But first things first. While Biden is not, perhaps, as astute as he thinks he is, he is more astute than most of his detractors give him credit for being.
That said, press conferences are theater on an immense stage and performed at a worldwide theater in which many in the audience simply come to boo. There are strong reasons why President Biden should not do solo press conferences: (1) he gives his detractors too much about which to boo; (2) he gives serious critics too much about which to be critical; (3) he gives his supporters too much to have to explain; and finally; (4) he isn’t very good at it.
Some of his responses to questions asked at his marathon press conference this week were quite good, but some were absolutely cringeworthy. When that’s the case, only the cringeworthy will be remembered or even covered by the media.
Also, President Biden has some vintage signature “tells” that too often presage trouble ahead. He should stop beginning any pronouncement with, “here’s the deal,” without really having a deal to present. Nor should he begin a response that starts with “Number one” when there really is no number one, let alone a number two or a number three. These vintage Biden lead-ins too often suggest that he’s freewheeling and doesn’t really have a deal to present, and often there is no actual number two or number three to follow his overwrought number one. Those Bidenisms may be acceptable in Wilmington, Bethany, Fenwick Island, or Slaughter Beach, Delaware (no irony intended), but they are very weak beyond the Delmarva Peninsula.
The President should always have an appropriate cabinet member or another relevant official on whom he can call at future press conferences. Sure, at first, his detractors will guffaw at his need to have others prop him up. Still, soon enough, people will begin to appreciate that he has appointed well-informed experts as any top-notch CEO would. More importantly, people will come to appreciate that there is important information being imparted at these press conferences by impressive authorities with whom the President routinely confers. The positives will quickly outweigh the negatives, and solid substance will certainly overshadow imprecise rambling.
Rambling before the world, especially before America’s enemies, can be dangerous. The subsequent need to have spokespersons walk back what the President has said makes the President look weak, out of touch, and misinformed. And if he seems weak, out of touch, or misinformed, our enemies may dangerously miscalculate. It just isn’t worth it.
For example, when the President was asked, “And given how ineffective sanctions have been in deterring Putin in the past, why should the threat of new sanctions give him pause?”
Biden answered, in part, “…And so, I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, etc.“
Now, I assume, there have been instances of worse answers given by presidents in response to questions at a press conference, but, franklin, I can’t think of any.
Later, another reporter returned to the same question, giving Biden a chance to clean up his initial response.
The reporter: “Mr. President, I wanted to follow up briefly on a question asked by Bloomberg. You said that Russia would be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does; it’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and we end up having to fight about what to do and what not to do. Are you saying that a minor incursion by Russia into Ukrainian territory would not lead to the sanctions that you have threatened, or are you effectively giving Putin permission to make a small incursion into the country?”
Here, President Biden is tossed a life preserver, a rare opportunity to rethink and clarify what, by now, he must realize was a botched answer to an enormously important question. He now has a chance to be unequivocal in showing resolve. Instead, he rambles on and on and further equivocates.
Biden: “…Good question. So, it did challenge it, didn’t it? The most important thing to do — big nations can’t bluff, number one. Number two, the idea that we would do anything to split NATO, which would be — have a profound impact on one of, I think, profound impact on — one of Putin’s objectives is to weaken NATO would be a big mistake. So, the question is if it’s a — something significantly short of a significant invasion, or not even significant, just major military forces coming across. For example, it’s one thing to determine that if they continue to — to use cyber efforts, well, we — we can respond the same way with cyber. They have FSB (Former Soviet Bloc) people in Ukraine now trying to undermine the solidarity within Ukraine about Russia and to try to promote Russian interests. But it’s very important that — that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page, and that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens, the degree to which they are able to go. And I want to be clear with you. The serious imposition of sanctions relative to dollar transactions and other things are things that are going to have a negative impact on the United States, as well as a negative impact on the economies of Europe as well, a devastating impact on Russia. And so, I got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along. I think we will if there’s something that is — that — whether it’s Russian forces crossing the border, killing Ukrainian fighters, etc., I think that changes everything. But it depends on what he does as [Inaudible] to what extent, we’re going to be able to get total unity on the Russia — on the NATO front.“
Now, to be sure, the White House was busy cleaning up this train wreck of a response before the press conference was even over, but no good purpose was served by this marathon performance staged for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the President was up to a marathon performance. He wasn’t, nor would be almost anyone else. Certainly not the engineer at the throttle of the rambling press-conference train wrecks conducted by the prior Administration.
If we’re going to have Presidential press conferences, let the purpose be to highlight the Administration’s competency by featuring, and having the President introduce as appropriate to the agenda, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. so that they don’t have to put the President’s response together again.Did Santayana Have it Wrong?
It’s an interesting question.
Remembering the past is, of course, critical. Still, remembrance without a concurrent solid commitment to avoiding the worst circumstances of the past relegates humanity to the role of bit players in a saga that political opportunists are writing—others who are, in fact, well-schooled in the lessons of the past. For sure, George Santayana was right that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But a compelling case can be made that there are opportunists who remember and indeed have studied the past and are determined to take advantage of human nature to deliberately foment the very chaos about which Santayana famously warned.
Two books on the subject come to mind, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe and “Principles for Dealing With The Changing World Order” by the renowned fund manager Ray Dalio. The Strauss and Howe book paints a bleak picture of the inevitability of recurring chaos, almost down to the decade, which Trump Svengali, Steve Bannon, has embraced as a blueprint for the mischief in which he traffics.
The Dalio tome, a remarkably detailed recounting of vast cycles in which humanity does descend into darkness, is more nuanced and focuses more on the circumstances that presage recurring disorder. One book deals with the certainty of chaos, and the other the causes of recurring chaos. Both books focus on mankind’s penchant for predictable behavior.
Embracing the rigid formulation described in the “Fourth Turning,” Steve Bannon thought his moment had come when, in broadcasts on January 2nd, 4th, and 5th 2021, he claimed that former Vice President Mike Pence had “many alternatives” to certifying the Electoral College results on January 6. On his January 2nd show, Bannon featured Rudy Giuliani and attorney John Eastman and said that Giuliani was “working in the Senate to stop the election’s certification.”
On January 4, Bannon told listeners, “We’re hurtling towards a constitutional crisis… (that is) going to be complicated, and it’s going to be nasty.” And he predicted that Trump’s “first term is ending with action, and his second term is going to start with a bang.”
