Remember how exciting it was to hear news of the Arab Spring in early 2011? I recall watching videos of people demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on my February birthday, and being so happy for them. Now Egypt’s ruled by a military dictatorship, but I believe – I hope – that once having felt the exhilaration of self-taken freedom, those involved will be ready to insist on it again when they can.
People in other Arab countries were also insisting on freedom and respect in 2011, but I don’t remember being aware that Syria, which has suffered so much since, was one of them. Now, however, I’ve read about the struggle of the Syrian people in Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (2016) by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, and have found some new heroes, apparently unknown to most of the rest of the world. I feel guilty that this book sat on my shelf unopened for at least a year, when all I knew about Syria was that its people were being cruelly bombed and gassed by the Bashar Assad regime and that no one, apparently, was helping them. Few were helping the refugees streaming out of the country either, and I got tired of feeling their pain and not being able to do anything about it.
I still need long breaks of doing things that bring me peace and happiness, but I’m back to trying to understand the history and current status of the conflict, and I hope to try to share what I find out with you. I don’t believe petitioning my government, the UN, or any other official body will improve things, but maybe there’s some way we can organize as ordinary people and reach out to the people of Syria, those still inside the country and refugees, to ask what they think would help.
Hi, all — just wanted to let you know that I’ve added my notes on two new books to “Resources, Non-fiction Books.” They are No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Want by Naomi Klein (2017) and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016). The notes on Nothing Ever Dies also include my notes on Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2016 novel about the Vietnam War, The Sympathizer. Look for “Resources” in the top bar of the web page.
As always, I heartily recommend that you read these books in their entirety yourself, but in case you don’t have the time, money, or interest to do that, these notes may be helpful to you. Share any and all widely.
The global economy is unsustainable in the long run, both because of the inherent contradictions within capitalism and the finite nature of the world’s resources. It almost went down during the 2008 economic crisis, and the American and other bailouts were just temporary fixes. Additional austerity measures have been politically resisted by the left in Greece, Spain, and other European countries, and reacted to by right-wing parties targeting immigrants. In “World economy: the return of crisis” (International Socialist Review, Fall 2016), Joel Geier and Less Sustar say, that in the United States, “the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus program focused on propping up the financial system while cash-strapped state and local governments slashed spending. The Federal Reserve drastically lowered its main interest rate and bought up the banks’ holdings of US treasury bonds. When that wasn’t enough to spur the banks into lending, it went on to buy enormous amounts of the banks’ dodgy mortgage-backed securities.
In Europe, the transfer of bank and private sector debt to public debt increased it to such a level that some states, like Greece and Portugal, were unable to borrow more money by selling new government bonds. To limit borrowing, those governments introduced austerity measures, or were forced to do so by the ‘troika’ of the EU, the IMF, and the European Central Bank (ECB). (In the pre-eurozone era, those countries would have had the option of devaluing their currencies to try to export their way out of the slump by making their products cheaper on the world market. Members of the 19-country eurozone have no such option – they’re locked into whatever policy that the German-dominated ECB permits.) The aim was to ‘restore confidence’ and ensure that European banks got their money back no matter what the social cost. This was the context for the ‘Leave’ campaign for Brexit, an alliance of the anti-immigrant right with British capitalists convinced that a future outside the crisis-bound EU was a better prospect. In the US, the economy and rising inequality fueled both the rise of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign and Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in reintroducing socialism into mainstream US political discussion for the first time in decades.
Eight years of easy money have created enormous amounts of what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’: speculation and the valuation of real and paper assets at higher levels without a corresponding growth of underlying productive capital. It had been hoped that easy money policies would inflate assets sufficiently so that wealthy people would make larger investments. This was then supposed to trickle down to workers and the middle class by creating jobs and generating consumer demand. Instead, there were mammoth asset bubbles throughout the world in stocks, bonds and housing. The $2.4 trillion parked offshore by US corporations to avoid taxes highlighted this reluctance to make investments.
