, George W. Bush was just about to win a very narrow re-election victory, thanks to carrying the key states of Florida (comfortably) and Ohio (pretty closely.)  That victory owed something to the issue of gay marriage, which Karl Rove had decided to turn into a wedge issue for the campaign by getting it onto the ballot in numerous states.  The Republicans also controlled the House and the Senate--the latter quite narrowly--and President Bush was looking forward to a productive second term.  However, he unwisely made the privatization of Social Security his main legislative proposal, and it was so unpopular that it never even came up for a vote.  Then came the federal government's failure at the time of Hurricane Katrina.  The economy had been growing for a couple of years, although less robustly than it has recently, and the housing bubble was really getting going.  It would not burst for another three years.  The Bush Administration had started us down the road to energy independence through fracking, which would later have dramatic consequences. I will return to developments here in the US later.

Meanwhile, in 2004, the Iraq War was going very badly, an not for another two years did the US manage to stabilize the situation somewhat.  That apparent victory, of course, turned out to be temporary, and although ISIS no longer rules an part of Iraq, the relationship of the Sunni eras to the Iran-backed government remains very unclear today.  Afghanistan was pretty much off the radar in 2004, but Pakistan, apparently, was about to mount an offensive there, with results that continue to this day.  Meanwhile, the turmoil in the Middle East which we unleashed in Iraq has spread, first to Lebanon, then to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  The clash between Shi'ites and Sunnis which we unleashed in Iraq now occupies the whole region, and the US government is now pretty much lined up on the side of the Shi'ites.   In Palestine, the new elections which President Bush had called for were two years away. When they took place in 2006, Hamas won the Parliamentary elections.  Since 2004 Israeli politics have swung way to the right, and the government of the United States is now, for the first time, completely behind the Israeli government position on peace talks, making any real settlement impossible.

There has been a great swing towards authoritarianism around the world.  Russia was already on that path in teh early 2000s under Vladimir Putin and has remained upon it.  Meanwhile, the Russians in 2008 resumed independent action in foreign affairs, invading North Georgia, and later annexed Crimea and started a border war with Ukraine which continues. Putin has emerged as an outspoken opponent of the "unipolar" US-led world, and his intelligence agencies are busily trying to subvert the politics of the United States and other western nations. The US and NATO have taken new steps to try to stabilize the Baltic states. Authoritarian governments now rule Hungary and Poland, and in general, the swing towards democracy in Eastern Europe that began in 1989 has turned out to be as ephemeral as the one after 1919.  At the same time, Turkey, which had been the most westernized state in the Islamic world since about 1920 and which in 2004 was dreaming of joining the EU, has become an authoritarian dictatorship based in part on the Muslim religion.  Pakistan, another long-time US ally, is also on its own more Islamic path.

In East Asia, China in 2004 looked like it might embark on some political liberalization to match its newfound economic freedom, but that trend has now definitely been reversed, as President Xi prepares to take over for life.  Both Japan and India have more nationalist governments although neither one is threatening any drastic action at this time.  North Korea's nuclear program, already a source of concern in 2004, has progressed much further and threatens to bring about war with the US.
Looking further around the world, an authoritarian regime continues to rule Venezuela, and a new one has taken over in the Philippines.  Several Central American nations face internal chaos, and Mexico has been completely unable to cope with its drugs cartels.  Most of South American, however, remains in pretty stable shape, relative to earlier decades.

Perhaps the most alarming developments, however, have occurred in Western Europe and the United States, where the political systems and coalitions that have ruled the most advanced areas of the world for fifty to sixty years and in varying degrees of trouble. David Cameron's decision to hold the Brexit referendum turned out to be disastrous, and Teresa May has not had the courage to challenge it.  Great Britain itself is barely holding together against the challenge of Scottish nationalism.  Established parties have fallen to all-time lows in the Parliaments of Germany and Italy, and Spain is threatened with a breakup of its own.  The European economy is finally beginning to move forward but it has a long way to go.  Immigration into Europe, stimulated by turmoil in the Middle East, has created huge problems for political establishments.  In the midst of the general trend, Emmanuel Macron scored an impressive victory in last year's French elections, winning a majority for his party and undertaking major reforms.  Although he naturally faces opposition he remains the most hopeful sign in western politics.