On January 5, Bannon doubled down. Listen to him, “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen, OK. It’s going to be quite extraordinarily different. And all I can say is: Strap in, War Room Posse. You have made this happen, and tomorrow, it’s game day”…chaos he warned, “was about to happen,”… “it’s about to go up, I think, five orders of magnitude tomorrow,” and he said, “We’re going to go through a couple of three very turbulent 24-hour periods.” He delighted in the chaos that did, indeed, unfold as he knew it would.
Bannon and Trump trade czar, Peter Navarro, and others close to former President Trump, if not Trump himself, believed their moment had come to dismantle a constitutional democracy that has endured for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. That was not Bannon foreseeing inevitable chaos. That was Bannon revealing the chaos he and others were inciting.
It is unarguable that there are well-documented political and economic cycles. However, what is arguable is that, as Bannon believes, there is nothing we can do about these cycles other than take advantage of them and manipulate them to achieve power.
The studies of mathematician and evolutionary biologist Dr. Peter Turchin and fund manager Ray Dalio suggest another alternative. Today we do know the causes of cyclical chaos, and understanding the causes, we have an opportunity to temper the propensities of human nature that drive disorder.
Dr. Turchin, remarkably, predicted in 2012 that the United States would suffer a “peak of instability in 2020.” Imagine that. How did Dr. Turchin know that? He adduced that likelihood the same way Ray Dalio arrives at his observations about history and human nature. Discord has causes that we now well understand. And understanding the causes, we now have it in our power to ameliorate the effects.
In his 2012 study, Dr. Turchin focused on the history of discord in America over more than two centuries. He studied approximately 1,600 incidents, including lynchings, riots, and terrorism. He and Dalio noted distinct similarities that more or less precede periods of intense discord. Invariably periods of stagnant or falling wages, wealth inequality, high debt, changes in population, and increased competition for better jobs are handmaidens to cyclical chaos.
Dr. Turchin’s work is essential as it suggests that the inevitability of cyclical chaos may not be preordained and that history need not be, as Mark Twain once quipped, “just one damn thing after another.” Even a new field of study has emerged due to the historical record Dr. Turchin has revealed. It’s called Cliodynamics, named after “Clio,” the muse of history in Greek mythology.
We no longer have to stand by as idle observers of a crumbling political and social order that Steve Bannon and others of his ilk try to bring about and reconstruct to their political advantage. We now know the causes of the cyclical chaos and stress that have repeatedly traumatized societies. We can be critical thinkers and planners rather than hapless victims manipulated by self-serving, scheming politicians.
The famous historian, Arnold Toynbee, was correct when he observed, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”What Makes America Great?
We’re free to choose. That’s it!
Of course, we’re also blessed with a riches of natural resources, but that doesn’t really make us great. That just makes us lucky. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck envied us and once famously proclaimed, “The Americans are a very lucky people. They’re bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors, and to the east and west by fish.”
We didn’t create the bountiful resources with which this land is blessed. The natural resources were just here. Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Mozambique are also pretty rich in natural resources. So are Venezuela, Russia, Saudi Arabia, The Dominican Republic, India, and many other nations. Their largess of natural resources, however, makes none of them great. Nor is it our riches of natural resources that make us a great nation. They may make us a wealthy country, but not a great nation. Providence made us rich in natural resources. Men of wisdom and judgment made us great, and only men and women of wisdom and judgment can keep us great.
Alexis de Tocqueville marveled nearly two hundred years ago, and the late economist, Milton Friedman, noted a generation ago in his marvelous book, “Free to Choose,” that America is home to a people who are simply free to choose their own way in life, to make their own decisions about what they will do with their lives, and free to march to the beat of any drummer. We have a Constitution that guarantees our freedom to speak, to write, to worship, to vote, to bear arms to defend our freedoms, to refuse to prostrate ourselves before an accusing government, the right to peacefully protest, and the right to petition the government for or against almost anything.
Nothing really makes us great other than that broad freedom to choose that was bequeathed to us by a small handful of men with names that are well known to every American school child like Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin, and some less well known like James Wilson, John Rutledge, Benjamin Rush, Charles Pinckney, Oliver Ellsworth, and Gouverneur Morris among others. They, collectively, dared to create a society where, essentially, everyone had free reign to chart their own course through life. Who had ever heard of such a country?
Well, in short order, almost everyone in the world had heard of this new country. And men and women came from across the globe to become Americans, and with them came the greatest burst of creativity, energy, and productivity the world has ever known. By 1890, the United States had grown from a start-up nation at the dawn of the nineteenth century to the world’s largest economy. Today, about half of all the Nobel prizes won by the top ten recipient nations have been won by American scientists. Americans gave the world hundreds and then thousands and then millions of new products; 374,000 patents were granted last year alone. The mechanical reaper, the cotton gin, steamships, sewing machines, telegraphs, television, automobiles, airplanes, spaceships, and advances in medicine ameliorating and eradicating disease are but a few examples of the innovation America has introduced to the world. And just this week we said farewell to the oldest veteran from our Greatest Generation, the one that saved the world from authoritarian fascism.
But here’s the thing. There is no invisible hand in political affairs that leads people to make wise decisions such as Adam Smith claimed with respect to economic affairs in his famous treatise, “Wealth of Nations.” Economics, essentially, deals with the allocation of scarce or finite resources. Politics, however, deals with the raw amassing and exercise of power.
America and the American People have generally chosen pretty well. Generally, but far from always.
* The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 allowed the government to arrest and imprison anyone, citizen or not, who spoke out against the federal government.
* The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was genocidal, plain, and simple.
* The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a cruel and shameful piece of legislation that enabled slave owners to hunt down escaped slaves. It penalized anyone anywhere in America who gave assistance to fleeing slaves.
*The Volstead Act in 1919 made the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal.
*The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 levied a 20% tariff on over 20,000 products, causing retaliatory tariffs and worsening the great depression.
*In 1942, following Pearl Harbor, we incarcerated approximately 120,000 loyal Japanese-American men, women, and children, none of whom had done anything wrong.
*The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to wage war without the approval of Congress in retaliation for a fabricated North Vietnamese naval attack that never happened.
The Great Choosing
We have been here before, at a moment of great choosing in America. Until 1920 we denied women the right to vote in America. And in our not-so-distant past, we tolerated a Jim Crow racial caste system that was de rigueur throughout much of our nation.
Eight decades ago, we had a decidedly pro-Nazi, so-called America First movement that tried to keep us from joining the allies in the fight to stop Hitler.
