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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Thank you again, Henry Adams

In 1894, the historian Henry Adams--the great-grandson and grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams--mailed in his presidential address to the American Historical Association.  Adams had quit academia, resigning his assistant professorship at Harvard (a position I later held myself) in the 1870s to move to Washington, since he, unlike myself, wanted to spend his life among the nation's movers and shakers.  (The many parallels between his life and mine will figure in my forthcoming autobiography.)  Yet he was the author of one of the half-dozen greatest works of US history, History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a nine-volume work of extraordinary penetration, analysis, and humor.  And the address he wrote posed what has turned out to be the critical problem of 21st century western civilization: the impact and fate of the Enlightenment tradition of which he was a part.

History, Adams wrote, had increasingly been dominated over the past half-century or so by a single ambition: to become a science that might reach valid conclusions about the future of the human race.  He did not say, although he might have, that that quest was simply one aspect of the broader attempt that western civilization was making to use human reason to perfect politics and economics, creating a more just society.  That was the idea that the west was going to spread around the world during the frist half of the twentieth century.  Adams did not commit himself in his address to any one view of what conclusions a science of history might reach, instead listing three possibilities.  Yet he put his finger on the key problem of attempts to order human society according to reason.  Whatever conclusion historians reached, he argued, powerful interests would resist it.  "Any science," he wrote, "assumes a necessary sequence of cause and effect, a force resulting in motion which can not be other than what it is. Any science of history must be absolute, like other sciences, and must fix with mathematical certainty the path which human society has got to follow. That path can hardly lead toward the interests of all the great social organizations. We can not conceive that it should help at the same time the church and the state, property and communism, capital and poverty, science and religion, trade and art. Whatever may be its orbit, it must, at least for a time, point away from some of these forces toward others which are regarded as hostile. Conceivably, it might lead off in eccentric lines away from them all, but by no power of our imagination can we conceive that it should lead toward them all." We now know that he was right.

Specifically, Adams said, history might eventually conclude that human society was heading towards socialism--and thus declare war on existing institutions.  "Would property, on which the universities depend, allow such freedom of instruction?" he asked. "Would the state suffer its foundation to be destroyed? Would society as now constituted tolerate the open assertion of a necessity which should affirm its approaching overthrow?" Secondly, history might conclude that the characteristic features of contemporary society--"its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts—were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years." In that case, no one would want to listen to historians, who would be regarded as prophets of despair.  One other possibility remained: "If, finally, the science should 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, it commits suicide."   In my opinion, the history of the world going back to ancient times tells the story of a struggle among those three views, none of which is destined to prevail.  That explains the unfortunate trends that have dominated the world for the last 40 years or so, and which show no signs of abating any time soon.

While socialism in its pure form of state ownership of the means of production only came to power in Communist nations--and there, significantly, only temporarily--certain socialist ideas did become conventional wisdom in Europe, North America, and elsewhere by the middle of the twentieth century.  Governments, led by FDR's New Deal, assumed a responsibility for the welfare of their people that included attempts to reduce inequality of wealth.  Economists and politicians recognized that a growing economy required that all classes of society share in economic growth--a result which, as Thomas Piketty reminded us four years ago, would not occur automatically if capitalism were left alone.  Adams, however, was right: even this limited socialism provoked a powerful long-term reaction from those who held capital.  By the 1990s the institutions and practices that had increased equality were disappearing and the march towards greater inequality had resumed.  It is continuing all over the globe now, in Western Europe as well as the United States, even though it has not as yet gone quite as far on the other side of the Atlantic as here.  The mid-century consensus rested on a sound scientific basis, but capital had to overthrow it not in spite of, but because of, that fact.  And so it has.

Turning to another of Adams's possible outcomes, historians have not yet concluded that humanity must revert to religion, but many societies have.  The secularism that went along with the Enlightenment reached a peak in worldwide influence sometime during the first half of the twentieth century, extending in Turkey even into the heart of the Muslim world, but orthodox religion has made a comeback not only there, but here in the United States, where it enjoys remarkable political influence, and in Russia, where the church is once again a powerful arm of the state.  

Adams's other possibility--that a science of history might show that we are condemned to a continuation of existing things--strikes me as closest to a true historical conclusion, although it required a further proviso.  We must understand "a continuation of existing things" as a dynamic rather than static description.  Religion, science, greed and egalitarianism always live within human breasts and are always at war in our politics.  Some are winning at any given moment but begin ceding ground later on.  My generation, as it turns out, was born very near a turning point.