In the United States, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to signal a resurgent liberalism, but such did not turn out to be the case.  Thanks to a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, gay marriage did become legal throughout the land, but abortion rights remained under attack.  More seriously, although Obama presided over a good recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, he did not fundamentally alter the system that had given us that crisis.  The Dodd-Frank law was rather tentative and now Republicans are undoing it.  The Affordable Care Act has been partially repealed.  Inequality continued to grow through the Obama years.  And Republicans used the economic crisis and resentment against Obama to mobilize around the country, regaining the control of first the House, then the Senate, and most of the nation's state governments.  Guided by the Koch brothers' political network, they have been turning energy producers lose, cutting back workers' rights, and generally undoing the role of government that began with the Progressive Era.

The election of Donald Trump, as I have said many times, could take place only in the context of the collapse of the US political system as we have known it. Neither major party could find a candidate who could beat an outsider who traded on television and tabloid celebrity and hateful rhetoric.  Although Trump now has some real achievements to his credit, the crisis is continuing because foreign influences upon him are the subject of an independent investigation, and because he does not know how to attract, and keep, a competent team around him in the White House, which looks more like an early modern French court than the seat of a modern government.  Critical parts of the federal government, including the once-proud State Department, are now hardly functioning at all.  The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is trying to impose tough immigration policies and increased deportations against states such as California that are determined to treat all immigrants like full citizens.  This is beginning to look like the most serious crisis in federalism since the civil war, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

As in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and again in the 1930s, the question is whether western democracy can surmount new challenges and prevail against a trend towards authoritarian rule.  I am increasingly afraid that a failure to agree on certain key issues may lead to more authoritarian solutions, even in some of the old western democracies.  Alternatively, it is not impossible that the oldest democracies, Britain and the US, might break up.  The trends since 2004 have not been hopeful.  Within another 13 years, I suspect, we will see a move towards more stability--but what it will look like, I do not know.

Friday, March 02, 2018

80 Years Ago

I use proquest historical newspapers frequently, and I have gotten into the  habit of looking at the New York Times front page of exactly 80 years ago.  The United States was then more than halfway through our last great crisis, the one that created the world in which we have spent our lives, and now we are in another one.  I don't think anyone could argue with that last statement now--our old order is clearly dead and a new one is struggling to emerge, just as Bill Strauss and Neil Howe suggested would happen about 25 years ago in Generations and again 21 years ago in The Fourth Turning. They are still known only to relatively few Americans despite having been proven right in their critical prediction, but it turned out to be true, all the same.

The nature of this crisis, however, is very different.  That last one, I believe, marked the climax of an heroic era in western and world history that began with the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that revolved around the application of science and reason to human problems, largely through the medium of national states.  Now the power of states and governments has been declining and confidence in our institutions is at a very low ebb--and with good reason.  To those of us born in the late 1940s the speed an extent of the changes we have witnessed is quite astonishing, just as it was, probably, for many of those born in the late 1860s in 1938.  As usual, a comparison of the front page of March 2, 1938 with that of March 2, 2018 highlights some of the changes that have taken place.

The first difference, one I have noted before, concerns the scope of the front page itself.  It had eight columns in 1938; it has six now.  There were 12 different stories on the front page in 1938 and there are only six today.  No one had television, a computer or a smart phone in 1938, and keeping up with the newspaper was a much bigger job then than it is now.   But people did it. 