And, one year ago, the nation experienced an attempted violent coup at the Capitol in an effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power in the United States.
And so now the American People, free to choose, wrestle with perhaps the greatest need to choose since 1860. Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming defined the choice the nation now faces. Americans can embrace fidelity either to an authoritarian and an authoritarian movement, or fidelity to the United States Constitution. We can do one or the other, but we cannot do both. We, as a nation, are either one team pursuing that more perfect union that our founders bequeathed to us, or we are two opposing teams determined to fight to the bitter end, and if so, the only guarantee we have is that the end will, indeed, be bitter.
America is at, or near, a historic inflection point.
For the first time in our history, we have a political movement that, without a shred of legitimate evidence, has committed itself to the proposition that we have an illegitimate president. Their leader, the immediate past President of the United States, announced in 2016 and again in 2020 that he could only lose the Presidential election if the vote were rigged. It was always to be his excuse for losing because he lacks the capacity to accept defeat. It is as much a character flaw as it is a political strategy. So, before, during, and after the last election, he and his acolytes have drummed home the election conspiracy, the election hoax, the rigged election theme, and tens of millions of our fellow Americans believe it. The former President demands that every official or candidate in his Party embrace that farce or face his wrath. With very few exceptions, they embrace the farce.
Today, we face a historic inflection point. And so, in the weeks and months ahead, America will face a moment of great choosing, and our continued stature, either as a great nation or as a once-great nation, will be determined. We’ve faced this dilemma of choosing before. It was 167 years ago, on June 16, 1858, that a candidate named Lincoln running for the United States Senate addressed the Illinois Republican Convention and warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” The nation, Lincoln was warning, had a choice to make. And, regardless of Party, so do we. America is either a house united or a house divided against itself.
We Americans are free to choose.Did Violence Ruin January 6th Plan to Steal Election?
The Trump Team had a plan to undo the election. It apparently didn’t include violence.
At least that is what former Trump trade czar Peter Navarro maintains in his recently published tome, “In Trump Time.” And, for the first time (for me), Navarro actually makes sense. According to Navarro, he and provocateur Steve Bannon hatched the failed attempt to torpedo the constitutionally mandated certification of the 2020 election results after those results had been certified by every state legislature and every governor in the United States, both Republican and Democrat. They dubbed their hair-brained scheme to keep President Donald Trump in power the “Green Bay Sweep.” It would have been better named the “Cheese-Head Sweep.”
The duplicitous plan would have failed with or without the Trump mob assaulting the Capitol. That’s because the entire scheme depended on Vice President Mike Pence caving when confronted by about 100 Republican political cabalists, led by the likes of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona. They had a well-planned and well-timed, pre-arranged demand that Pence terminate the constitutionally mandated counting of the electoral ballots.
Count Mike Pence among the handful of heroes on January 6th. Vice President Pence rose to the occasion by refusing to go along with the plot to steal the election. He refused to bow to almost unbearable pressure leveled at him by (then) President Donald Trump and, instead, chose honor. He knew he would incur the wrath of the most powerful figure in today’s Republican Party, and he chose honor. Good for him.
Mike Pence was at the Capitol on January 6th to do his constitutional duty. Counting the previously certified electoral ballots is the Vice President’s only responsibility on ballot-certification day—to count the ballots that had already been certified by the legislatures and governors of every state in the nation, both Democrat and Republican.
If Pence had refused to perform this duty to count the ballots, the task would have simply fallen to President Pro Tempore of the Senate at the time, Chuck Grassley, who, I believe, would have stepped in and completed the job. Grassley is a partisan Republican, but he is an institutionalist. It is doubtful that he would have prostituted himself by participating in the Navarro-Bannon scheme to undo an American election.
Likely, the physical violence at the Capitol was not part of the Navarro-Bannon plan, but that doesn’t diminish how irresponsible their plan was. It was a malicious bit of political treachery, a pre-arranged show-stopper that, fortunately, only delayed but did not cripple the certification of the election, which is what Navarro, Bannon, and the other plotters had planned to accomplish. The likelihood of physical violence breaking out at the Capitol was overwhelming, given President Trump’s bombastic “fight like hell or you won’t have a country anymore” rhetoric. However, violence to the United States Constitution was a certainty, and it was precisely what the Navarro-Bannon plan was hatched to achieve. It almost succeeded.
While Navarro claims he never discussed his and Bannon’s scheme with the former President, it is clear that former President Trump was well aware of the plot. The only purpose of Trump’s Stop the Steal Rally was to pressure Pence to sabotage the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. That was its only purpose.
Trump’s message at the Stop the Steal Rally was precisely in sync with what Navarro says he and Bannon planned. Listen to Trump’s fulminations regarding Vice President Pence at the so-called Stop the Steal Rally. “If he (Mike Pence) does the right thing, we win the Election…He has the absolute right to do it. We’re supposed to protect our country, support our country, support our Constitution, and protect our Constitution. They (the States) were given false information. They voted on it. Now, they want to re-certify. They want it back. All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to re-certify, and we become President, and you are the happiest people. And I actually just spoke to Mike. I said, Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing; that takes courage. And then we’re stuck with the President who lost the Election by a lot…”
And so, Navarro and Bannon lined up a cadre of Republican Senators and Representatives who would try to sandbag an American election for the first time in American history. Listen to Navarro bragging to the Daily Beast, an American news website that reaches over one million readers a day. “We spent a lot of time lining up over 100 congressmen, including some senators. It started out perfectly. At 1 p.m. Gosar and Cruz did exactly what was expected of them. It was a perfect plan. And it all was predicated on peace and calm on Capitol Hill. We didn’t even need any protestors, because we had over 100 congressmen committed to it.”
Navarro acknowledges that the last-minute maneuvering by Cruz and Gosar and the other congressional sycophants who went along with the plot never had any chance of actually decertifying the Election. But, according to Navarro, they hoped to run the clock as long as possible to increase public pressure on (then) Vice President Mike Pence to send the electoral votes back to six contested states, where Republican-led legislatures could try to overturn the results.
What Navarro and Bannon were counting on was that the pressure on Pence would succeed, at least temporarily. This raises an interesting question. What exactly was Trump waiting for during the approximately three hours that he watched the assault on the United States Capitol? What has been apparent for months, and now documented by the Navarro tell-all, is that Trump was waiting to see if Vice President Pence would bow to the pressure he, Bannon, and the mob had created, and suspend the constitutionally mandated counting of the ballots. That was the plan. Journalists would then cover the procedural chaos and the unprecedented interruption of the ballot certification process. The delay and the resulting news coverage would give Trump and his wrecking-ball team the time to work on the six states where they thought they had a chance to create pressure for a re-count and switch enough votes to affect the outcome of the Election.