When will rationalism and a sense of the common good once again become the key elements of our political and economic life?  Will it require more catastrophes like the two world wars, or perhaps the consequences of global warming, to make it happen? These are questions for the future. Meanwhile, it seems, Henry Adams laid the foundation for understanding the ups and downs of human history, and of our time.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On campus life, 2018

      Recently I have taken to glancing at the online Harvard Crimson, in part because of the lawsuit over Harvard's admissions policies that will be tried this fall (and which I hope to look in at.)  Its opinion section also features some interesting heterodoxy about identity politics.  This week, however, I came across another piece that got my attention, for reasons that will become apparent.  Because content is freely available, I don't see how anyone could object to my posting the text of the article, to being with, for non-commercial use only.  The article deals with another subject of controversy, the Final Clubs--originally private men's clubs, whose membership came largely from prep school students--which President Drew Faust tried to put out of business by making their members ineligible for prestigious fellowships.  Here it is.

Learned Behavior

Men control Harvard’s most valuable social assets. Partying at 1 a.m. at the Fly may seem outside the College’s educational purview — but it is certainly giving lessons in something.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Trump and Hitler - a balanced comparison

I have been a comparative historian for my whole career.  My first book (bottom of list, at right) compared the policies of Germany, Britain and France towards Eastern Europe during the 1930s.  My third book, Politics and War, compared four different eras of general war in history.  Proper comparisons, in my opinion, illustrate both similarities and differences between nations, or between eras, or between individuals.  In comparing the political trajectory, style, goals, and impact of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump in their first year in office, I am certainly not (NOT!!) suggesting that Trump intends to unleash a world war or send millions of people to their deaths, neither of which I believe.  The two men took power in very different eras and their accession to power has had very different effects in their two nations.  They think very differently, and only one of them led a huge movement loyal only to himself, or fundamentally altered his nation's system of government in his first few months in office. Yet there are similarities in their world views--and chilling similarities in some of the policies of their respective governments in their first years in office.  We can, in short, learn something from the comparison.

To illustrate the differences in the minds of these two men--and some similarities and differences in how they saw their historical role--I have decided to use a speech that Hitler delivered to the Reichstag on January 30, 1937, summarizing the results of his first four years in office.  Donald Trump, of course, has not yet had the opportunity to deliver a corresponding speech, and it is far from certain that he will ever get the chance to do so.  I looked for a similar speech by Hitler delivered in 1934 or 1935 but I could not find one--his major speeches in those years tended to deal with a single issue of foreign policy, and do not seem to have included this kind of general survey.  Yet it will become clear, I think, that there are profound similarities, as well as differences, between the ways the two men saw or see their historical impact, even though Trump does not yet enjoy the security in power that Hitler had in 1937.

Hitler began by characterizing the situation which led to his seizure of power.  In the years before 1933, he pointed out, Germany had experienced constant changes of government. "All these Cabinet reconstructions brought some positive advantage only to the actors who took part in the play; but the results were almost always quite negative as far as the interests of the people were concerned," he said.   Those words call to mind Trump's campaign attacks on both parties for their shared guilt in reaching bad trade deals, allowing US allies to take advantage of them, and failing to deal with illegal immigration.  But Hitler went much further.  The accession of himself and the Nazi Party to power was not enough; the whole parliamentary system, a foreign intrusion into Germany, had had to be abolished to bring real change, "even at the sacrifice of life and blood."  And indeed, by August 1934--the comparable point in his chancellorship to where Trump's presidency stands today--that change had taken place.  The Reichstag had surrendered its powers much earlier and huge legal and institutional changes had taken place.  Nothing like that has taken place in the United States, obviously, nor is anything like that about to happen.  Trump did not bring a new party into power behind him, he seized control of an old one, and he has now brought it very firmly under his own control and entered into a firm alliance with it.  Hitler and his acolytes were genuine revolutionaries in a revolutionary age.  Trump is not. 

