Friday, November 15, 2019

Echoes of an earlier time

Like so many other people, I felt I had gone through a time warp as I watched Ambassador William Taylor and George Kent testify two days ago.  These men had descended directly from the foreign service officers that I had known during my father's diplomatic service in the 1960s and 1970s and my own summer stints in the U.S. State Department.  In calm and measured tones, they put their particular job--encouraging the growth of a democratic Ukraine--into a long-term historical context.  They identified Russian expansionism as a new threat, similar to the cold war threats with which we had grown up. (The hearings also struck a powerful chord with me because Taylor appears to be my exact contemporary.)  Over decades they had accustomed themselves not to worry too much about changes in administrations, because both parties supported the principles behind these policies.   They also obviously believed in facts, and understood the importance of a detailed knowledge of foreign nations and their history, and of a sense of the long-term significance of political events.  They clearly felt very secure in their mission and their place in the world.

The contrast between them and the sycophants that now surround President Trump, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, jumped off the screen.  They belong to the reality based community, and one can't work for Donald Trump without sinking into denial.  Yet I also felt that Taylor, Kent, and their colleagues in the bureaucracy now live in a bubble of their own.  The tradition they represent dates from a completely different era, one in which the American people cared deeply about our role in the world, followed it closely, and made real sacrifices for it.  That era is over, and our national security establishment has lost its connection to society as a whole.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American people became focused on war and the threat of war in Asia and Europe.  In September 1937 President Roosevelt warned for the first time that ongoing conflicts, if not stopped, would reach the western hemisphere.  After the fall of France in 1940, when many expected Britain to fall as well, nearly everyone recognized the potential threat to the United States itself, and Congress doubled the size of the Navy and instituted the first peacetime draft.  10 million men joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and in another three years American troops occupied Tokyo and Berlin.  The Truman Administration was determined not to throw away the fruits of victory, and the Marshall Plan, NATO, and even the Korean War strengthened democracies and other friendly states within the territory that the US had liberated and created a system of alliances.  The peacetime draft returned after the Korean outbreak, and for more than twenty years, young American men served all over the world.  Nightly news broadcasts frequently led with stories about conflicts and threats on other continents, as well.

In a great turning point in American history--one that I described in detail two decades ago in American Tragedy--cold war foreign policy led us to the disaster of Vietnam.  That turned a good portion of the Boom generation against US foreign policy, and brought the military draft to an end.  But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, the post-Vietnam challenge to the principles of US policy never amounted to very much.  The establishment--and particularly the military establishment--learned that it had to defend  America's informal empire and fight Communist advances without large-scale deployments of US troops.  But cold war principles remained in force during the 1970s and 1980s, and seemed to be vindicated by the collapse of Communism in 1989.

In general, our national security establishment assumed after 1989 that the US could now pursue the same policies it developed during the Cold War, unhampered by the restraints of powerful adversaries.  We enlarged NATO in Eastern Europe and sponsored democratic movements on every continent.  A new turning point, however, occurred on September 11, 2001.  The Bush Administration self-consciously adopted a new mission parallel, in its eyes, to the struggles against Nazism and Communism:  the democratization of the Muslim world.  For a brief moment in the next couple of years, that mission fired the imagination of the American people, and liberal as well as conservative pundits eagerly signed on.  But the Bush Administration made no effort really to engage the American people at large in this new task, either with higher taxes or a new military draft.  More important, it embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could never bring to a successful conclusion, meanwhile wasting trillions of dollars that the nation needed at home.

I have remarked many times here that despite its failures, the new Bush policies survived through the Obama Administration.  The war in Afghanistan continued, the war in Iraq halted but then restarted, and the Administration repeated the Iraq regime change experiment in Libya and tried to do so in Syria, with more disastrous results.   The financial crisis of 2008 did not shift Washington's focus away from these conflicts, but it certainly changed the attitudes of the American people.  And then, the election of 2016 showed that our political establishments no longer commanded enough popular support to elect a new president.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our foreign policy establishment has soldiered on, trying to create a new American ally on the frontier of Russia.  This has involved Ukraine and the US in a new war--and I must admit that I, too, was surprised to hear that 13,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.  I do not think, though, that the average American knew until very recently that that war was taking place, or felt any personal stake in the outcome.  And even as I listened to Messrs. Taylor and Kent proudly talk about the progress Ukraine had made recently, I couldn't shake my doubts about the project in which they are engaged.  Democracy has not taken firm root in most of the eastern European states of the former Soviet empire, or in much of the former USSR itself.  The new Ukrainian President may, or may not, manage to do something about corruption in his nation.  And meanwhile, it has become much more difficult for the US to promote democracy, simply because our own democracy has fallen into catastrophic disrepair.  Men like Taylor and Kent have maintained a civic spirit and a sense of mission, but I'm not sure we can deploy it usefully in Ukraine at this point in our history.  They are artifacts of an earlier age--a status with which I too am familiar.  Only a genuine national project that engages our resources, our time and our attention can restore some of what that age gave us.


Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Impeachment Debate--a Barometer

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.




Friday, October 25, 2019

A blast from the past

It occurred to me this week, reading about the Republican sit-in in the Capitol basement, that today's Republican legislators are using tactics developed 50 + years ago by my contemporaries in the Vietnam era.  This is not unprecedented: John Bolton led a gang of Republican operatives who descended on Miami in 2000 to stop the recount of Florida votes.  Democratic Boomers either dropped out of traditional politics altogether or became respectable.  Republicans, including many from Gen X, show the the same spirit, outlook and tactics that the SDS did back then.  That in turn reminded me of one of the first posts I did here fifteen years ago, which follows.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


George W. Bush--Man of the Sixties

George W. Bush—Man of the 1960s

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Adminstration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their leftwing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . .

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Life of Harold Bloom

I did not know Harold Bloom, who died this week at the age of 89.  I have one of his books, The Western Canon, in front of me, and I have enjoyed reading bits and pieces of it, but can't claim to have read it through.   Certainly he appears to have been the most brilliant and prolific literary critic of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42), and his books had an unusually wide readership.  What struck me reading the fine obituary that appeared in the New York Times was how exemplary his life was--how much of twentieth-century egalitarianism and intellectual approach he seemed to embody.  I could not help thinking, too, that his early life and career had some things in common with my own father's, particularly in the way they saw their relationship to the culture and institutions of the country their parents had immigrated to from Eastern Europe earlier in the century.