So, Trump waited while the crowd rampaged at the Capitol hoping that Vice President Pence would disgrace himself by crippling the constitutional order of the day. Only when he knew he had failed and that reinforcements from the DC National Guard and the Metropolitan Police Department were coming to eject the marauders did he tell the mob to go home. Such an organized plan undertaken to disrupt the orderly and peaceful transfer of power in America has a name. It is called a coup, or, in this case, an attempted coup.
Navarro, no doubt, has texts and call records that would reveal that he, a high-ranking White House official, was involved in the January 6th plot to undo the 2020 presidential election. However, he insists that the mob’s attack foiled his and Bannon’s plans because the insurrection energized Pence to follow through with certification.
Someday, what happened on January 6th might be a historical footnote known as the Plan to Steal the 2020 Election — a plan now relegated to the dustbin of history.
It was an evil plot, deserving of a place in infamy.“What is Past is Prologue.”
Or is it?
Shakespeare’s famous words from The Tempest are chiseled into the pedestal of the Robert Aitken sandstone sculpture, named Future, at the entrance of the Archives of the United States. As a young boy growing up only a mile or two away in Washington’s inner city, I enjoyed roaming the area around the national mall, and that sculpture always stopped me in my tracks. The statue, a seated and contemplative woman, holding an open book on her lap, always fascinated me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that sculpture is worth a million. Google it and take a close look at the woman’s face. Go ahead, do it.
Think about what you see. The woman, as the sculpture, Future, makes clear has looked into what has been, and is contemplating what is to come, and has learned something of great consequence. Maybe something wonderful, perhaps something foreboding, perhaps something beyond merely disappointing, maybe something terrible. Then let your eyes drift down to the inscription, “What is Past is Prologue.” The past portending the Future.
The present is, of course, very fleeting. Almost everything has either happened or is about to happen. We have no influence over the past (revisionists aside), and the Future will be a product of our decisions in the fleeting present. As Shakespeare wrote, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.” A touch of wisdom coupled with a touch of warning from the Bard of Avon.
If we let this time in history be a que sera sera moment, what will be won’t be pleasant. If we, as citizens of this great republic, do not resolve in this, our present, to protect the republic our founders gave us, we will lose it. Franklin knew how fragile the fledgling republic he and his compatriots gifted to us would be. He warned us; they had given us a republic if we could keep it. We can no longer take our republic and its constitutional democracy for granted. Its Future is on the line in this, our present.
On the far left and on the far right, however, there are movements that seem determined to tear the country apart. Indeed, the provocateurs no longer even try to disguise their objective.
But let us return to Truth, that mesmerizing sculpture at the entrance to our National Archive. The woman’s face might be thought of as a sandstone Rorschach Test. Everyone will see in it what they will. So, as 2021 draws to a close, I will share with you what I think her contemplative expression might be revealing to her about the year that is about to begin and the Future it might portend. She observes, once again, the march of the January 6th insurrectionists as they make their way to the Capitol, passing right in front of her as they did on that fateful day. What might that vision tell her?
A senseless siege morphing into a solid strategy
No, I’m not suggesting another senseless siege of the U.S. Capitol as planned by the organizers, promoters, and participants involved in the so-called Stop the Steal Rally; the Giuliani’s, the Bannon’s, the gaggle of Trumps, among others. I’m referring to their elected acolytes in what was once the Grand Ole Party, who are actively preparing to set the stage to reassume power. They won’t try to stop the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral votes as they did on January 6th. They won’t be that ham-handed again. Instead, they are openly scheming to reset the table, to create the tools to subvert the will of the voters by, if necessary, rewriting election procedure laws in the states where they hold power. And, most notably and with very few exceptions, never admitting that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected President of the United States. They know they can’t keep the stolen-election farce alive if they acknowledge that Biden is the legitimately elected President. They know they can’t keep the 68% of registered Republicans who have bought into the stolen-election lie in line if they acknowledge that, yeah, Biden really won.
So, they will not utter those words. That’s not stubbornness. That’s strategy. They need to keep the stolen-election farce alive. And it is an incredibly self-serving, malevolent strategy because it is intended to undermine America’s confidence in its own elections. The 2020 election was, in fact, the most secure election in our history, according to those responsible for election security at our own Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Justice. Even former Trump-appointed Attorney General William Barr acknowledged there was no voter fraud sufficient to have affected the election outcome. No court of law, and there were dozens, failed to see through the Trump election-fraud farce. Of course, priming voters to buy into election fraud is an old and tired Trump strategy. He sent up that trial balloon before the 2020 election and even before the 2016 election, which he assumed he would not win. Never admit defeat, former disgraced attack dog Roy M. Cohn taught him. It’s a lesson Trump learned well.
Concurrently, the Trump loyalists are eyeing whatever they can do locally and at the state level to unlevel the election playing field. So far, according to the States United Democracy Center, whose mission is to promote free, fair, and secure elections, fourteen states have moved to either strip election oversight from non-partisan election officials, increase legislative (partisan) management of elections, or enact new laws that would subject election officials to intimidating criminal or financial liability even though there have been no crimes alleged against election officials.
States that have moved to strip election officials of their overseeing role as of June 2021 are Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. States that have moved to increase legislative (partisan) management of elections are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. And those states that have pursued intimidating criminal or financial penalties for election officials going forward (in the absence of any such material violations in the last election) are Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas.
None of us can afford to take our democracy for granted. Our founders certainly didn’t. As Jonathan Rauch writes in his marvelous book, The Constitution of Knowledge –the Defense of Truth, “From where Americans sit today, the Constitution’s success seems preordained. To Madison and his contemporaries, the Constitution was the longest of long shots. They understood that America’s republic cannot be legitimate if it is not democratic, but they also understood that democracy, at least pure democracy, is an inherently unstable form of government, prone to manipulation and overthrow by parochial interests, passionate minorities, and dangerous demagogues…Madison understood that any truly representative democracy must allow factions to form and promote their various causes, but he also understood that unchecked factionalism would make the polity ungovernable.”
