To Avoid Being Tortured

“Are you a Communist?”

“No I am an anti-fascist.”

“For a long time?”

“Since I have understood fascism.”

“How long is that?”

“For nearly ten years.”

“That is not much time,” the woman said. “I have been a Republican for twenty years.”

“My father was also a Republican all his life.  Also my grandfather,” Robert Jordan said.

“In what country?”

“The United States.”

“Did they shoot them?” the woman asked.

Qué va,” Maria said. “The United States is a country of Republicans.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican there.”

“All the same it is a good thing to have a grandfather who was a Republican,” the woman said.  “It shows good blood.”

“My grandfather was on the Republican national committee,” Robert Jordan said.  That impressed even Maria.

“And is thy father still active in the Republic?” Pilar asked.

“No. He is dead.”

“Can one ask how he died?”

“He shot himself.”

“To avoid being tortured?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Robert Jordan said. “To avoid being tortured.”


— Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls

Decius Revealed

Perhaps the most illuminating insight into the agenda of the Trump administration is to be derived from the anonymous writings of Michael Anton, formerly known as “Decius,” in his whimsically titled Journal of American Greatness. This latter fluttered by, enticing and agitating political junkies in something like the the way the anonymous publication of Primary Colors did once upon a time. Part of the fascination of the writings is that they are clearly highly intelligent, of no clear conservative pundit orientation although their author clearly moved among conservative pundits, and yet they present themselves as articulating “Trumpism,” which seemed simply impossible on the assumption that Trump was an unelectable buffoon.


The author of these writings is now a senior national-security official in the Trump White House, and arguably, what he has to say gives us the underlying unity behind the disparate positions we are coming to associate with Trump. The principal interest is that if they reveal the dominant thrust of the administration, what they reveal is not as a form of Putin-hugging isolationism, but nationalism on steroids. I will leave it to my fellow Poseidonians to determine whether we should be worried about that or not.


There’s nothing for it. You simply have to read them, and take comfort, or be harrowed, as your prior commitments dictate. Our new populist president has some intriguingly elitist friends, but at least they’re really angry elitists.

The New Sheriff

Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you. We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. We will face challenges, we will confront hardships, but we will get the job done. Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

So far so good.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.

This is startling, because he is in Washington, and while he is ultimately addressing the American people and the world, he is proximately addressing people in Washington DC and accusing them of being exploiters and usurpers. This is very difficult to know how to respond to because, in the first place, it is essentially true, but in this setting it is not what needs to be said. It is divisive and accusatory. It would be more statesmanlike to adopt the charitable fiction that someone in Washington is not a hired gun of special interests.

In what sense do I say that it is essentially true? To quote from, “Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) looked at more than 20 years worth of data to answer a simple question: Does the government represent the people? Their study took data from nearly 2000 public opinion surveys and compared it to the policies that ended up becoming law. In other words, they compared what the public wanted to what the government actually did. What they found was extremely unsettling: The opinions of 90% of Americans have essentially no impact at all.”

That said, it is highly debatable whether the solution is a new sheriff in town. It seems more likely that this kind of rhetoric will be needlessly antagonistic, and the intelligent and vigorous reforms we need to address our problems will scarcely be broached, let alone pursued.

It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Everything hinges on who we think the “forgotten” are. If the claim is that our government is founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, but its government has been captured by special interests, then we all are. This is the most charitable reading, and it is the reading that I think Trump intends. But the idea that the entire American people have been forgotten seems peculiar–to the extent that our politics have been captured by special interests, the American people are not so much forgotten as they are ignored. The least charitable interpretation is that “forgotten people” is code for “white people” and that this is an expression of the distress felt when the unjustly privileged feel their privilege, their supremacy, slipping away from them as a result of the righteous demands for social justice by the unprivileged, the oppressed. The problem with this reading is that it is inconsistent with the rest of the text, as we shall see. I think that Trump is identifying a subset of the population with “the American people” but I don’t think that it is whiteness that he is invoking.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