Bloom, the Times, records, was born on July 11, 1930, into an orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, the youngest of five children.  My own father had been born seventeen years earlier nearly to the day in Brooklyn, the ninth of ten children in a similar, though somewhat better off, orthodox family.  Bloom went to the Bronx High School of Science, then as now a competitive public high school at the summit of the New York educational system, while my father graduated from New Utrecht in Brooklyn near the top of his class.  Bloom won a scholarship to Cornell, while my father whose family had lost its money in the housing bust just before the Depression, went to the University of Wisconsin, which was very close to free even for out of staters in those distant days. 
They were, however, different young men.  My father, though a very good student, was the kind of all-around man who could, and did, win a Rhodes Scholarship, while Bloom was obviously far more singleminded in his focus on intellectual pursuits.  He had discovered literature as I discovered history--at a very young age--and he seems to have been more compulsive about assimilating as much of it as he could than I ever was.  He also had a prodigious memory, and claimed, pace the Times, to know the entire works of Shakespeare, as well as those of several other poets, by heart.

From Cornell Bloom went to graduate school at Yale, then the citadel of the New Criticism, which taught that the meaning of a work had to be found within itself, based on a close analysis of its language, without reference to the life of the author or developments in the outside world.  He rejected that view, arguing (apparently for the rest of his life) that all great works were part of a dialogue, and a struggle, with the great writers of the past--an approach which made a broad acquaintance with western literature essential.  Bloom's apostasy--his rejection of his department's prevailing approach, the preferred method of some of its leading lights--did not prevent the Yale English department from hiring him as soon as he had earned his doctorate at the age of 24, and tenuring him some years later.  He remained at Yale all his life, although he severed his connection with the department in the 1970s and became a university professor.  What fascinates me about all this is how Bloom evidently saw himself in relation to western society and culture--and the contrast between his views and those of the would-be scholars who see themselves as outsiders today.

Bloom, to repeat, had been raised as an orthodox Jew, a member of a minority that had been scorned and oppressed for centuries and which still faced some discrimination in academia at the time he came into it.  He identified as a Jew, but he had abandoned his religion.  Yet unlike race- and gender-focused critics today, he easily fell in love with the western literary tradition, found everything he needed to pose the questions that fascinated him within it, and simply tried to beat the goyim at their own game--as indeed, in many ways, he did.  In return, the academy did not punish him either for his originality or for the breadth of his interests--as it surely would if he were starting out today.   In the same way, my father abandoned his religion and assimilated, even to the point of marrying a gentile, and went in to public service, working in diplomatic posts in 1948-54, 1961-9, and 1976-80, an extraordinary period in American politics and history in which he was honored and fulfilled to take part.  Both Harold Bloom and Philip Kaiser made their careers within important parts of western civilization, whose arc, we can now see, was reaching a climax when they were young men.  Its appeal won them both over and they never looked back. Now academia in particular is obsessed with the supposed flaws of western civilization, and is filled with scholars who believe that their role is to show how it has oppressed their gender or race.

I have now read three obituaries of Bloom, in the Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.   All three summarized his career more than adequately, but none mentioned one of its highlights: that he was the dissertation adviser and mentor of my exact contemporary Camille Paglia, whom I regard as the greatest literary and artistic critic of the Boom generation.  In A Life in History, I thanked my own dissertation adviser Ernest May--who was just two years older than Bloom--for his reaction, in 1973 I believe, when I told him that I wanted to write my dissertation about the relations between Germany, France and Britain, on the one hand, and the new states of Eastern Europe on the other, during the 1930s.  That was enough for at least three dissertations, but instead of telling me that I simply had to cut it down--as many professors surely would have--May told me that it was a wonderful idea and that I should go ahead. Three years later, it was done.  Paglia must have had a similar experience when she told Bloom that she wanted to write an analysis of androgyny in literature and art from the ancients to modern times.  He too evidently encouraged her, and the result became Sexual Personae, another work that found new things to say about the western tradition without trying to repudiate it.  But Paglia, like myself, found that modern academia had no room for scholars of such breadth, and she has spent her career teaching the history of literature and art and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, while postmodernists rule the nation's literary departments.  She had no opportunity to inspire, encourage and train her counterparts in the Xer and Millennial generations.  Bloom was fortunate to be born when he was--and he made the most of it.  Some day, whether in 50, 100, or 1000 years, others like him will get their chance.




Saturday, October 12, 2019

Intellectual and political problems

In David Lodge's wonderful novel about the academic year 1968-9,  Changing Places, a party of Berkeley English profs play a game called Humiliation, in which they have to name the most prominent work of literature that they have never read.  One assistant professor, Howard Ringbaum, succumbs to his competitive urge to win by naming the most prominent work of all, and declares that he has never read Hamlet.  He wins the game, but when his tenure case comes up a couple of weeks later, he is denied promotion on those very grounds.  It's time for me to play a round myself.

I have come to realize that I am in some ways a Hegelian, although I have never read a single work, or even part of a single work, written by Hegel, whom I know mainly as the direct ancestor of Karl Marx.  Hegel believed that history consisted of the embodiment of various ideas, and I think there's a great deal of truth to that.  Every era--and perhaps every generation--has certain dominant beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, that determine its approach to just about everything--politics, life, and the arts.  At the same time, certain battles among various ideas continue indefinitely, with one side or another winning for a while, but without any complete victories that will endure for more than about 80 years at most.  One such was identified by the historian Henry Adams, one of those people from the past to whom I feel remarkably close, in the presidential address he wrote for the American Historical Association in 1894.  History, he said was trying to become a science, and if it succeeded, it was bound to reach one of three conclusions about where history was going.  None of those conclusions, however, was likely to win universal acceptance.   I have discussed this address here at least four times in the last 15 years here, I see, and I quote from the first time, all the way back in 2005.

"First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude "that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years," but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove "that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion," but in that case, the science would commit suicide."

I still think this was an uncommonly brilliant insight, but I can also see that it suffers from a disease of its age, namely, the tendency to regard human history and human behavior as subject to the same kind of immutable laws that science had found in disciplines like physics and chemistry.  As it happens, human behavior continually changes because of the human tendency to react against whatever the status quo may be--a tendency which is to a high degree generational.  Thus, by the time he died in 1917, new generations had inaugurated the Progressive era, and although most of the world never became formally socialist, the major industrial nations all put severe limits on the accumulation of wealth--and therefore, of political power--during the first half of the twentieth century, and inequality was drastically reduced. Then, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, came two new trends, one in the historical profession and academia more generally, the other in our politics and society.  In the academy, the visions of history as a struggle among nations or among classes gave way to one of a struggle between demographic groups, including a struggle between men (patriarchy) and women.  Two generations of scholars have tried to re-interpret the whole past in that light, while anticipating a brighter future in which the last would be first.  But in the  upper reaches of our society, the philosophy of the Gilded Age--that corporations had both a right and a duty to maximize profits, unfettered by government regulation or high taxes--became predominant once more, and inequality has now surpassed the levels observed in Adams's day, and our new corporate oligarchy is every bit as powerful as the one he saw growing around him in 1894. 