The republic’s future rests within reasonable proximity to the governable center, where both parties must work to reconcile differences. Sound governance cannot simply be a tug-of-war, but, instead, it must be a meeting of the minds through deliberative and sometimes painful compromise. As Benjamin Franklin feared and warned, government by tug-of-war can only tear the country apart.
The Future is, indeed, ours to see. “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.”U.S. Foreign Affairs: Progressing or Regressing?
Or simply put, is our influence in the world growing or declining? Remaining the same or stagnating is all but impossible in a rapidly changing world with determined nations vying for foreign influence, if not downright hegemony. To understand the present with respect to foreign policy, it is illuminating to understand the past.
An assessment of the history and effectiveness of America’s foreign policy could involve countless volumes. Attempting to do so in an essay of little more than 2000 words is undoubtedly a fool’s errand, but here goes.
During the 232 years and the 46 presidents comprising the American experience, we have probably enjoyed about 60 years of outsized political influence on the world stage. Think about it. For most of the 19th Century, we eschewed, with a few exceptions, excessive involvement in foreign affairs. While we were not entirely absent abroad, we pretty much adhered to the Monroe Doctrine. This part of the world would be our sphere of influence. We’d leave Europe and Asia pretty much to European and Asian nations to sort out (with the Philippines, somewhat of an exception for a half-century following the Spanish-American War). Some could say our early foreign policy was, “you plunder there, and we’ll plunder here.”
During about a third of the 20th Century, America was essentially isolationist. However, we fought with distinction for about six months during the First World War at a cost of just over 53,000 American lives. Teddy Roosevelt and his volunteer Rough Riders assuaged TR’s adventurous ego during President McKinley’s Spanish-American War at the Battle of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It has been reported, no doubt apocryphally, that Teddy Roosevelt was heard to intone that “the bravest man I ever saw, followed me up San Juan Hill.” Of course, much earlier in our history, Thomas Jefferson had successfully extended American foreign policy on the Barbary Coast by clearing Muslim pirates from the Mediterranean Sea.
Every President has reigned over both foreign policy setbacks and successes. Still, periodic reversals, or triumphs for that matter, have limited overall effect on the general, total sweep of any given President’s foreign policy reputation. There are always reversals, such as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and, perhaps, what Biden will or won’t do concerning Chinese intensions with respect to Taiwan, or possible Russian incursions into Ukraine. However, history untimately judges a nation’s foreign policy based on whether a nation’s position or reputation in the world has improved or diminished during a given president’s entire time in office. Critics hyperventilating over this or that instance of an administration’s foreign policy going badly risks losing sight of the larger foreign policy picture. Biden’s overall foreign policy success or failure will crystalize soon enough. I found the Zoom summit conferences between Biden and Putin and Biden and Xi rather interesting because summit meetings between heads of state are generally convened with an agreed-upon agenda and some likelihood of a mutually desired outcome.
The statement that I think best illustrated how the world viewed America at the zenith of its foreign policy journey was simply, “The Yanks Are Coming!” Word throughout Nazi-occupied Europe that the Americans had landed at Normandy, and that the Yanks were coming elevated America in the eyes of the world community to the loftiest stature America has achieved in the republic’s history.
So, let’s first take stock of America’s foreign policy successes and failures over a wide span of time.
I believe the real watershed moment for America and its place on the world stage was the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, when, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership, America became the Arsenal of Democracy and the essential, indispensable western power confronting Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. From the Roosevelt years through the balance of the 20th Century, America was unquestionably the world’s indispensable nation.
We entered World War Two with World War One rifles, antiquated warplanes, and an overwhelmingly volunteer or conscripted military. By the end of the war, we were the world’s only nuclear power with, perhaps, the largest and best trained and equipped army, navy, and air force the world had ever known. We were, then, the world’s most admired and successful nation. Roosevelt enjoyed a well-earned international reputation, notwithstanding the woeful journey of an ocean liner named MS St Louis.
President Truman, following FDR’s death, ended the war in the Pacific with two atom bombs, one detonated over Hiroshima and the other over Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, 1945–weapons about which he knew nothing 90 days earlier. Truman then initiated the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Europe after the war. The Truman Doctrine stopped Russian advances into western Europe, and America stopped Russian-sponsored aggression by the North Koreans south of the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. Truman also defeated the Russian blockade of Berlin with the greatest airlift of food and other essential supplies the world had, or has, ever seen.
In one 24-hour period, April 15-16, 1949, America landed a military transport plane every 60 seconds, delivering nearly 13,000 tons of cargo equivalent to 22 trainloads with 50 railcars each. In all, we delivered 2,326,406 tons of food, coal, and other material to the people of West Berlin. The U.S. military even parachuted 23 tons of candy to keep up the morale of the West Berliners. It was among our finest defining moments. No U.S. president had ever risen to the occasion more than Harry Truman following his ascendancy to the Presidency during the waning days of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Truman’s accomplishments have properly placed him among our greatest presidents. That said, had Truman refused to support French colonialism in Indo-China, the agony of our involvement in Vietnam would have probably been avoided.
During the decade of the ’50s, President Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the end of the Korean War and an uncommonly peaceful decade after that. There is little to mar President Eisenhower’s well-deserved reputation. Still, there were reversals. Egypt’s Nasser played Eisenhower during the 1956 Suez crisis and then abruptly turned to the Soviet Union to secure his longer-term interests. And then there was the Bay of Pigs fiasco put in motion by the Eisenhower Administration and carried out shortly thereafter by President John Kennedy.
The early ’60s saw a young President John F Kennedy successfully face down the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis and initiate America’s race into space before an assassin’s bullet cut him down in Dallas on November 22, 1963. These spectacular foreign affairs successes overshadowed Kennedy’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs and his fateful decision to begin sending military “advisors” to Saigon in 1961.
The balance of the decade was overwhelmed by President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to prosecute the war in South Vietnam, which was concluded painfully by President Richard Nixon a decade later. Viet Nam has largely defined the Johnson presidency, notwithstanding LBJ’s bold steps to pass historic legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as legislation to establish Medicare and Head Start.
President Nixon’s foreign policy moment came during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria. Nixon pulled all stops out to make sure Israel emerged from the war with its holdings on the Sinai Peninsula intact and available as a bargaining chip in a process that ultimately led to Peace between Egypt and Israel. Nixon demonstrated adroit statesmanship when, unbeknownst to just about everyone in the world, he sent his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to Beijing to coax China into the 20th Century and the American and Western world’s economic orbit. Notwithstanding how that decision has played out since, it was a world-class diplomatic, strategic accomplishment. While Nixon’s Presidency will be defined primarily by Watergate, his foreign policy successes were historic.