Continuing, Hitler described the National Socialist revolution as an almost bloodless one, and accused international opinion of applying a double standard, since it seemed less disturbed by the very bloody revolutionary conflict now taking place in Spain.  But when he turned to the specific nature of the National Socialist revolution, he used words that have not, and will not, come from Trump's mouth.  "The main plank in the National Socialist program," he said," is to abolish the liberalistic concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil and bound together by the bond of its common blood."  "There is one error which cannot be remedied once men have made it," he continued, "namely the failure to recognize the importance of conserving the blood and the race free from intermixture and thereby the racial aspect and character which are God's gift and God's handiwork."  And like his contemporaries Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler believed that his ideology would reshape the future of the world.  "I can prophesy here that, just as the knowledge that the earth moves around the sun led to a revolutionary alternation in the general world-picture, so the blood-and-race doctrine of the National Socialist Movement will bring about a revolutionary change in our knowledge and therewith a radical reconstruction of the picture which human history gives us of the past and will also change the course of that history in the future," he said.

The breadth of Hitler's world view, and its revolutionary character, becomes even clearer as he goes on.  "A regime of order and discipline," he said, had replaced parliamentary democracy in just three months back in 1933, and National Socialism was replacing class differences with natural selection.  All power lay with the German people, whose representative was the Nazi Party, which now controlled legislative and executive authority.  A new economic system, he argued (with more conviction than actual evidence), would treat all Germans fairly.  But National Socialism would refuse "to allow the members of a foreign race to wield an influence over our political, intellectual, or cultural life," or "to accord to the members of a foreign race any predominant position in our national economic system."  There is really no analog for these passages in Trump's rhetoric either.  His Administration--and the whole Republican Party--believe wholeheartedly in economic freedom and the power of capitalism, both of which they are managing to increase.

Like Trump today, Hitler in this speech spent a good deal of time congratulating himself on Germany's economic progress since his accession to power.  Trump, of course, came into office after a long period of economic expansion, which has continued through his first 18 months in office.  Hitler came into office when recovery from a catastrophic depression had just begun,. and accelerated that recovery with big programs of public works (infrastructure!) and rearmament.  Both men, in making these claims, ignored unpleasant realities.  In the United States, wages have remained almost stagnant throughout the post-2009 expansion.  In Germany people were back at work, but because of rigid controls on foreign trade, basic foodstuffs like butter were often in short supply and even bread had to be adulterated because of a shortage of grain.  

What is most noteworthy reading Hitler's speech, however, is the almost complete absence of the kind of combative rhetoric that flows from Trump's keyboard almost daily on Twitter.  Because Hitler had eliminated political opposition in his first few months in office, he does not have to spend any time talking generally, much less specifically, about domestic enemies, except for the vague references to those who do not belong to the national community.  International Communism is the main threat he sees on the horizon.  Hitler and the Nazis had railed ceaselessly against Communists, Socialists, and the politicians of the Weimar Republic in the years before they took power, using the same kind of abusive rhetoric, oversimplification, and outright falsification that Trump and his private propaganda ministry at Fox News use today.  Lesser propagandists continued to refer vaguely to internal or external enemies to explain problems even in the mid-1930s. But Hitler could not afford to be above all that because his position was completely secure.  That represents the biggest difference between his rhetoric and Trump's.

Trump, to put it bluntly has remained in full campaign mode, and seems incapable of behaving in any other way.  He makes a steady stream of absurd accusations against Democrats--that they favor open borders, want to abolish ICE (a few have made that proposal, of course), raise taxes, weaken our national defense, etc., etc. etc.  He is pursuing an ongoing flame war with the press--but probably doing less than the Nixon Administration to actually try to control what it prints.   He also has become completely obsessed with Robert Mueller's investigation for which there was obviously no parallel in Nazi Germany.  He constantly attacks leading figures in various walks of life who have criticized him.  It is not too much to suggest, I think, that while Hitler was genuinely obsessed with the idea of history as a struggle among different races, Trump sees it (and life itself) as an atavistic struggle among individuals, in which everyone else is out to get him, the one indispensable man.  Trump doesn't care very much about principles or institutions, only about his own wealth, power, and prestige.  That, I think, probably makes him a much less capable political leaders, but also makes him much less dangerous to his nation and the world at large.  And I can't help wondering how successful Trump might be if he confined his tweets to a drumbeat of self-congratulation extolling the country's enormous progress under his leadership, without the constant personal attacks.  Fortunately, perhaps, it doesn't look as if that experiment will ever be run.