When the crisis of 2007-09 began, Chinese banks didn’t feel the same financial shock as their Western and Japanese counterparts, because they had more than $2 trillion in foreign reserves, enabling the Chinese leadership to provide both credit and stimulus. In fact, it was the Chinese government’s $590 billion stimulus program in 2009 – proportionately much bigger than that of the United States – that did the most to blunt the world crisis. Prices of commodities and energy soared, giving a big lift to emerging markets and boosting the economies of commodity-producing countries like Russia, India, China, and South Africa,” known collectively as the BRICs [Brazil-Russia-India-China]. On the other hand, “China has $16 trillion in corporate debt, 160% of GDP – twice the ratio in the United States, a growing risk for the world system.
A worldwide crash in commodity prices began in 2013 and stabilized only in mid-2016 as the Chinese stimulus worked its way through the world system. Oil dropped 75% between 2014 and early 2016 from $120 to $30 per barrel before it recovered, and the pattern was similar for copper, aluminum, and other raw materials, an indicator of the slowing demand for industrial production on a world scale. Commodity producers’ high profits turned to catastrophic losses almost overnight. The world’s leading oil exporters also found themselves in a devastating price war, as Saudi Arabia ramped up production to maintain market share at the expense of OPEC members like Venezuela and Nigeria and the oil and gas boom in the United States. With the plunge in commodity prices has come a sharp slowdown in world trade, which has never fully recovered from the Great Recession.
The US economy, despite steady job growth, has struggled to attain a 2% rate of growth since the end of the Great Recession, compared to 3.5% annual growth in the period since the World War II. Investment remained low by historical standards. The Wall Street Journal noted: ‘Companies appear reluctant to step up spending on the basic building blocks of the economy, such as machines, computers and new buildings.’ Low investment begat miniscule gains in productivity, the foundation of profitability.
The latest stimulus spending in China may keep the global economy from a further slowdown, but only at the cost of adding to growing debts, worsening overcapacity, and tensions over trade, thus preparing the way for a potentially worse crisis. Low interest rates have also constrained bank profits, particularly in Europe. If the banks are having difficulty in a zero-interest world, other financial institutions are staggering towards crisis. The business model for pension funds and insurance companies requires them to generate income of 7–8% per year, so continued low interest rates threaten their solvency in coming years. To try and eke out larger reserves, many pension funds and insurance companies have been compelled to take on more risk, such as collateralized mortgage obligations and bonds from emerging market economies, countries that now in crisis as the result of the crash in commodities prices.
It’s highly probable that the economic slowdown in emerging markets will trigger a financial crisis. The only question is when this will occur and how severe it will be. It’s impossible to predict, as the unregulated shadow banking system – the non-bank financial institutions that played a central role in the crash of 2008 – is now bigger than ever.
How will governments and capitalists respond to a new slump, since their traditional methods have failed? Whatever capital comes up with to restructure the system will be complicated by the rise of economic nationalism exemplified by Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen. In the 2008–09 crisis, the Group of 20 industrialized nations coordinated stimulus spending and bank bailouts, narrowly averting a 1930s-scale slump. Today, however, governments pressured by nationalists and burdened by huge debts may be unable or unwilling to cooperate on similar measures.
There have been three previous periods of protracted economic crises that were resolved by the restructuring of capitalism. The first was the crisis of the 1870s to the 1890s, which was overcome by the rise of monopoly corporations, finance capital, and imperialism, setting the stage for the World War I. The war failed to fully resolve inherent contradictions, either economically or politically, setting the stage for the Great Depression of the 1930s and a second inter-imperialist war. At the end of the World War II and the absolute destruction of capital in Europe and Japan, the United States emerged as the dominant power and used institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to lock in its hegemony. The third crisis, lasting from 1974 to 1982, was overcome by the neoliberal restructuring of industry, deregulation, and the collapse of Stalinism.”