President Gerald Ford’s ascendance, of course, accompanied Richard Nixon’s fall from power. Given the circumstances that elevated Ford to the Oval Office, he presided over a number of foreign affairs challenges with confidence and greater skill than is generally recognized. Détente with the Soviet Union was pursued and achieved during the Ford presidency. America’s final, and pictorially-chronicled, withdrawal from South Vietnam, including the final helicopter evacuations of thousands of Vietnamese nationals who had worked with the United States, will forever symbolize America’s departure from Saigon.
The significance of President Carter’s Camp David accords cannot be overstated. The years of Jimmy Carter’s stagflation, breathtaking interest rates, and crisis at the gas pump were, perhaps, offset by the Camp David accords he orchestrated between Israel and Egypt, which have held firm for nearly a half-century through the proverbial thick-and-thin of Mideast tensions. The accords broke the ice, enabling Israelis and Arabs to sit down together and plot a new path forward. The substantial thaw we are witnessing today between Israelis and their Arab neighbors began at Camp David. President Carter’s presidency was, of course, largely defined by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard storming our embassy in Tehran, and holding our diplomatic staff hostage through the balance of the Carter Presidency.
The Reagan Presidency certainly had its ups and downs. Still, it will, deservedly, be credited with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, for which Reagan deserves enormous credit. When Mikhail Gorbachev was asked in an open forum what, or who, was responsible for ending the cold war, he answered without hesitation, “Reagan at Reykjavik.” Russia simply could not outspend America in a future battle to fund each country’s defense capability. Reagan’s famous Berlin exhortation, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” will, deservedly, be remembered as one of the great and consequential moments in presidential oratory.
The Iran-Contra Affair, in which the Reagan Administration planned to use funds acquired through the covert sale of weapons to Iran to fund arms shipments to the Contras in Nicaragua, undoubtedly marred but did not significantly diminish the foreign affairs reputation of the Reagan Administration. Iran-Contra was an outrageous scheme hatched in the Reagan White House to circumvent American law. However, Reagan’s foreign policy accomplishments far overshadow Iran-Contra in burnishing Reagan’s foreign policy accomplishments.
President George Bush (41) continued the Reagan legacy of rapprochement with Gorbachev, and his skillful leadership during the 1991 Gulf War will, I believe, ultimately secure his place in history as a substantive President. His 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, who won with a scant 43% of the vote, could be chalked up to the spoiler campaign of Ross Perot, who claimed 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. I believe Perot’s constant hammering of Bush during the presidential campaign of 1992 made the difference by greatly inuring to Clinton’s benefit. Bush, largely because of his leadership in forming the large international coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, achieved the highest approval rating of any president at 90%. Still, economic issues and his “read my lips, no new taxes” kerfuffle quickly chased him from that lofty position down to an approval rating of under 30%.
The Clinton years ushered in a prosperous time for America with balanced budgets and impressive prosperity. Clinton’s early foreign affairs setbacks in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti were overshadowed by successes in the Baltics when he persuaded Russia to withdraw troops from Estonia and Latvia. Clinton went on to broker peace in Ireland and he successfully brought Israelis and Palestinians together to sign the Oslo accords at the White House in 1993. Clinton’s most enduring foreign policy accomplishment was the Dayton Accords which brought Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims to the negotiating table. In the final year of his Presidency, Clinton led a NATO coalition to end Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. Clinton’s success in Ireland and Bosnia and Kosovo have pretty much erased the setbacks that characterized his early White House years.
The George W. Bush years will forever be defined by 9/11, and the years America subsequently spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush years ushered in a period of declining influence abroad and economic trauma at home. His foreign policy legacy is simply an unnecessary war in Iraq and America’s 20-year response in Afghanistan to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center.
With virtually no prior experience to commend him to the Presidency of the United States, President Barack Obama rose to the occasion remarkably well. He was handed an economic catastrophe by President Bush (43) and then presided over a painfully slow recovery. President Obama blundered by drawing a red line in the proverbial sand during the Syrian civil war over Syria’s use of poison gas against its civilian population, and then did nothing when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed that line. A foreign-affairs high-point of the Obama years was the tracking down and elimination of Osama bin Laden.
President Donald Trump enjoyed substantive foreign affairs accomplishments, including the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by steps to normalize relations between Israel and Sudan and Israel and Morocco. President Trump also moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, something other American presidents promised to do but never did. Under President Trump, another American nemesis, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also tracked down and killed, as was Iranian Revolutionary Guard Chief, Qasem Soleimani.
However, President Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the Kurds who did most of the ground fighting on our behalf against ISIS in Syria with a loss of about 11,000 Kurdish men and women was shameful. His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the imposition of a tariff war with China will substantially mar his foreign-affairs accomplishments. I applauded President Trump’s rejection of the nuclear accord with Iran, but the jury is still out on that decision given Iran’s unfettered return to nuclear enrichment, and Iran’s continued enhancement of its guided-missile and drone attack capability.
America’s reputation on the world stage reached its zenith during the years bracketed by victory over fascism during World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th Century. Thus far in the 21st Century the Administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have not further burnished America’s foreign policy reputation. Our star on the world stage seems to be fading, but, of course, the Century is still very young.Rx for 2024: No, Not Trump. No, Not Biden.
America needs a political high colonic.
The American political diet currently suffers from too much bile-induced roughage, and a change of menu is needed if a well-balanced, well-functioning, healthy political system is to be maintained. This column is not about criticizing the table set by the former president or the current president of the United States, but rather about recognizing the need for a rational, new political menu. The current political diet is killing us. It is loaded with high-energy, low-value, deadly junk food that can be lethal to our democracy and our democratic institutions.
I recently addressed a large discussion group with well over 100 in attendance. I asked everyone to raise their hand who, during the past year, had not experienced significant political divisiveness and stress within their family. Not a single hand was raised.
As we look to 2024, we need to shift from our two-man roster of current and immediate-past oval office occupants to newer, younger, less toxic personas with fresh faces, fresh ideas, and fresh messages. We have to escape from the miasma that permeates our national politics. We have to be done with the current milieu of mal contentedness, and the politics of destruction. We desperately need an intervention.