The biggest insight in the piece, however, was that any truth arrived at would be unpopular.  Here I find two very important sources of our current discontents.

The New Deal, which now looms as an interregnum between two Gilded Ages, was not based merely on moral principles--the idea that some should not have too much while many more others had too little--but on a particular view of economics.   The economy was better off when workers and their families could afford to buy the products they made.  Corporations contributed more benefit to their workers and the public when executive compensation was effectively capped by taxation.  Securities markets needed tight regulation to prevent catastrophic panics.  The experience of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s had proven all these things to be true--but some corporate interests refused to accept them.  They formed networks and devised strategies to push free market views, and succeeded in making them first mainstream, and then orthodox, in the 1980s and 1990s.  As a result, we have more inequality, richer financiers, and, from time to time, threats of financial collapse again.   Contrary ideas now have a following among young people in particular, but I am afraid that they may be decades away from becoming dominant again.

An even broader truth, however, may be causing bigger problems because people cannot accept it--especially in the midst of the inequality that has now risen.

Modern society is based on the equality of every individual, and on the individual as the basic social unit.  This is far more true today than it was 100 or even fifty years ago, since family structures have tended to break down, and fewer people define themselves based upon family relationships.  That gives every individual both a great opportunity and a tremendous responsibility, which can be a huge emotional burden. I remember that when I first read Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution, I was struck by his appreciation of a society of orders in which everyone had a particular place.  In those days, it occurred to me, men and women thought their place on earth was ordained by God or nature, and did not have to blame themselves if it seemed unfair.  In the modern world we are encouraged to blame ourselves, since we theoretically have the same chance as anyone else to reach the top.  The self-made man has been an American ideal, in particular, since the beginning of our independent history.

Unfortunately, even at the most egalitarian of times--the mid-20th century--a big gap between the rich and poor persists.  We can only have social peace and consensus, I think, if we keep that gap within reasonable bounds, keep ways to rise alive, and, crucially, provide a reasonably secure and happy life to the majority of losers in our ongoing competition, as well as the winners.  In the last 40 years we have stopped doing those things.  More people are out in the jungle of the workplace competing for at least a decent life, working longer hours, with more needs.  Higher education, practically free in mid-century, has become disastrously expensive.  Fed by the new ideology I discussed above, millions of women and minorities have come to believe that their demographic status, not our economic system itself, is the source of their problems, and they have sold the Democratic Party on that idea.  That in turn has bred resentment among millions of white people who blame solicitude towards nowhites nad immigrants for their declining economic status.  


What makes the issue of mobility, and the related issue of ability, so fraught, in my opinion, is this.  History shows that in any complex field of endeavor, a small minority of people are much better than anyone else. I have written an entire book showing how true this is in baseball, and I have seen it in my own profession and as a spectator in many other fields.  These people are different not because of their race or gender--much less their sexual orientation--but because of almost unique personal characteristics that are scattered more or less at random throughout the population.  

As I write the city of New York is wracked by controversies over admissions to its elite high schools and over the Gifted and Talented programs in all its schools, because they are filled with disproportionate numbers of white and Asian students.  In my opinion, test scores must continue to determine who gets into those top schools, so as to give the smartest people in our society an opportunity to develop their skills further.  We need that minority to perform many important tasks at the highest level, and to teach the rest of us.  But those of them that decide to use their skills to maximize their income must face some pretty strict limits on how much they can earn and how much wealth they can acquire.  At the same time, we must all pay attention, not simply to letting more representatives of unrepresented groups into a tiny economic elite,  but to giving those who will never reach the elite a chance at a decent life.  If parents regard an elite school or elite program as their childrens' only hope, most parents will never be satisfied.  I do think, by the way, that the admissions process and the college admissions process could changed in one way to make it much fairer.  Standardized tests should be varied very significantly from year to year, in form and in content, to make it impossible for targeted test preparation to be more than a long-shot gamble.  That would take away the very real advantage of richer kids whose parents can afford such classes.private instruction.

We shall never, in any case, end inequality or injustice on this planet, nor shall we create a Utopia that lasts for more than a generation or two before younger people overthrow it.  I wrote 15 years ago that Adams's three alternative views of history might be describe as the utopian, the stoic, and the religious.  "Unfortunately," I wrote then,  "the stoic view--which I personally believe to be the most useful and accurate, since it alone recognizes limitations on our power to control people and events--while it has nearly always produced the best history, seems, especially during periods of crisis like our own, to suffer from a fatal disadvantage in a contest with either of the other two--its inability to satisfy the eternal human fantasy of living happily ever after."  This seems to be more true now than it was in 2005--but I remain stuck with own form of stoicism, which can drive old friends crazy, but still enables me, I think, to provide something here every week that you won't find anywhere else.


Friday, October 04, 2019

Grounds for Impeachment

Contemplating the forthcoming impeachment of President Trump--an event every day's headlines make more likely, at a pace even more rapid than that of 1973-4--I began thinking harder about possible grounds.  That took me to a book that I had originally brought and read back in those days, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems, by the remarkable law professor Raoul Berger.  Having worked as a Washington lawyer for many years before becoming a Professor at Berkeley in 1960, when he was 60, Berger, I see, was a fellow in legal history at Harvard's Charles Warren Center when he wrote Impeachment--and he was also exactly the age that I am now.  It's a wonderful piece of legal-historical scholarship, packed into 300 relatively short pages with a lot of footnotes at the bottom.  And it leaves me believing that the Congress has ever reason to impeach and convict President Trump, albeit on grounds that are not playing much of a role in the public discussion of his case so far.

Like every great legal scholar, Berger understood that American law--including Constitutional law--has to be understood against the background of British precedents.  The Constitution uses many words whose meaning had been defined by English law, the English common law was still part of the law of the colonies, and in many respects the framers aimed at keeping the good parts of the British Constitution while correcting the problems that had led to the Revolution.  "Impeachment" and "high crimes and misdemeanors" were both terms familiar in British practice, and both had very specific meanings which the framers were incorporating into our own Constitution.  Berger therefore began with a brief history of the development of impeachments in medieval England, going back to the 14th century.  Even then, the outlines of our current procedures emerged: the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, could vote impeachments, which the House of Lords then tried--and the monarch, although long thought immune from any judicial punishment, could not protect his ministers from impeachment, trial and conviction.   During the reign of Charles I, who tried to govern without Parliament and create an absolute monarchy, Parliament successfully impeached, tried, convicted, and executed, his first minister, the Earl of Strafford, on the specific grounds that he was subverting the unwritten English constitution by attempting to govern without parliament.  Indeed, his parliamentary accusers defined that behavior as a form of treason, and Strafford was executed. (See note at the end.) Several subsequent 17th-century impeachments of great ministers also claimed that they had committed various forms of treason, defined as subversion of the Constitution (although their punishments fell short of death.)  A much earlier statute had actually given Parliament the right to define treason--obviously a formidable weapon against an unpopular minister, especially in contentious times.