A more recent International Socialist Review article on this subject, by Ashley Smith in the Summer 2017 issue, updates all this from the point of view of imperialism. Smith notes that Obama tried to counter the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan by conducting “a ‘pivot to Asia’ to contain China’s ongoing rise, bolster Washington’s political and military alliance with Japan and South Korea, and prevent their economic incorporation into China’s growing sphere of influence. The now dead Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to ensure American economic hegemony in the region, which would then be backed up militarily with the deployment of 60% of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific region. Obama also began to push back against Russian opposition to the EU and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe – hence the standoff over Ukraine. Obama was unable to fully implement any of this, however, because US forces remained bogged down in the spiraling crisis in the Middle East. Retreating from the Bush administration’s policy of regime change, while continuing to support historic allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, he struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. This strategy was undermined by the Arab Spring, the regimes’ counterrevolutions, attempts by regional powers to manipulate the rebellion for their own ends, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Russia, after having suffered a long-term decline of its power in the region, has also managed to reassert itself through its intervention in Syria in support of Assad’s counterrevolution.
While the United States continued to suffer relative political decline internationally, China and Russia became more assertive. Russia took Crimea, and China intensified its economic dealmaking throughout the world, increasing its foreign direct investment from a paltry $17.2 billion in 2005 to $187 billion in 2015. At the same time, it engaged in a massive buildup of its navy and air force (though its military is still dwarfed by the US) and constructed new military bases on various islands to control the shipping lanes, fisheries, and potential oil fields in the South China Sea.
Trump’s strategy to restore American dominance in the world is economic nationalism. He wants to combine neoliberalism at home with protectionism against foreign competition, a position that breaks with the American establishment’s grand strategy of superintending ‘free-trade’ globalization. He’s threatening to impose tariffs on American corporations that move their production to other countries, has nixed the TPP, and intends to do the same to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. He promises to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada to secure better terms, and, in response to Chinese and EU protectionism, he threatens to impose a border tax of 45% on Chinese and others countries’ exports to the United States, measures that could trigger a trade war.
Demagogic appeals to labor aside, Trump is doing none of this for the benefit of American workers. His program is intended to restore the competitive position of American capital, particularly manufacturing, against its rivals, especially in China and Germany. This economic nationalism is paired with a promise to rearm the American military, which he views as having been weakened by Obama. He wants a 9% increase in the military budget to build up the Navy and to modernize and expand the nuclear arsenal, even if that provokes other powers to do the same. Trump also plans to intensify what he sees as a civilizational war with Islam. This will likely involve ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran and widening the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Viewing China rather than Russia as the main threat to this country, he also intends to create a more transactional relationship with the Kremlin. Hoping that he can split Russia away from China and neutralize it as a lesser power, Trump then wants to confront China with tariffs and military challenges to its assertion of control of the South China Sea.
Corollaries of Trump’s ‘America First’ imperialism abroad are economic austerity and authoritarianism at home. Can his plans succeed? Almost all capital is overjoyed at his domestic neoliberalism, but sees his proposals of tariffs, renegotiation of NAFTA, and scrapping of the TPP and the TTIP as threats to their global production and investment strategies. The Democratic Party, rather than attacking Trump on his manifold reactionary policies, has portrayed him as Putin’s ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ insufficiently nationalistic, militaristic, and aggressive.
Even if Trump weathers resistance from above and below, his foreign policy could flounder on its own internal conflicts and inconsistencies. To take one example: his policy of collaboration with Russia in Syria could flounder on his simultaneous commitment to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, since Iran is a Russian ally in the region.