In one respect, it seems, Trump would have liked to extend his authority in a more dictatorial manner. Not once, but twice, we have learned, he has ordered that Robert Mueller be fired.  He and Fox News (led by Sean Hannity, whom one journalist recently described as Trump's de facto chief of staff) have been preparing their supporters for that step for months and their rhetoric has been accelerating.  I think there is a good chance that Trump will fire Rod Rosenstein and Mueller after Judge Kavanagh has been confirmed.  That would essentially complete the Gleichschaltung, or "coordination," of the Justice Department--the same process that Hitler and the Nazis carried out throughout the German government in their first year or so in office. But that will not prevent him, probably, from losing the House of Representatives, and with subpoena power, the Democrats will be able to fight the propaganda war to a standstill.  The fate of the Trump Administration will remain in the hands of the American electorate.  

To say that Trump is not Hitler is not to slight the seriousness of the situation in which the United States and the world find themselves today.  His election represented a complete breakdown of our political order, one that had disconnected more than half of our registered voters from both of the two major political parties.  Trump and the Republicans are dismantling what was left of the Progressive era and the New Deal and paving the way for new and even greater inequality.  These are serous ills--but they are not the ills of the 1930s.  Totalitarianism threatened absolute government authority over every aspect of our life. We are now threatened by the opposite--the lack of any effective government authority, especially over economic life.  That is a very different disease that needs different remedies.

There is, however, another aspect of Trump Administration policy that does resemble early Nazi Germany.  In both cases, the government identified, and began in various ways to persecute, a minority onto which it tried to channel popular hostility.  In Germany in the early 1930s that minority was Jews.  Today that minority is illegal immigrants.

The Jewish community in Germany in 1933 numbered about half a million people, or less than 1% of the total population of about 65 million.  It had been declining in numbers thanks in part to assimilation, and it had only secured full political rights in the 1860s, and broke some additional employment barriers after the First World War.  After taking power the Nazis quickly organized a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, but had to back off somewhat because of hostile foreign reaction.   The Jews were largely excluded from academia, the civil service and many professions in the first few years of the Nazi regime and the 1935 Nuremberg laws gave them a special status.
 The goal of Nazi policy at least through 1938, if not longer, was to encourage Jews to leave Germany--albeit without any of their wealth--and about 25% of the German Jewish population had done so by the late 1930s.  Their problem was that there were so few other countries who would accept them in any large numbers.  The Nazis actually encouraged Zionism,. but the British in the late 1930s were trying to curb Jewish immigration to Palestine to pacify the Arab population, rather than to encourage it.  Although the specific origins of the Final Solution remain controversial, the bulk of the evidence suggested to me, when I wrote Politics and War in the 1980s that it was not until after war had begun that the murder of the whole Jewish population of Europe began to be discussed.

Jews had of course been the single biggest focus of hostile Nazi propaganda before the seizure of power.  It is not unfair to say that illegal immigrants played the same role for Donald Trump, beginning with his comments about Mexican immigrants when he announced his campaign.  The inability of our national government to give legal status to immigrants that our economy plainly heeds has led to a political and human rights crisis.   Our 11 million illegal immigrants--a much larger minority, more than 3%, of our population, than the German Jews in 1933--are in a sense an easier target because American law has traditionally given such people so few rights.  They are liable to deportation, and the Obama Administration had deported about 2.5 million of them in eight years.  What has only recently come to light--notably in an Atlantic article by Franklin Foer--is that ideologues at the White House (led by Stephen Miller) and at ICE, supported by Attorney General Sessions, are using a variety of tactics to arrest, intimidate and deport more illegal immigrants so as to convince more of them to leave, just as the Nazis did the Jews in the years before the Second World War.  They have also made it much harder for Central Americans and others to immigrate legally by narrowing the grounds for asylum, so that domestic violence and gang violence no longer entitle refugees to enter the US.  Like so many of the key developments in our national life today, this one, Foer shows, dates back to the Bush Administration, which created ICE and introduced a more hostile attitude towards immigrants after 9/11.  If the Congress were doing its job it would be holding hearings to learn more about the ideology behind these policies and their long-term goals, but Congressional Republicans stand solidly behind the President.