The framers of the Constitution, wise and well-read men that they were, took several explicit steps to prevent the abuse of the impeachment power, such as surely had taken place in Britain.  They defined treason very specifically as levying war upon the United States or giving its enemies (presumably, wartime enemies) aid and comfort.  They explicitly limited punishments in cases of impeachment to removal from office and disqualification from further office, although they added that those impeached and convicted could be subject to additional trials and penalties in ordinary courts.  They forbade pardons in cases of impeachment, such as at least one monarch had given to an accused subordinate in Britain.  They also outlawed Bills of Attainder, laws passed by Parliament (with the King's assent) that could order the execution of a guilty subject, as well as the forfeiture of all his property and titles.  Yet in their own way, they laid out broad grounds for impeachment of civil officers of the United States, including the President, for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."  To these we now turn.

As I have noted, treason has a very specific definition under the Constitution, and bribery has such a definition under the regular law.  The first thing that we may say about "high crimes and misdemeanors" is that they are not ordinary crimes, and the House and Senate have convicted and removed judges for offenses that are not punishable by statute law.  In 1936, a certain Judge Halsted Ritter was convicted not of income tax evasion, of which he had been charged, but of "[bringing] his court into scandal and disrepute, to the prejudice of said court  and public confidence in the administration of justice [emphasis added]."  His conduct made him "guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors in office," the Senate stated.  Two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes, stated publicly that impeachments could be brought for any reason showing unfitness or misconduct in office, even if specific crimes were not involved--such behavior fell within "high crimes and misdemeanors."  That phrase also dates from 14th-century England many English precedents defined it quite clearly, and in ways most relevant to our current dilemma.  "Your lordships," a lord said in the midst of impeachment debate in 1725. "are now exercising a power of judicature reserved in the original frame of the English constitution for offenses of a public nature, which  may affect the nation; as well in cases where inferior courts have no power to punish the crimes committed by ordinary rules of justice. [emphasis added]"  In 1757 the great commentator Blackstone described "the first and principal" high misdemanor as "the mal-administration of such high officers, who are in the public trust or employment;" for this impeachment was the remedy. Another commentator expanded on this point with specific examples that, once again, show how frequently critical issues in politics and government tend to recur. "If the judges mislead their sovereign by unconstitutional opinions. . . .where the lord chancellor has been thought to put the seal to an ignominious treaty. . . .a privy councillor to propound or support dishonorable measures, or a confidential adviser of the sovereign to obtain exhorbitant grants. . .these imputations have properly occasioned impeachments, because it is apparent how little ordinary tribunals are calculated to take cognizance of such offenses, or to investigate and reform the general policy of the state[emphasis added].  On pp. 67-9 of Impeachment Berger prints a long list of impeachable offenses relating to the failure properly to perform the duties of a particular office, be it judicial, military, or civil.   The framers, however, also agreed, as Berger shows, that impeachments of Presidents had to be confined to "great offenses" which, although not necessarily indictable under the law, amounted to much more than a neglect of relatively trivial duties.

Berger fortuitously finished and published Impeachment just as the Watergate scandal was breaking.  Clearly the offenses of Richard Nixon and his men--including the break-in into the Watergate, the burglary of a doctor's office to secure damaging information about the leaker Daniel Ellsberg, the attempted use of the CIA to try to block the investigation of the Watergate burglary, and the payment of hush money to keep witnesses quiet--qualified as "high crimes and misdemeanors" as the framers understood them.  Equally clearly, the impeachment of Bill Clinton had no basis in constitutional law as understood by the framers, since his alleged offenses had nothing to do with the performance of his official duties.

What about Donald Trump?

Both before and after assuming office, the President has welcomed the interference of a foreign power in our elections.  He asked the Russians to try to find Hillary Clinton's emails during the campaign, and we have now learned that he told two Russian diplomats in the spring of 2017 that he did not mind what they had done.  Now, he has enlisted both his private attorney Rudy Giuliani and his State and Justice Departments in an attempt to persuade the government of Ukraine to develop negative information about candidate Biden and his son, and he probably blocked military aid to Ukraine to try to get his way.  In short, after having (with some difficulty) found cabinet officers who will consistently do his bidding at State and Justice, he has used them to try to use the power of the federal government to re-elect himself by discrediting a political opponent.

Meanwhile, the President has repeatedly shown contempt for the law of the land, and a willingness to obstruct it.  He wanted to fire Robert Mueller during his investigation and repeatedly ordered subordinates to do so.  He has also told Border Patrol officials to take potentially illegal steps to stop migrants from coming over our southern border, and promised to pardon them for doing so if they get into legal trouble as a result.  He has defied numerous subpoenas from Congress.

More importantly, in my opinion, the President has shown over the nearly three years of his administration that he cannot run the federal government effectively.  He has fired cabinet officers and other officials at an unprecedented rate because he cannot bear subordinates who have integrity and independence of mind.  Large numbers of important government positions still remain unfilled.  His administration has blocked various agencies from releasing scientific findings.  He has shown appalling judgment of foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.  His phone conversations with various foreign leaders, we now learned, have seriously disturbed subordinates who heard them or saw the transcripts. The Congress in my opinion has every right to see the transcripts of his conversations with those men to see what they reveal about his fitness for office.

Law Professor John Yoo, who wrote the notorious torture memo for the Bush Administration when he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, has argued that Trump should not be impeached based upon a conversation with the President of Ukraine because presidents need to have confidential conversations with foreign leaders. That, I think, completely misunderstands the founders' position on impeachment.  The broader issue involved here is this:  should a President be punished for the use he makes of a normal part of the duties of his office?  In my opinion, the founders and the English statesmen whose precedents they respected obviously answered that question in the affirmative.  Indeed, a President who used purely legal means to undermine national security, spread false stories about political opponents, and run a revolving door government in an attempt to find sycophants that would do his bidding would be more dangerous that one who obviously violated the law.  Such a man is exactly the kind of president with which the impeachment clause of the Constitution was designed to deal.