The “forgotten,” I would argue, are being identified with four groups here. (1) African-Americans (who are unnamed, but the text trades on stereotypes about single parent households, poverty, and “the inner city”) who are still underserved by the economic system; (2) the Working Class, who are suffering from the effects of globalization; (3) Millennials, who are confronting not only diminished economic expectations but unprecedented debt burdens due to our method of funding higher education; (4) victims of crime attributable to illegal immigration. The notion that the first three groups confront serious problems not of their own making, and are being neglected by the elites which control our politics is quite plausible. The idea that there is some important nexus of crime, illegal immigration, and self-interested political neglect is far more problematic. Naturally critics of Trump have focused almost all of their attention on his views on immigration as evidence of racism, claiming that the racism is crucial to his appeal. I wouldn’t deny that, but taking this speech at face value, I think what it shows is that Trump’s conception of his mission is organized around several groups who in fact are “forgotten” either because the special interests that control our politics stand to gain nothing by addressing their problems, or because those problems are so intractable that the political system has decided to regard them as acceptable costs to realize other goods. If Democrats want to combat Trump and Trump’s GOP, they would do well to reflect on the differences between the different figures who competed for the Democratic nomination, and what each of them had to offer these three groups. I would go further and say that they would do well to consider the costs and benefits of regarding (1) African-Americans as a captured demographic who need not be served because they have no place else to go, (2) the working class as a useful object of derision to flatter the self-esteem of the educated, middle class Democratic voter, and (3) the interests of the academic-industrial complex and its massively overcompensated and largely useless administrators as more important than the interests of the young people who pay for it all.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Ouch. The prose stylist in me finds the use of the word “carnage” instead of “devastation” appalling. While violence and death play a role in the problems alluded to above, it still seems grotesquely overstated, especially since even the crudest understanding of English detects the etymological connection of “carnage” to “meat” or “flesh.”

We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams. And their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.

What’s not to like? It’s a bit Volkisch, but would a Democrat want to actually disagree with this sentiment?

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.

Where to begin??? The implication is that we can begin to address the problems of the forgotten by dismantling our international relations and institutions, military and economic. This is horrifically misguided.

But that is the past. And now, we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.

If you like the national debt now, you’re going to love it under President Trump. And history shows that you get more fiscal responsibility from divided government than from a party which professes fiscal responsibility controlling all the branches of government. I shudder to think what you get when that very party stops even professing fiscal responsibility.

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.

It is refreshing to hear this subtle rejection of the “democratization” policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and its underlying imperialist premises. (To be fair, though libertarians and progressives are quick to judge Obama as more of the same, he is the “Nixon” of our time on this: he inherited a massive and idiotic conflict, and while he spent an inordinate amount of time winding it down, he did largely wind it down in the end.)

We will shine for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Did I say refreshing? Never mind.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

This is not a terribly popular thing to say, but I endorse this sentiment. The United States is an essentially ideological community, and American nationalism is not and cannot be rooted in ethnic solidarity. Some believe that the way to transcend prejudice is through relentless critique of it, but my impression is that this actually creates the very thing it would dismantle. The ever-contested question is, what is this ideology to be? If we are to transcend the nameless prejudice that I call “politicism,” I propose that we regard our national community as a community consecrated to the furtherance of freedom. This is something that, in the abstract, Left and Right can agree on, and our debate over its meaning can proceed. Unfortunately, President Trump seems an unlikely champion of it, and the language of freedom appears almost nowhere in his text.

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God. Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions. 

It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.

Again, we are to transcend race in a shared national community. However, one would hope that this would not involve any bleeding at all.

We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American flag.

The only mention of freedom thus far.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. 

I confess that I find this moving. There can be no national community if important parts of it are forgotten. And if a Democratic candidate this past year had said “to some of you I say, we didn’t listen, and we are sorry, but we are listening now” that candidate might well have won.

Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way. Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.


Grief Comes In Many Forms

The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:

Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage the party believes that its preferred presidential candidate has no shortcomings and can’t possibly have lost the election.

Anger – When the party recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at rival coalitions. Certain psychological responses of a party undergoing this phase would be: “Was there election fraud? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to us? We’re more highly qualified and sophisticated!”; “Who is to blame? Was it sexism? Was it the white working class? The ‘alt-right’?”; “How could this happen? All the polls looked good!”.

Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the party can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended stretch of political power is made in exchange for a reformed policy focus. People still in office and thus facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.

Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my Obama, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the party despairs at the recognition of the limits of politics itself. In this state, it may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight a Trump administration; I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, the party embraces the loss of the presidency, of Congress, or some other tragic event. People out of power may precede the new administration in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the party, and a stable condition of emotions.


[Wikipedia, modified]

A Hypothesis About The Donald

One thing that we do not seem to understand is the magnitude of the distorting effect 9/11 had on everyone’s thinking about foreign policy. However, if we try to think our way back into 9/10, we may have the key to understanding Trump, which could be important since he’s about to have control of both our diplomacy and our nuclear codes.


If you go back to before the 1960s, the two political parties had fundamentally different conceptions of foreign policy. On the whole, the Democrats were more belligerent. Democrats got us into almost every war we fought until the Gulf War, and Republicans got us out of them. The entire mindset that says the world is an arena between the forces of good and evil was a Democrat affliction. Wilson got us into World War One. Roosevelt got us into World War Two. Truman got us into Korea. Johnson got us into Vietnam. The after-effects of Vietnam have confused us in this regard, but Nixon ending the war and opening China was typical of Republican orthodoxy in foreign policy; bombing Cambodia back to Stone Age was not.