The United States faces continued decline in the neoliberal world order, while China, even taking into account the many contradictions it faces, is benefiting from the current setup. That’s why, in an ironic twist of historic proportions, Chinese premier Xi Jing Ping defended the Washington Consensus in his country’s first address at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. He even went so far as to promise to come to the rescue of free-trade globalization if the Trump administration abandons it, declaring, ‘No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.’ At the same time, China is trying to push out multinationals that have used it as an export-processing platform and replace them with its own state-owned and private corporations, which, like Germany, will export its surplus manufactured goods to the rest of the world market. Determined to challenge American imperial rule of the Asian Pacific, China appealed to states in the Asia Pacific region to sign on to its alternative trade treaty, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) right after Trump nixed the TPP. Though its navy is far smaller than Washington’s, it’s also building up its regional naval power against Trump’s threats to block Chinese access to strategic islands in the South China Sea.
All of this was underway before Trump. That’s why Obama initiated the pivot to Asia, deployed the US Navy to the region, and imposed tariffs on Chinese steel and tires. He also complained about NATO countries and others freeloading on American military largesse and encouraged Japan’s rearmament and deployments of its forces abroad. He even began the move to on-shoring manufacturing based on a low-wage America with cheap energy and revitalized infrastructure. There are countervailing forces that mitigate the tendency toward military conflict between the US and China: the high degree of economic integration makes the ruling classes hesitant to risk war, and because all the major states are nuclear powers, each is reluctant to risk armed conflicts turning into mutual annihilation. In this context, the Marxist theory of imperialism, which begins with the inherent contradiction between market globalization and the division of the world into competing national states, is essential to understanding the world today.” Smith notes here that Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy positions were/are “pro-imperialist. The emerging new Left must engage in principled opposition to all imperialisms and stand in solidarity with national liberation struggles like that of the Palestinians and revolutionary struggles like that in Syria, regardless of which imperial camp such struggles are in opposition to. This approach will be essential in the coming period that promises to be characterized by explosive struggle from below and intensifying struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China, amid other interstate conflicts.
This approach will also be necessary for our domestic political struggles. The crises and conflicts in the system will drive increasing numbers of migrants and refugees to the United States and countries throughout the world. It will be essential for the left to stand up against Trump’s attempt to deflect blame for the system’s failure onto migrants, especially Muslims. Only by challenging such bigotry will we be able to unite workers both within and across borders in a common struggle for our collective liberation from a crisis-ridden and failing system.”
As Geier and Sustar wrote in their article, “the crisis in mainstream political parties amid the rise of Trump and the European far right on one side and the [Greek] Syriza, [Spanish] Podemos, and Sanders developments on the other is putting pressure on national ruling classes to find competent personnel who can develop a political program to manage the economic crisis, cope with intensifying class conflict, and navigate international rivalries and wars. To the extent that capital lets the far right off the leash to further scapegoat immigrants and minorities in order to drive a wedge into the working-class movement, we’ll be entering an extremely volatile period economically, politically, and ideologically.
At the same time, the crisis has opened a way for a renewal of the socialist left. A generation of young people that’s come of age amid recession, weak growth, and endless imperialist wars has become politically conscious and active. Already, millions of young people in the United States count themselves as socialists, however vaguely defined. However, the left isn’t as well organized or politically coherent as the right. The job of revolutionaries is to help overcome these weaknesses by clarifying the politics and organization the left needs to meet these challenges.”
In an article titled “The Deep State Is the State” posted on counterpunch.org 5-26-17, Ron Jacobs says, “The deep state isn’t some enigmatic entity operating outside the US government. It’s the US state itself. Like all elements of that state, the so-called deep state exists to enforce the economic supremacy of US capitalism. It does so primarily via the secret domestic and international police forces like the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies. The operations of these agencies run the gamut from surveillance to propaganda to covert and overt military actions…Some of its better known manifestations include the failed attempt in 1961 to invade revolutionary Cuba (the Bay of Pigs), the use of psychoactive drugs on unsuspecting individuals as part of a mind control study during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and 70s, and numerous attempts to subvert governments considered anti-American. Among the latter actions one can include covert operations against Vietnamese independence forces and the murder of the Congolese president Patrice Lumumba in 1961. The ‘60s also saw the intensification of spying on and disrupting various groups involved in civil rights and antiwar organizing,” including the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, sleeping in his own home, on December 4, 1969.