All of this would be quite obvious, it seems to me, in a nation that still took the history and procedures of its government seriously and appreciated what the federal government does for the nation. Unfortunately, the election of 2016 proved that that is no longer the nation that we are.  Partisanship, not a respect for established principles, now drives our politics.  Indeed, large parts of the Republican Party have resented the growth of the federal government and wished that much of it would disappear for 80 years.  Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush all shared, to a certain degree, Trump's hostility towards our permanent government and its purposes.  Thus we cannot be sure that if a House Democratic majority votes articles of impeachment, that the Senate will muster even a majority--much less the necessary 2/3--to convict.

And thus, while I feel that impeachment and conviction are more than warranted, I still am not sure that voting those articles will leave us better off than we are now.  Still, the die is cast.  More and more revelations are coming out, and a few Republicans are expressing doubts about Donald Trump.  When parties march in lock step, they can change direction with extraordinary speed.  Anything is possible.  Meanwhile, my thanks go again to Raoul Berger, who,. nearly 50 years after the publication of his book, has shown me that the situation we face is indeed exactly the kind of situation that the founders put impeachment into the Constitution to deal with.

Note: In the end the Earl of Strafford's impeachment did not result in a conviction.  Before the House of Lords could finish trying the case, King Charles' opponents in the Commons decided instead to pass a bill of attainder calling for his execution.  The Lords also passed it and the King assented to try to mollify Parliament and stop a revolution.  In that he failed.  Exactly why the leaders of the Commons changed their minds about procedure is not clear, as Berger shows, but it certainly was not because they lacked the power to impeach and convict the Earl for violations of Britain's unwritten constitution.








Saturday, September 28, 2019

Impeachment Prospects

Let me begin with a flat statement: impeachment--in its literal sense--is going ahead.  Impeachment refers to a kind of indictment brought in our system by the House of Representatives, and it does not in itself remove the President or other impeached officials. Conviction or acquittal is the prerogative of the Senate, which must remove the impeached official by a 2/3 vote.  That the Senate failed to do in the cases of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  The House was ready to impeach and the Senate was ready to convict Richard Nixon, but he resigned before they could do so.

Trump has now been caught red-handed in a serious offense, and the momentum within the Democratic House caucus, which had already been building, has really taken off now. I shared Nancy Pelosi's skepticism about the wisdom of the step and I am not convinced even now that it will turn out well--but it looks like it is going to happen and I am not going to make the mistake, so common in this day and age, of assuming that what I want must always happen sooner or later.  In any case I am not really against impeachment now--just concerned about where it will lead.

As usual, the media have frequently been misstating a lot of the facts and issues in the case.  The whistle blower complaint and the transcript that has been released make it clear to me that Trump has committed a very impeachable offense.  I'm not referring to a quid pro quo exactly, or to a possible violation of campaign laws (which depends on a very broad interpretation of those laws, just as it does in the Stormy Daniels case.)  Trump was attempting to create an active conspiracy between a foreign government, his personal attorney, and the Attorney General and the Justice Department, designed to develop incriminating information against the leading presidential candidate of the other party.  That subverts our political process and, more importantly in my view, the functioning of the criminal justice system.  The President sees the government--or those parts of it about which he cares--as his personal staff, there to further his interests.  Even Jeff Sessions, who I thought was about as conservative a Republican as one could find, was not willing to play his assigned role. Neither was White House Counsel Don McGann. William Barr, however, is fully on board (and may deserve to be impeached himself as well, depending on how much active collaboration he has done with Giuliani on this and other matters.)

For at least the second time, the President is treating a foreign government as an ally in a struggle with a domestic political opponent.  Despite the strict legal conclusions of the Mueller report, we know that the Russian government provided extensive help to the Trump campaign in 2016 by hacking and releasing DNC emails and mounting campaigns on social media.  Trump publicly asked them for more assistance in the midst of the campaign, and at least one associate of his campaign, Roger Stone, seems to have been in touch with Wikileaks regarding the publication of the emails. Yesterday we learned that Trump told two Russian diplomats in the spring of 2017 that he didn't object to what their government had done during our election.  Since foreign assistance had got him into the White House, he seems to feel, there is no reason why it should not keep him there.

Whether or not any of this involves indictable crimes that would result in a conviction in court, these steps in my view fall very much within the category of offenses with which the Founders expected impeachment to deal.  "Mr. MADISON," the record of the debates of the Constitutional convention reads, "thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community agst. [sic] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate." Trump has demonstrated all three, repeatedly, and this case is a spectacular one.

Other very recent revelations confirm his incapacity and perfidy.  Rather than directing the operations of the federal government, he is carrying on much of his presidency in secret.  Responsible authorities, we now find, cannot see what he has said to the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia in phone conversations--they too are kept in a special, almost private server.  Yesterday the New York Times reported that Trump discussed trading gun legislation for support over impeachment with the NRA.  Our President is a diplomatic incompetent who cannot distinguish the national interest from his own.  For that he deserves to be removed.

But will he be?

I have written many times that the election of Donald Trump, an obvious huckster who has had to declare bankruptcy more than once, who has lied about many things for the whole of his career, and who made the fantastic claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, showed that our political system had collapsed.  Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party could produce a candidate who could beat him.  A large segment of the population--a segment not limited to Trump voters--had lost all confidence in our political class.  During the last three years the collapse has gotten worse on the Republican side at least, as the Republican Party has shamelessly lined up behind Trump, fearing the power of his alliance with Fox News, and welcoming many of his policy initiatives.  Meanwhile, the Democratic news media has indeed waged a continuous partisan campaign focused upon him, rather than telling us more about what is actually happening in the US.  The impeachment story will now take over the news for as long as it goes on, just as the Russian story did.  A long partisan controversy over impeachment, I fear, will not improve the nation's opinion of its political leadership, especially if his acquittal by the Senate remains a foregone conclusion.

That is not all.  To be offended by the subversion of our constitutional order, the public needs to understand and revere it.  It no longer does.  The Constitution--or at least, the 20th century interpretation of it--has been under attack for decades by the Right, who want to cripple the federal power to regulate the economy (something which, by the way, was well established at the time the Constitution was adopted.)  Increasingly university students learn nothing about the Constitution except that it did not specifically enshrine equal rights for female and black inhabitants of the country.  The reverence for the Constitution that Lincoln used to fight and win the civil war, that civil rights leaders exploited in the middle of the twentieth century, and that Sam Ervin and others used to bring down Nixon, is almost absent from our public discussions today.  It will not bring the necessary Senate Republicans over to the side of conviction.