Every great crisis or Fourth Turning raises the issue of the composition of the national community.  In the United States, immigration was also controversial before the Civil War, but slave labor replaced immigrant labor as a political issue during the 1850s, and the war redefined the national community to include former slaves and German and Irish immigrants.  Southern and Eastern European immigration was very controversial from the 1880s through the 1910s, and was severely limited in 1924, but the Second World War made Italians, Poles, and Jews full citizens in their fellows' eyes as well, and led to the most intense phase of the civil rights movement.  Immigration restrictions loosened again in 1965 and immigration has again changed the character of the United States--but the great common task that might bring us together is lacking.  In my opinion, the older Republican political leadership has refused to pass immigration reform mainly because they do not want to add millions of new voters to the rolls.  Trump and his people seem to have even bigger goals than that, but we don't yet know what they are.

It is a sad commentary that a democratically elected American government is following in the footsteps of a European dictatorship 80 years ago and trying to drive a substantial portion out of the country.  It is equally sad that the Democratic opposition is focusing on only the most extreme aspects of this policy, such as DACA status and the separation of families at the border.  We desperately need to make citizens of our permanent residents.  I do not think this administration will attempt to claim dictatorial powers, but our present laws allow it to wreak a great deal of human hardship upon a vulnerable population--and that is what it is doing.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The key legal issue in the Russia investigation

I enjoyed my MSNBC appearance last weekend very much and I appreciate all the good reaction to it here and on Facebook.  Yet I had studied the state of the evidence in the case quite carefully and I could have said a lot more if given the chance. (There is an excellent chronology at this web site.)  A day or two after my appearance I sent an email to the MSNBC producers, urging them to circulate it, explaining what I might have said.  They replied appreciatively but no one has gotten back to me. Just this morning the New York Times has finally caught on to what the case is about. Here is a slightly longer version of what I wrote early last week.

          According to the indictment of the Russian intelligence officers, the Russians committed two illegal acts. One was breaking into the DNC's (and other) protected computers.  The second--a separate but clearly defined offense--was publishing what they got form the hack. That is a crime specifically defined in the US Code.

          We don't have any evidence that the Trump campaign was involved in the decision to hack (in late 2015 or very early 2016) But there is plenty of circumstantial and direct evidence that they were deeply involved in the decision to publish the material.

          The Russians activated one of their websites, dcleaks.com, on June 8, 2016, the day before the infamous Trump tower meeting that included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manfort, and three Russian representatives.  Donald Jr. took the meeting based on a promise that the Russians had compromising material on Hillary Clinton.  The Russians began publishing material in the days after that meeting.

          Some time in June, Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica, which was already in talks with the Trump campaign, contacted Wikileaks to ask if he could help i preparing hacked materials for release.  This was after Julian Assange had announced that he had such emails.

          On July 14 the Trump campaign got the Republican Platform committee to drop tough anti-Russian language on Ukraine.

          On June 25 Trump tweeted that the new joke in Washington was that Russia hacked the DNC emails "because Putin likes me."

          On June 27 candidate Trump dared the Russians to secure and release Clinton's missing emails, in public. On the same day the Russians mounted a new attack on a server close to her.

          A credible report says that Gucifer--the Russian hacker, it turns out--was in touch with "a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump."  That person is now assumed to have been Roger Stone

           All through the summer, Giuliani and Roger Stone made statements about forthcoming releases of damaging documents by the Russians.

          Meanwhile, Sessions and Flynn were having discussions with Russian Ambassador Kislyak about better relations, sanctions, etc.

          Shortly after the election, Michael Flynn--who had made a profitable trip to Russia some months earlier--began talking to Kislyak about setting up a secure communications channel so as to bypass the US bureaucracy, which might not want improved relations with Russia.

          I believe Mueller and his team must be fully aware of this angle and that we are going to hear more about it.  The Russians and the Trump campaign collaborated in releasing stolen emails, which is a crime. Even if you simply bless some one else's plans to commit a crime, you are guilty.

          That, to repeat, is a slightly enhanced version of what I wrote MSNBC.  Nothing has come of it.  This morning, the New York Times notes that the Mueller investigation is clearly focusing on Roger Stone and specifically cites his statements about Russian releases of documents and his contacts with Gucifer. 

           I believe that all the information I have cited here has been in the public domain for some time.  It seems that today's journalists, especially on television, simply do not take the time to sit down with readily available sources, list the key facts, and make rather obvious inferences about what they might mean.  Instead, they quickly establish "narratives" and run with them for months at a time.  But that is what I was trained to do and have spent my whole life doing.