Column 1 in 1938 featured a story on the political crisis in Austria, where intimidation from Berlin had forced the government to include Nazis among its members, and a final struggle that very shortly led to the Anschluss of Germany and Austria had begun.  The next story along the top of the paper does have a modern ring. President Roosevelt had decided to publish, and syndicate, his public papers as President--the beginning of a tradition that endures to this day, although the Government Printing Office now takes care of it--and his press secretary announced that any profits would be devoted to some public purpose, supervised by the government, rather than go in FDR's pocket.   Two other stories on the left side of the page dealt with the death of the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who had helped inspire Fascism, and an announcement that the famous newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was going to sell or give away about two-thirds of his fabulous art collection, valued at $15 million (easily 10 times that now), to avoid forcing his heirs to pay inheritance taxes on it.   The first story out of Washington was that Congress, over the objections of President Roosevelt, had specified that part of a new Navy bill to fund experimental weapons be set aside for a new dirigible, which FDR did not want.  It has been many years since I read in the newspaper about a comparable argument about weaponry between the President and Congress.  A second page one story dealt at length with the testimony of financier and industrialist Bernard Baruch about the state of the economy and the Administration's new efforts to break up monopolies.  Baruch's stature in 1938, I would suggest, was comparable to that of Warren Buffett today, but Buffett is not called to Washington to have serious public discussions with Congressional committees about economic policy.  Indeed it is hard to think of any area of policy that is now seriously investigated and discussed by Congress.

A story at the bottom of page 1 discussed a proposal from two Latin American nations, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, for an Inter-American league of nations responsible for the settlement of disputes.  The State Department had no comment on it as yet.  Today the State Department is largely without leadership--most second-level posts are still unfilled--and there is less interest in new international institutions.

Moving to the last three columns, another story on Congress reported a minority, Republican demand in the House Ways and Means Committee for the repeal of several relatively new taxes on business as a means of fighting the current recession.  Then as now, Republican legislators loved to claim that business could solve all our economic problems if government lifted its restrictive hand, but their philosophy was doing much less well then, when Democrats had almost a 3-1 majority in the House, than now.  Three stories, indeed, in columns 6-8 dealt with taxes on three different levels, national, state and local.  The state legislature was increasing the gasoline tax and working on other measures to encourage home mortgages and regulate savings banks.  Last but not least, New York City taxes were going up slightly, setting a new record as a percentage of assessed valuation.  The strongest impression this front page leaves with me is of a nation, state and city working very hard at governing themselves, trying to tailor economic policy for the common good, not afraid to raise more money when necessary, and filled with detailed, open public discussions of all measures which the public was accustomed to reading about.  That brings me to today.

Column 1 today also leads with a foreign story: President Putin of Russia's boast about his new missiles.  That, certainly, was a kind of story that must have frequently appeared in 1938 with respect to Hitler and Germany, and we must hope that our battles with Putin will remain largely rhetorical, political, and digital.  Then, in columns 2-3, is a story about a non-issue in 1938: our President's call to arm teachers in schools to protect against random attacks.  The enormous growth in citizen armament in the last half century is an important characteristic of our own age and it has created conflicts that remain unresolved.  Then comes the story, so typical these days, headlined, "Chaos theory in the Oval Office is Taking Its Toll."  That story is in a sense a reaction to the lead news in columns 5-6: "Trump Proclaims Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum and Stocks Sag in Reply."  Once again we have a President who prides himself on being an economic innovator, but one who, unlike FDR, disdains expertise and relies completely on his own instincts.  Those stories illustrate a big difference in our political situation.  6 years into his presidency, FDR had definitely got the nation onto a new path, and although the economy was once again in a severe recession, he and the Congress were grappling with it together.  Now we have an erratic and inexperienced President who cannot keep his staff together or give an impression of carefully considered policy, taking steps in international trade exactly opposite to those of the New Deal era and every era since, until now.

The nation is in many ways better off than it was in 1938, when unemployment had reached double digits again and poverty was much more widespread.   Today's regional war in the Middle East is much smaller in scale than the Sino-Japanese war that was raging then, there is no European analog to the Spanish Civil War, and as far as we know, no great power is about to provoke a crisis comparable to the one that Hitler was about to unleash over Czechoslovakia.  But our country's institutions, both executive and legislative, were far more focused on doing their jobs than they are now.  In many ways, one could argue, we are still living off the institutional capital that the New Deal era and the postwar decades built up--and that the Republicans are tearing down now.  And last but hardly least, the  nomination and election of Donald Trump  demonstrated the bankruptcy of the two established parties, neither of which could come up with a candidate that could stop him.  We don't know what critical foreign or domestic problem our government may now be called upon to solve, but its capacity to find solutions to a major crisis seems pretty near to an historic low.