“The entire government has been owned by big business and the banking industry for more than a century, if not since its inception. That ownership has been dominated by the military-industrial complex” since World War II. The deep state’s role in the current uproar over Russia and Michael Flynn isn’t an attempt to take over the government. It’s an attempt to regain control, since its current leadership represents the factions of the US establishment that were removed from power in November 2016.
Donald Trump isn’t against the deep state. He’s against it being used against himself and his cohorts. In the world of capitalist power, the factions Trump represents are not the same factions represented by the presidents former FBI director Comey served – Bush and Obama…Whoever controls the deep state controls the US. The struggle we’re witnessing between the FBI and the Trump White House is part of a power struggle between US power elites.
When the ruling class is in crisis, as it is now, the job of the left isn’t to choose one side or the other or to accept their narratives. It’s to go to the root of the crisis and organize resistance to the ruling class itself.”
In the May 1, 2017 issue of The New Yorker magazine, its editor David Remnick gives us an excellent summary of Trump’s first hundred days. “For most people,” Remnick says, “the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite. The hundred-day marker is never an entirely reliable indicator of a four-year term, but it’s worth remembering that Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama were among those who came to office at a moment of national crisis and had the discipline, the preparation, and the rigor to set an entirely new course. Impulsive, egocentric, and mendacious, Trump has, in the same span, set fire to the integrity of his office.
Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth. In 1980, when he was about to announce plans to build Trump Tower, a 58-story edifice on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he coached his architect before meeting with a group of reporters. ‘Give them the old Trump bullshit. Tell them it’s going to be a million square feet, 68 stories.’ This is the brand Trump has created for himself – that of an unprincipled, cocky, value-free con who’ll insult, stiff, or betray anyone to achieve his purposes. But what was once a parochial amusement is now a national and global peril. Trump flouts truth and liberal values so brazenly that he undermines the country he’s been elected to serve and the stability he’s pledged to ensure. His bluster creates a generalized anxiety such that the president of the United States appears scarcely more reliable than any of the world’s autocrats. Trump thinks out loud, and is incapable of reflection. He’s unserious, unfocussed, and, at times, it seems, unhinged. When journalists are invited to the Oval Office to ask about infrastructure, he talks about how Bill O’Reilly, late of Fox News, is a ‘good person,’ blameless, like him, in matters of sexual harassment. A reporter asks about the missile attack on Syria, and he feeds her a self-satisfied description of how he informed his Chinese guests at Mar-a-Lago of the strike over ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.’ Little about this presidency remains a secret for long. The reporters who cover the White House say that, despite their persistent concerns about Trump’s attempts to marginalize the media, they’re flooded with information. Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news. A team of rivals? No – a new form of reality entertainment: ‘The Circular Firing Squad.’
During his first hundred days in office, Trump hasn’t done away with populist rhetoric, but he’s acted almost entirely as a plutocrat. His cabinet and cast of advisers are stocked with multimillionaires and billionaires. His positions on health care, tax reform, and financial regulation are of greatest appeal to the super-wealthy. The early days of his administration are marked most indelibly by Trump’s attempted ban of travelers from six Muslim countries, which failed in the courts, and the effort to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which imploded in the House of Representatives. Proposals for domestic initiatives are largely confined to reversals of achievements of the Obama era: an expansion of the prison at Guantánamo, easing of Dodd-Frank financial regulations, reversal of plans to save wetlands and protect waterways from coal waste and executive orders banning gun sales to the mentally ill and protecting L.G.B.T. federal employees from discrimination. Because of the lavish travel habits of his family, Trump is shaping up to be the most expensive executive in history to guard. At the same time, his budget proposals would, if passed in Congress, cut the funding of after-school programs, rental-assistance programs, the Community Development Block Grant program, legal assistance for the poor, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Trump emerged from neither a log cabin nor the contemporary meritocracy. He inherited his father’s outer-borough real-estate empire – a considerable enterprise distinguished by racist federal-housing violations – and brought it to Manhattan, entering a world of contractors, casino operators, Roy Cohn, professional-wrestling stars, Rupert Murdoch, multiple bankruptcies, tabloid divorces, Mar-a-Lago golf tournaments, and reality television. He had no real civic presence in New York, and though wealthy, gave almost nothing to charity. He had no close friends. He worked, played golf, and spent long hours watching TV, his misogyny and low character always manifest. Insofar as he had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter. His contributions to political campaigns were unrelated to conviction; he gave solely to curry favor with those who could do his business some good. He believed in nothing.