America is experiencing a growing and dangerous flirtation with authoritarianism. We can look away, but we can’t pretend it is nothing about which to be concerned. Many Americans might be horrified to ponder the question of an authoritarian America. It appears many Americans, however, would tragically respond,—so what?
The great danger of authoritarian leaders in a constitutional democracy is that the constitution itself can be quickly relegated to the status of a quaint relic, if not to the dustbin of history altogether. Constitutional order can, and on occasion, has been swept aside in the interest of expediency. Elections can become inconveniences, if not impediments, to an authoritarian leader, and coups can become efficient expediencies. Authoritarianism is dangerous, very dangerous, to the survival of constitutional democracy.
And so, figuratively speaking, political chefs have prepared authoritarian banquets before. Many Americans have become attracted to a political menu of mean morsels being served up by a cadre of new authoritarian chefs eager to appease these new and dangerous appetites. We are seeing it today in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and even in tiny Slovenia, to name but a few foreign examples. Authoritarianism is on the march. The efforts to undo an American election, and the preparations that are underway to try again in three years, if deemed necessary, demonstrate that authoritarian drums are beating here as well.
Until well into the 20th century, authoritarian regimes and monarchies controlled much of the world. It wasn’t until the First World War that the major governing monarchies began to fall. During the 100 years between 1914 and 2014 half of the world’s monarchies fell, and the number of republics rose from a scant four to thirty-four. Four absolute monarchies, however, still reign today in Brunei, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Democratically elected leaders in America have, on more than one occasion, flirted with the suspension of constitutional guardrails in the interest of priorities that seemed necessary and expeditious. That’s how habeas corpus was suspended during our Civil War. And that’s how, in 1942, we incarcerated over 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, approximately 80,000 of whom were American citizens, and all of whom were living in America legally, and none of whom were found to have had any relationship with the regime that attacked Pearl Harbor.
In a sense we are still feeling our way, and, today, there is more backsliding than there is progress. COVID has given a number of authoritarian politicians or authoritarian regimes an opportunity to tighten authoritarian measures at the cost of liberal democratic governance. A lesson that all politicians learn is to never let a crisis go to waste.
So, America is far from immune to authoritarian thrusts into our body politic. Quite to the contrary, according to Morning Consult, one of the world’s leading survey research organizations, 26% of our fellow citizens in the United States embrace right-wing authoritarianism. That’s huge. It is twice the size of the equivalent authoritarian cohort found in Canada or Australia. It is not new either. We have had our swoon with the Huey Longs, the Charles Lindberg’s and the so-called America Firsters, the George Wallace’s, the Steve Bannon’s, and the Donald Trump’s.
Not every American authoritarian-leaning president has, however, been an evil provocateur. After all, John Adams was an authoritarian. So were, at various times, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among others. Sometimes, world events, such as an attack on our country, have made authoritarian leadership tolerable, maybe even preferable. But any amelioration of our constitutional order should be extraordinarily rare and tolerated only under the most extreme circumstances.
A major problem we face is the mislabeling of news. Just about half of the country regularly consumes what it assumes is news from social media, about a third from Facebook alone. Little of the so-called news traffic on Facebook and Twitter really constitute news by any reasonable definition of the term. The so-called news is served up to us by social media as determined by machine-learning supercomputer algorithms that know what information we respond to, and how much time (or interest) we will devote to a particular subject or point of view. When these supercomputers determine what information we are inclined to accept, they will begin sending more of that “news” to the exclusion of other real news. And the recipients of this messaging think they are being well informed.
And so, we must recognize the lethality of political poison when it is served up as news to our body politic. It will invariably result in what might be called IBS, my shorthand for Irritable Ballot Syndrome. My pallet, for example, can no longer stomach those Senators and Representatives who were quite willing to subvert our constitutional democracy in the interest of a failed coup promoted by a defeated President who was, and still is, the leader of their party.
In the Senate, there are eight: Ted Cruz (TX), Josh Hawley (MO), Cindy Hyde-Smith (MS), Cynthia Lummis (WY), John Kennedy (LA), Roger Marshall (KS), Rick Scott (FL), and Tommy Tuberville (AL).
And, in the House of Representatives there are 147: Robert Aderholt (AL),Rick Allen (GA),Jodey Arrington (TX), Brian Babin (TX), Jim Baird (IN), Jim Banks (IN), Cliff Bentz (OR), Jack Bergman (MI), Stephanie Bice (OK), Andy Biggs (AZ), Dan Bishop (NC) Lauren Boebert (CO),Mike Bost (IL), Mo Brooks (AL),Ted Budd (NC), Tim Burchett (TN), Michael Burgess (TX), Ken Calvert (CA), Kat Cammack (FL), Jerry Carl (AL), Buddy Carter (GA), John Carter (TX), Madison Cawthorn (NC), Steve Chabot (OH), Steve Chabot (OH), Andrew Clyde (GA), Tom Cole (OK), Rick Crawford (AR), Warren Davidson (OH), Scott DesJarlais (TN),Mario Diaz-Balart (FL), Byron Donalds (FL), Jeff Duncan (SC), Neal Dunn (FL), Ron Estes (KS), Pat Fallon (TX), Michelle Fischbach (MN), Scott Fitzgerald (WI), Chuck Fleischmann (TN), Virginia Foxx (NC), Scott Franklin (FL), Russ Fulcher (ID), Matt Gaetz (FL), Mike Garcia (CA), Bob Gibbs (OH), Carlos Gimenez (FL), Louie Gohmert (TX), Bob Good (V), Lance Gooden (TX), Paul Gosar (AZ), Garret Graves (LA, Sam Graves (MO), Mark Green (TN), Marjorie Greene (GA), Morgan Griffith (VA), Michael Guest (MS), Jim Hagedorn (MN), Andy Harris (MD) Diana Harshbarger (TN), Vicky Hartzler (MO), Kevin Hern (OK) Yvette Herrell (NM), Jody Hice (GA), Clay Higgins (LA), Richard Hudson (NC), Darrell Issa (CA), Ronny Jackson (TX), Chris Jacobs (NY), Mike Johnson (LA), Bill Johnson (OH),, Jim Jordan (OH) John Joyce (PA), Fred Keller (PA), Trent Kelly (MS), Mike Kelly (PA), David Kustoff (TN), Doug LaMalfa (CA),Doug Lamborn (CO), Jacob LaTurner (KS), Debbie Lesko (AZ), Billy Long (MO), Barry Loudermilk (GA, Frank Lucas (OK), Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO), Nicole Malliotakis (NY), Tracey Mann (KS), Brian Mast (FL), Kevin McCarthy (CA), Lisa McClain (MI), Daniel Meuser (PA), Mary Miller (IL), Carol Miller (WV), Alex Mooney (WV), Barry Moore (AL), Markwayne Mullin (OK), Gregory Murphy (NC), Troy Nehls (TX), Ralph Norman (SC), Devin Nunes (CA), Jay Obernolte (CA), Burgess Owens (UT), Steven Palazzo (MS), Gary Palmer (AL), Greg Pence (IN), Scott Perry (PA), August Pfluger (TX), Bill Posey (FL), Guy Reschenthaler (PA), Tom Rice (SC), Mike Rogers (AL), Hal Rogers (KY), John Rose (TN), Matt Rosendale (MT), David Rouzer (NC), John Rutherford (FL) Steve Scalise (LA), David Schweikert (AZ), Pete Sessions (TX), Jason Smith (MO), Adrian Smith (NE), Lloyd Smucker (PA), Elise Stefanik (NY), Greg Steube (FL), Chris Stewart (UT), Glenn Thompson (PA), Tom Tiffany (WI), William Timmons (SC), Jefferson Van Drew (NJ) Beth Van Duyne (TX), Tim Walberg (MI), Jackie Walorski (IN), Randy Weber (TX), Daniel Webster (FL,), Roger Williams (TX), Joe Wilson (SC), Rob Wittman (VA), Ron Wright (TX), and Lee Zeldin (NY).