On the other hand, the whistle controversy has set off a cascade of revelations, and sources claim that a good many Congressional Republicans are disturbed. Perhaps more of them will persuade many of them that Trump has to go; perhaps, as has already happened with the NRA, a desperate Trump will turn out to be his own worst enemy.  In that case, yes, it is possible that Mike Pence will become President.  The Democratic nominee will then have to wage a campaign against Trumpism without Trump.  We have no idea how that will go--although Pence has never looked like an impressive national figure to me.

In the worst case, Trump will be acquitted (or conceivably not impeached at all), the Democratic nomination struggle will be divisive, and he will win a second term.  A voters' convincing rejection of him after an acquittal would for me be the best scenario of all, since it would reaffirm popular sovereignty and a necessary minimum of popular wisdom.  That would however be only the beginning of a long process of trying to restore effective democracy.  It would merely confirm, thankfully, that we had hit bottom at last.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

You heard it here first

CNN is being a bit slow identifying the key part of the phone call. Trump did not just ask Zelensky for a favor.  He asked him specifically to talk to Giuliani AND ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR about further investigation of Biden. In other words, he is caught red-handed doing exactly what he was accused of doing with Russia in 2016, except that this time, he's trying to use the Justice Department to help him, not just his campaign.  So far no one has asked Barr about this either.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Trump's real analog

The political figure from American history whom Donald Trump most resembles, it seems to me, is Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who for a little more than four years--from February 1950 until the middle of 1954--terrorized Washington and much of the country with accusations of Communist conspiracies in the State Department, in other parts of the Truman Administration, and inside the Democratic Party.  The chief counsel of McCarthy's Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Roy Cohn, later became associated with Trump in the 1970s and 1980s, and Trump credits him with a good deal of influence upon him.  I thought of all this as I read the stories about Trump's apparent conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and read the transcript of Rudi Giuliani's interview with Chris Cuomo.   Trump  employs essentially the same tactics as McCarthy, and seems to me to be, in important ways, the same kind of person.  That he has risen much further, alas, shows how much American political life has deteriorated over the last 70 years or so.

McCarthy burst upon the scene in February 1950, at a Lincoln Day Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he claimed to have evidence that more than 200 card carrying Communists were working at the State Department.  He had been elected four years earlier during a Republican sweep, thanks in part to complicated maneuverings within Massachusetts politics that even led to his receiving the support of the small Communist party.  The state was then very liberal and he needed an issue for his impending re-election. Communism became it.

Trump. of course, burst onto the national political scene in the summer of 2015 with his sensational claims about illegal immigrants, but his real similarity to McCarthy emerged when he had to respond to allegations that his campaign had worked with Russian intelligence during 2016.  Having "discovered" more than 200 non-existent Communists in the State Department, McCarthy treated all the opposition to him as evidence of how vast the Communist conspiracy was.  When he was challenged--for instance, by Senator Milward Tydings of Maryland, whose Foreign Relations subcommittee found his charges baseless later in 1950--he argued that his challengers were working for the Communists themselves--and he managed to secure Tydings's defeat, in his bid for a fifth Senate term, in November 1950, when Republicans made big gains again.  After that the Republican Party adopted McCarthy in much the same way that it has now adopted Trump.  With very rare exceptions, such as Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Republicans decided that he was too big an asset to discard, and too much of a threat to oppose.   In 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination, Ike planned during a campaign swing through Wisconsin to refer favorably to his old boss, General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had accused of treasonously handing China over to the Communists on the floor of the Senate.  His political handlers talked him into deleting it.  Richard Nixon, who had begun beating the Communist treachery drum well before McCarthy, regarded him as an important ally.

The election of Eisenhower deprived McCarthy of a Democratic target at the White House, and the Republican assumption of the control of the Senate gave him a powerful committee chairmanship.  Pushed by Cohn, McCarthy continued looking for Communists within the government even though it was now in his own party's hands.  Looking for Communists within the U.S. Army, he stumbled upon an Army dentist named Irving Peress, who had been discharged after he refused to answer routine questions about membership in organizations deemed subversive.  While this action against him was pending, however, he had been routinely promoted from captain to major, and "Who promoted Peress?" became McCarthy's rallying cry.  In the meantime, another committee staffer, David Schine--who had gone on investigative trips with the gay Roy Cohn--was drafted into the US Army.  McCarthy's office, it turned out, had tried to intercede with his commanders on numerous occasions to get him special treatment.  That led to another set of Senate hearings that eventually led to McCarthy's downfall.

Trump's response to the whistle blower's accusations about his phone conversation with President Zelensky last month, in which he apparently demanded that Zelensky pursue an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter, who had worked with a Ukrainian bank, comes right from McCarthy's playbook.  Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine for several months this summer to pressure Zelensky to go after Hunter Biden.  Before the content of the phone call leaked, however, Rudy Giuliani, playing the role of Roy Cohn, went on television to accuse Biden, essentially, of doing what Trump had done: of threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine if a previous president did not fire a particular prosecutor who, Giuliani claims without evidence, was investigating his son.  This was (and still is) of course the Trump team's tactic towards the Russia investigation as well: to insist that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump and his minions, who colluded with the Russians to win the election. Both Trump and McCarthy seem to believe that attack is not simply the best defense, it's the only defense.

Going a layer deeper, I would suggest that the things McCarthy and Trump have done suggest another similarity: a total lack of commitment to, or respect for, anything but their own narcissistic self-image as superheroes fighting a hostile world.  McCarthy didn't care about the enormous damage he did to the State Department, the Army, and America's image abroad, provided that it got him more ink.   Trump in the same way has no respect for fundamental laws and principles of American government as he wages his endless struggle against his enemies.  That is why he was willing to try to conspire with a foreign government to try to destroy a political opponent, validating the charge that he had to fight with respect to Russia for two years.  Since Zelensky might help him, it was Zelensky's duty to do so.  Turning to him parallels what Trump did in the 1990s, when he turned to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity, for credit, because American banks, burned by his successive bankruptcies, wouldn't lend to him any longer.  He sees himself, not simply as an American, but as Donald Trump, international superstar, the equal of men like Putin, Zi, and Kim Jong Un.  They can give him the stature that the reality based community here in the US denies him.

Sadly, Trump disposes of considerably more resources than McCarthy did in his own struggle for survival.  McCarthy had allies in the press and on the radio, but they did not compare in their reach to Fox News, Trump's own private ministry of propaganda.  While McCarthy had considerable influence within the Republican Party, he could not compete with a Republican President who had returned the GOP to power in a landslide, and who had more to offer his fellow Senators than he did.  Trump has essentially no Republican opposition.  Many Senate Republicans cut McCarthy loose and destroyed him in a censure vote in 1954 because they found it politically wise to do so.  It seems inconceivable to me that that will happen to Trump before the 2020 election.