By the mid-‘90s, Trump’s investment prospects had foundered. Banks cut him off. He turned to increasingly dubious sources of credit and branding opportunities at home and abroad. A typical deal, involving a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, included as partners an Azerbaijani family distinguished for its corruption and its connections to Iranians who worked as a profit front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. There’s little mystery as to why Trump’s broken with custom, refusing to release his tax returns. They record his colossal tax breaks, associations, deals, and net worth. As Trump struggled in business, he made a deal with NBC to star in ‘The Apprentice,’ which featured him for fourteen seasons in a role of corporate dominance. It was there that he honed his peculiar showmanship and connected to a mass audience well beyond New York City, perfecting the persona that became the core of his presidential campaign: the billionaire populist. Now he’s discovered that it’s far more difficult to manage the realities of national politics than a TV set. In the transitional period between Election Day and the inauguration, Obama’s aides were told that Trump, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, wouldn’t read reports of any depth; he prefers one- or two-page summaries, pictures, and graphics. Obama met with Trump once and talked with him on the telephone ten times. The discussions did little to change Obama’s mind that Trump was ‘uniquely unqualified’ to be president, his grasp of issues rudimentary at best.
In his inaugural speech, Trump furiously rebuked the elected officials seated behind him and the international order they serve. Using the language of populist demagogues, from Huey Long to George Wallace to Silvio Berlusconi, the new president implied that he, the Leader, was in perfect communion with the People, and that together they’d repair the landscape of ‘American carnage.’ As George W. Bush was leaving the grandstand, according to New York magazine, he said, ‘That was some weird shit.’
By all accounts, the West Wing has become a battlefield of opposing factions. The most influential of them is also the only one with a guarantee of permanence – the Family, particularly Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. (His sons Eric and Donald, Jr., have remained in New York to run the family business. Despite his responsibility to put country before personal profit, the president refuses to divest from it.) Kushner has no relevant experience in foreign or domestic policy, but has been tasked with forging a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, steering U.S. relations with China and Mexico, reorganizing the federal government, and helping to lead the fight against the epidemic of opioid use. It’s hard to know if, as an executive, he’s in charge of everything or of nothing. But, as a counselor, he’s clearly powerful enough to whisper in his father-in-law’s ear and diminish the prospects of rival counselors, including those of the administration’s most lurid white nationalist, Steve Bannon. Ivanka Trump’s duties are gauzier than her husband’s, but they seem to relate to getting her father to go easier on L.G.B.T. and women’s-rights issues and calming his temper. The way that Trump’s established his family members in positions of power and profit is redolent of tin-pot dictatorships. He may waver on matters of ideology, but his commitment to the family firm is unshakable and resists ethical norms. The conflicts and the privileges are shameless, the potential revenues immense. On the day the Trump family hosted Xi Jinping in Palm Beach, the Chinese government extended trademarks to Ivanka’s businesses so she could sell her shoes and handbags to the vast market from Harbin to Guangzhou.