The Cold War created a perplexity, however. The natural tendency of conservatives to be isolationist conflicted with the natural tendency of conservatives to be hostile towards communism. This tension finally resolved itself in 1980 when the Trumanesque Cold Warriors went over to the Republicans and came into power under Reagan.  What we have forgotten this far out was that Reagan was a very complicated figure, or rather, what he signified was complicated: he was able to bring together all these different conservative factions which don’t really fit together and forge a unity out of them. But the central faction was the former Democrats who wanted to take the fight to the Soviet Union instead of continuing Nixonian detente. Since we now regard Reagan as the quintessential Republican, aggressive foreign policy seems a part of the package; since we now regard the antiwar protesters who ended the Johnson (D) presidency as quintessential Democrats, peace-making seems a part of the package. In the end, Reagan remained a Republican: just as Nixon went to China, Reagan went to Reykjavik. Republicans themselves are now so affected by liberal interventionism that they can’t even say he made peace with the Russians. They have to same he “won the Cold War.” Well, whatever gets you through the night.


The Reaganesque Cold Warriors were not interested in abortion, or fiscal responsibility, or laissez-faire economics. They were interested in destroying Evil Empires. They tended to be mercantilists in their (mis)understanding of international trade. They tended to accept, as Democrats had long accepted, that big government has a moral mission to improve and emancipate both at home and abroad. That they had come to view the domestic side of this rather differently than Democrats did is less important than the fact that they also “saw like a state” and regarded politics as a moral mission. The interest that these people had in the Middle East, to the extent that it was not influenced by a sentimental attachment to the security of Israel, regarded the Middle East as a Cold War Theater in which Israel (and Iran!) were extensions of American power just as Western Europe was, and Arab nationalism was just a mask for Soviet expansionism. The crucial point here is that if there were no Soviet Union, the Middle East ceases to be interesting as an arena. The habit of regarding Iraq as to-be-destroyed originates in the perception of Iraq as crypto-Russian. This also explains why one would naturally associate Iraq with nuclear war.


If you think your way back into the mindset of 2000, there were many different ways of regarding where we were, but in some sense the neoconservative vision of the world had won. If you were a neoconservative Democrat, you wanted to extend and consolidate the victory over the Russians by enlarging NATO, promoting further development of the EU, further international trade (no more need to prevent trade with the enemy as before, because the enemy was gone). You also wanted to altruistically use accumulated American power for the good: in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda. Well, OK, maybe not in Rwanda. But if you were a neoconservative Republican, while you might have some unfinished business to wind up with former Soviet proxies in the Middle East, the real focus should be on The Coming Conflict With China.


Whatever virtues neoconservative Republicans might see in small government, fiscal responsibility and international trade ultimately take a backseat to furthering what are essentially wartime interests. You don’t try to balance the budget by cutting military spending during a war. You might lose the war! You don’t have free trade with a country with which you are at war. You might lose the war! And of course China is a communist dictatorship. (Notice how this inkblot can be viewed. Is China basically good because of economic liberalization, and its style of government is of lesser importance? Or is it basically evil because of its lack of political liberalization, making its economic liberalization worrisome because it makes its tyranny stronger? If you think in the first way, our victory in the Cold War is complete; the latter, and trade with China is a seduction that will lead us to our doom.)


Now I don’t think The Donald is a deep thinker by any means. Reagan was not a deep thinker. But even not-so-deep thinkers have their default assumptions. Trump’s unexpected reaching out to Taiwan is a new and extremely significant datapoint in the task of plumbing the mystery that is Trump. If I am right, it turns out that he is a 9/10/2001 neoconservative Republican. He is what Bush was supposed to be, before Osama Bin Laden dragged him, and us, into the abyss of the Middle East. And what that means is that he thinks trade with China will only help our great enemy defeat us. This means that we have to watch carefully what happens with the TPP. If Trump really does cancel the TPP, then he’s exactly the domestic protectionist without a clue that we libertarians have thought he was all along. But if I am right, if he is a New Cold Warrior against China, then he will surprise everyone by not canceling the TPP… because the TPP excludes China. It’s a strategic attempt to wean us from dependence on China.


So for those of you who miss 9/10/2001, happy days are here again! It’ll be like 1980 all over again! Lots of saber-rattling, lots of military spending, lots of Titanic deficits. There may be a problem though. Reagan “won” the Cold War by spending into oblivion an empire which was on its last legs anyway. China does not resemble the Soviet Union. It is a rising power, and if it resembles anything, it resembles Germany… just before World War One. The process of defeating, destroying, rebuilding, reuniting and re-integrating a normal Germany into the community of nations took the better part of a century, and it wasn’t cheap, in blood or treasure.