Only the American voter, it seems, can drive Trump out of office.  Here the McCarthy parallel offers some hope.  Even at his peak, he was never nearly as popular in Wisconsin as many assumed.  When he stood for re-election in 1952 he defeated an almost unknown opponent by a plurality of 113,000 votes, while Eisenhower carried the state over Stevenson by 358,000 votes.  This week, every general election trial heat poll--including Fox News's--shows Trump trailing all three of the leading Democratic candidates.  Trump's election in 2016, however close it may have been, proved that the American political system had ceased to function for the public good.  The signs are that the public will be willing to take a first step in restoring it, by voting  him out of office.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Government and Private Interests, 1962 and 2019



Last Saturday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department has warned four leading car companies—Ford, Volkswagen of America, Honda and BMW--that it may pursue an antitrust case against them for sticking to a deal with the of California that would commit them to meeting mileage targets for their cars—and corresponding targets for carbon emissions—that are much stricter than the loose ones that the Trump Administration has just announced.  I immediately remembered another case, more than 57 years ago, in which the Justice Department threatened leading firms in a major American industry with antitrust action and helped change its behavior to meet a policy goal of the Kennedy Administration.  The comparison is a terrifying illustration of what has gone wrong in American life and American government since the early 1960s.

Some background is in order.  The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw remarkable economic growth in the United States, dominated by major industries such as automobiles, energy, and steel.  Meanwhile, they also saw a remarkable growth in the reach and power of the American labor movement, which had successfully organized coal miners, autoworkers, steelworkers, and just about every other major industry.  The unions made pretty steady wage gains for their workers, and their employers passed some of those gains on to consumers.  Inflation had become an intermittent problem during the 1950s, reaching about 3% annually in the middle of the decade, but falling in 1958-9 because of a recession.  Another recession struck in 1960-1, and the new Kennedy Administration, which included a number of prominent economists, wanted to encourage recovery without triggering a new round of price increases.  To do so, the administration, led by its Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg—himself a labor lawyer—tried to intervene in major contract negotiations.

The American steel industry in 1962 was easily the world’s largest, and changes in its wages and prices always had immediate effects throughout the economy.  Its union contract was expiring in the spring of 1962.  In meetings that included both union leaders and Roger Blough of US Steel, Goldberg and the President made clear that they wanted a new contract that would not lead to a steel price increase.  Blough said nothing in response.  Then, when the parties had reached a settlement, Blough immediately announced that US Steel was raising its prices—a signal to the rest of the industry to do the same.   The President reacted immediately, opening a press conference by declaring that the price increase constituted “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest.” When the nation was asking the military, union members, and all its citizens for sacrifice, he said, “ the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.” (Readers who follow this link and read Kennedy’s entire statement will find a rather extraordinary contrast with a day or two of our current President’s tweets.)  The President led a government-wide effort to force Blough to back down, including the opening of an FBI investigation into price fixing in violation of the antitrust laws, and a shift of Defense Department steel purchases to companies that did not go along with the increase.  Within a few days, Blough rescinded the increase.  Kennedy had scored a remarkable victory for his Presidency—followed within the next six months by the successful attempt to secure the admission of the first black American to the University of Mississippi, and then, his remarkable resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.  During 1963 he followed those up with the introduction of the great civil rights bill that would end discrimination in public accommodations and the negotiation of the Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.  No subsequent president has shown such a consistent ability to deploy the power of his office for the public good.

The Trump Administration’s decision to threaten the auto manufacturers with anti-trust action if they continue to observe their agreement with the state of California has an opposite purpose.  Kennedy successfully forced the steel companies to subordinate their private interests to the public interest.  Trump and Attorney General Barr want to help private interests—specifically, energy companies—at the expense of the public interest and the very future of human life on our planet.  Because of its vulnerability to pollution, the state of California has the right to set its own emissions standards, and because of the size of the market it represents, the car companies have an interest in observing those standards.  13 other states also follow California’s rules. Reducing the fuel consumption of our automobiles—now the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States—is of course critical to any attempt to halt climate change.  The Trump Administration, however, remains in denial about climate change, and does not seem to want to lessen reliance on fossil fuels.  Its Justice Department is now accusing the auto manufacturers of conspiring to build more expensive cars, in an attempt to force them to abandon the California standards.  No one but Koch industries and other fossil fuel producers will benefit if the administration succeeds.

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, a sense of the public interest dominated the political life of the United States.  That enabled us to fight the Depression, prepare for and win the Second World War, and rebuild Europe. We expanded the nation’s housing stock and its school systems, undertook the interstate highway system, and mounted the civil rights movement.  Now nearly every politically active element in our society makes its demands on behalf of a particular economic interest or demographic group, not for the good of the nation of the whole.  That may be the biggest single reason for the catastrophic state of our political life.



Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day articles

A friend of mine recently described our local newspaper, the Boston Globe, as a shadow of its former self, and he wasn't kidding.  After the New York Times lost a great deal of money buying it some years ago, they sold it to hedge fund manager John Henry, who happens to be the owner of the Boston Red Sox. I remember it in the 1970s when it had a very robust Washington bureau and covered local politics very thoroughly.  Now it has an even more PC orientation than the Times, I think, typified by an article this morning that black entrepreneurs are being shut out of the booming new legal marijuana movement, despite the black population's role as consumers.  Something happened over the weekend, though, and I was astonished by the three guest op-eds I discovered in it today--all the more so because it happens to be Labor Day, and the staff might have found some one to discuss the plight of the contemporary American worker,  so many of whom are at work as usual today in retail and food service industries, among man others.

Reading from left to right, the first of these pieces is about college debt.  This problem, it argues, has been vastly exaggerated.  66% of Millennials (the generation is not defined by the author) have no college debt, it states, either because they never went to college in the first place or because they managed without loans, or have paid them off.  The article claims that of those who have borrowed, the average debt is $28,000--but another source that I found says that's the average for all Millennial college graduates, period.  (That source put Millennial birth years from 1981 to 1999 which I think is very close to correct).  The author, one Beth Akers, thinks they can pay that off relatively easily.  She also argues that  most of those who owe a lot more--say $100,000--will also be able to pay them off because they invested in well-paying graduate degrees.  She also mentions (but does not describe in any detail) programs already in place to make it easier to pay. She thinks our student debt system is too complicated and should be simplified, but on the whole, she sees no crisis at work.  Ms. Akers, the piece also informs us, is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that can be counted on to advocate free-market solutions to almost everything, and she does not stop to compare today's America to that of 50 years ago, when pratically no young people graduated from college with significant student debt, and tuition and fees were less than 1/3, adjusted for inflation, of what they are now--and paid for a much better education.