Trump is wary of expertise. During the campaign, he expressed his distrust of scientists, military strategists, university professors, diplomats, and intelligence officers. He filled the executive branch accordingly, appointing a climate-change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; a Secretary of Education who, during her confirmation hearing, displayed stunning ignorance of public education; an Energy Secretary who previously called for closing the Department of Energy; a United Nations Ambassador whose international experience is limited to trade missions for the state of South Carolina; and a national-security adviser who trafficked in Islamophobic conspiracy theories until, three weeks into the job, he was forced to resign because he lied to Vice-President Pence about his ties to the Russian government. Trump has left open hundreds of important positions in government, largely because he sees no value in them. ‘A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,’ he’s said. Among the many federal bureaucracies now languishing with empty offices are the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Defense. It’s the generals who are the authoritative voices in Trump’s administration. To a president whose idea of a strategic move is to ‘bomb the shit out of’ ISIS, they’re the ones who have to make the case for international law, the efficacy of NATO, the immorality of torture, and the inadvisability of using the rhetoric of ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ At the same time, the pace of bombing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen appears to have increased, and tensions with Iran, Russia, and North Korea have intensified. Trump, an erratic and impulsive spokesman for his own policy, needs competent civilian advisers, if only as a counterweight to the military point of view and his own self-admiring caprices.
The Trump presidency represents an angry assault on the advances of groups of people who’ve experienced profound, if fitful, empowerment over the past half century. The Trumpian rebellion against liberal democracy isn’t a local event; it’s part of a disturbing global trend. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later, the democratic movement grew and liberalism advanced, and not only in eastern and central Europe. During the course of thirty years, the number of democracies in the world expanded from thirty to roughly a hundred. But since 2000, nation-states of major consequence – Russia, Hungary, Thailand, and the Philippines among them – have gone in the opposite, authoritarian direction. India, Indonesia, and Great Britain have become more nationalistic. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, is polling credibly in a presidential campaign guided by two longtime fascist associates. The prestige and the efficacy of democracy itself is in question. The stakes of this anti-democratic wave can’t be overestimated. Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that researches global trends in political liberty, has identified an eleven-year decline in democracies around the globe and now issues a list of ‘countries to watch’ – nations that ‘may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory.’ The ones that most concern Freedom House include South Africa, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, and the United States.
Pushing back against Trumpism won’t be easy. The president isn’t finished with his efforts to repeal Obamacare in a way that would deprive millions of people of their health insurance; he isn’t going to relax his effort to enact hard-line immigration restrictions; and he isn’t through trying to dismantle legislative and international efforts to rescue an environment that’s already suffering the grievous effects of climate change. But there are signs that doomsayers of democratic values will be proved wrong. Hope can be found in the extraordinary crowds at the many women’s marches across the country on the day after the inauguration; in the recent marches in support of science and a more compassionate, reasonable immigration policy; in the earnest work of the courts that have blocked the ‘Muslim ban’ and of various senators and House members in both parties who, unlike Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have refused to put cynicism and expedience before integrity; in the exemplary investigative journalism being done by traditional and new media outlets; in the performance of anti-Trump candidates in recent congressional races in Kansas and Georgia.
The clownish veneer of Trumpism conceals its true danger. Trump’s way of lying isn’t a joke; it’s a strategy, a way of clouding our capacity to think. Our task isn’t just to recognize this presidency for the emergency it is and resist its assault on the principles of reality and the values of liberal democracy, but to devise a future, to debate, to hear one another, to organize, and to preserve and revive precious things.”
My only quibble with Remnick, and it’s a pretty big one, is that the failures of “liberalism” are what allowed Trump – or someone like him – to be elected. To succeed in the future, we’ll have to go way beyond elite liberal concessions to the masses – we’ll have to completely re-envision our democracy (actually create one) and guarantee a minimal living, a good education, health care, freedom, and security to everyone. That last item – “security” – is a big one, including freedom from harassment, discrimination, and maiming and murder by the police; a foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than the use of force and including negotiating the end of nuclear weapons; and safeguarding the environment, including addressing climate change (eliminating the use of fossil fuels, except to create “green” alternatives). A tall order? Yes. But necessary to avoid Trump-like demagogues – and the destruction of the human race – in the future.