The second piece, by one Jennifer Braceras, asks what will happen to the billions of dollars that Johnson and Johnson agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma for its part in creating the disastrous opioid epidemic, which killed more than 217,000 Americans from 1999 through 2017 thanks to overdoses of perscription drugs.  Ms. Braceras talks a lot about what happened to the billions paid by the tobacco industry in response to similar settlements, complaining bitterly that relatively little of it went to help prevent smoking.  Instead, states spent the money on education, infrastructure, and making broadband accessible to rural areas, as well as simply for general purposes.  To those like myself who believe that some tobacco and drug company executives should be  headed for prison as punishment for feeding their fellow Americans poison, it seems quite logical to at least confiscate some of the wealth they earned by doing so and using it, in various ways, for the public good.  Ms. Braceras is also upset that Johnson and Johnson was found guilty at all, since its opioids were approved by the FDA.  When a corporation has enough political influence to get a fatal product approved, she seems to think, it shouldn't have to bear the consequences.  Ms. Braceras directs the Center for Law and Liberty a tthe Independent Women's Forum, a conservative organization that denies that climate change is man-made, takes conservative positions on women's issues, and has financial and other links to the Koch brothers. 

The third Labor Day op-ed, by Michael Rosenblatt, also deals with drugs--in this case, with how they are developed.  It's a full-blown defense of our private drug industries, who need the freedom to profit from ideas that may originally have been developed by government agencies if they are going to do the long, hard work of turning them into effective treatments.  The author says nothing about the well-documented preference of  major drug companies for drugs that treat chronic conditions for many years, as opposed to drugs that might actually cure diseases--much less about the corruption of the FDA which has led not only to the opioid catastrophe, but to the approval of numerous profitable drugs whose impact on disease is actually relatively marginal.   He, it turns out, is now an executive in a venture capital firm, having previously served as the chief medical officer of Merck.

What does all this mean?  While the mainstream media obsesses over President Trump's tweets, the difficulties of female presidential candidates, and a wide variety of sex scandals, corporate America is continuing its decades-long campaign to shape public discussion of economic issues in ways that will make the rich richer.  That's the job of the Manhattan Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, both of whom successfully stormed the Globe's editorial page today.  Trump will leave office in one-plus or five-plus years, but their campaign will still be continuing and still be having an effect.  Meanwhile, the number of workers in unions--and the number of workers who got Labor Day off--continues to shrink.  The Boston Globe remains a liberal newspaper, but its brand of liberalism isn't doing the average American much good.


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Trump and Stalin: A focused comparison

From the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency I have rejected the idea that he is, or could become, a dictator such as the world experienced in the 1930s and 1940s, or even a strong man like Erdogan of Turkey or Duterte of the Philippines.  I believe this mainly because we live in a completely different age, marked by individual and corporate freedom, and a general decline in political authority in most of the world.  The great difficulty the administration has experienced in trying to implement its policies on the issue it cares about most, immigration, illustrates the inertia that characterizes our political life today.  Any authoritarian ambitions Trump might have, it seems to me, threaten our nation much less than our chronic inability to make any large-scale policy initiative happen.

Yet as I pondered the President's recent fusillades of tweets, and got a message from a friend who was reading Darkness at Noon, it occurred to me that there is a profound similarity between Trump and Joseph Stalin relating to their world views.  Like Trump, Stalin inhabited a mental universe in which he could literally do no wrong.  He, and he alone, knew what the Soviet Union and the world needed.  He was better at anything he attempted than anyone else.  What he did was good by definition, because he had done it.  When anything went wrong, enemies must be at work, enemies who needed to be unmasked and dealt with summarily.  Stalin's view,  one could argue, was a little more sophisticated intellectually than Trump's, since he saw history and political life as a ceaseless class struggle, in which he represented the world's proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Trump has no such ideological scheme. For him, everything is personal. 

Stalin was far more dangerous to his nation and the world because he disposed of total power, wielded by secret police without any check upon it at all.  Thus, when the collectivization of agriculture led to famine in Ukraine and elsewhere, he could not only claim that the peasants must be hoarding their grain, but also send squads of police and young activists into the countryside to punish their non-existent sins, brutally.  When factories failed to meet their quotas the security services would fabricate cases of sabotage.  Beginning in 1937 Stalin had hundreds of high-ranking officers executed, as well as many high party officials from the USSR and elsewhere, based on false accusations of treason.  In the first half of 1941, he insisted against all evidence that Germany was not going to betray the Nazi-Soviet Pact and attack the USSR, and that reports to the contrary were provocations.  Interestingly enough, Stalin seems to have gotten a better grip on reality during the Second World War, but when the war was over, his paranoia returned with a vengeance.

Now let's compare Donald Trump, using just the current week's worth of tweets.  Last Monday the President announced, not for the first time, "The Fake and corrupt Media is sooo bad for our Country. The Enemy of the People!"  ("Enemy of the people" was a favorite Stalinist phrase.)   On the same day he announced that google had "manipulated from 2.6 to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election."  On Wednesday, he quoted an observer to the effect that he "is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world."  He also accused "the Fake News LameStream Media" of trying to create a recession," but threw in an attack on Chairman Powell of the Federal Reserve: "So far he has called it wrong, and only let us down.  He also blasted leading automobile companies who do not want to abandon the tougher pollution standards mandated by California in favor of his own new, much looser ones.  On Friday--just days after announcing that he was doing "great" with China--he asked, "who is our gibber enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman X?" He repeatedly claims that he has led the most successful administration, for the time he has served, in American history.

There is, of course, a clinical term for these problems.  The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

"People with the disorder can:

"Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
"Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
"Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
"Exaggerate achievements and talents
"Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
"Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
"Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
"Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
"Take advantage of others to get what they want
"Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
"Be envious of others and believe others envy them
"Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
"Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
"At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:

"Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment
"Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
"React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
"Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
"Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
"Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
"Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation."

Because Donald Trump has been obsessed with the idea that he can do the impossible--both as a real estate developer and a politician--he constantly runs afoul of reality.  He generally responds with a habit that is not listed among the symptoms of narcissism, but which he shares with both Joseph Stalin and Joseph McCarthy: he blames a vast conspiracy of wicked enemies for everything that goes wrong.  He does not have the power to do the kind of harm that Stalin did, although American legal traditions have allowed him to carry out cruel policies towards those who have crossed our border without authorization.  But he clearly lacks the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to deal with any really serious situation.  A recession, I think, would undoubtedly make his symptoms much worse.  In any case, a government based on the idea of rationality needs a more rational person at its head in order to function.