This IBS (irritable ballot syndrome) list is enormous, and therefore authoritarian danger is clear and present in America.POLITICS IN AMERICA: IS THE DOG ABOUT TO CATCH THE CAR?
For most of our 240 years, the American people have generally avoided the mad dog of extremism. America’s two political parties today, not so much.
While that might seem like a contradiction, it really isn’t. In America, many, perhaps most, political candidates have traditionally campaigned well to the right or well to the left of center. Still, they have generally tacked back toward the center once in power. After all, we have, with few exceptions, generally been a centrist country. Candidates, of course, want to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Once in power, however, cooperation becomes essential in a constitutional democracy such as ours, a democracy with a bicameral legislature.
Research demonstrates that Americans have, in the past, rarely embraced the political extremes. We had remained rooted pretty much at the center, some center-right, and some center-left. That has been our strength. Not so today. Our political parties, or at least those politicians within the parties who command the lion’s share of print, broadcast, and social media time and space, often campaign from the outer reaches of their respective parties. Firing up the base is, after all, as American as home-baked Apple Pie.
Not so long ago, political opponents campaigned by making a case that they could best address the issues that most concerned the voters. Those issues are well understood. People want a decent shot at economic security, affordable healthcare, and a chance to retire with dignity. During the Nixon-Kennedy debates, both candidates acknowledged that each wanted what was best for the country, and each explained why he would be the better president to achieve those goals. Today’s political debates are more akin to cage fights where each candidate looks to draw blood for the kill.
Too many campaigns plot to convince voters that the opposition will bring despair and the destruction of America as we know it. Political candidates campaign like a not-so-endearing Professor Harold Hill, warning about deadly trouble in River City, and inciting voters about all there is to fear. Selling fear works, and there is always a grab bag of issues about which voters might be legitimately concerned. But when political rhetoric is based mainly on focus-group determinations or other research demonstrating where and how fear can be conjured, then you can bet fear will be conjured.
Bill McInturff, who founded the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies seemed to sum up where we are pretty well. “I am not sanguine about a national campaign that tries to find a middle ground on major cultural issues as being viable. We are in a “no compromise” era, and that’s not changing anytime soon,” says McInturff. And he is probably correct. The hard work of political organizing takes place well to the left and right of the center. The moderate middle or center is large, but not as well organized as the left and right wings of our two-party system. Compromise is simply not in the air.
While the vast majority of Americans simply want their government to work, the vast majority of political rhetoric today is not about making government work better. Instead, the campaigns are about convincing voters that their government is their enemy, that it doesn’t work—at least not in the hands of the political opposition. As fast as one can say anti-establishmentarianism politicians on the left and on the right campaign to denigrate their opponents rather than sell their vision of a stronger and more equitable America.
Today, as in the past, when voters are asked what issues concern them the most, they almost always talk about economic security, retirement security, and the cost of healthcare. These are the things about which people really care. Still, the constant political din in the background assaults the senses with endless ranting about race, crime, gay rights, trans rights, abortion rights, and other divisive issues. These are all issues that deserve intelligent understanding and reflection, but they are used as trigger issues to engender fear and distrust, if not heated anger. Politicians understand that the media will give these personal and contentious issues more time and space than the humdrum issues that put food on the table and assure that those who are ill will find affordable care. Divisiveness as a political strategy often works at swaying votes but at a terrible price.
To be sure, there have always been strident voices on the campaign trail. But, today, those voices have become a constant drumbeat warning of a lurking calamity being shepherded by the political opposition. Not so many years ago, such negativity might have appeared as an editorial in a local newspaper, perhaps counterbalanced by an opinion piece in a competing newspaper. Today, voters are besieged with political negativity coming at them from talk radio, highly partisan cable television, and all manner of social media where three-quarters of the country now consumes endless rants from trolls and self-styled provocateurs disguised as serious people with serious counsel to convey.
These political performers are selling calculated discord and divisiveness on a scale we’ve never seen before. As a result, the mood in the country has grown churlish and grouchy. The Pew Research Center has studied the country’s mood and found that about 80 percent of American voters today believe that the election of the other side would be calamitous to our country. This is scary stuff. Our two political camps have become more like seriously warring enemy camps, each dedicated to the belief that calamity awaits us if the opposition prevails at the voting booth.
This is not politics as usual. These are campaigns of destruction. The country has evolved from a labor-intensive economy toward a new reality where machines labor and think and learn and perform numerous tasks. Concurrently, we have a rapidly changing demographic landscape, and these new realities have created a circumstance ripe for demagoguery and divisiveness.
We are off balance and whether or not we will regain our equilibrium in time to restore comity to life in America is uncertain. Commentators and politicians on the far left and the far right spare no opportunity to enrage their followers. They are like Fido growling and chasing after the car. They might just catch it. It won’t be a pretty sight.
As it is written: he that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. Proverbs 11:29AN OPEN LETTER TO GEORGE ORWELL
Dear George (if I may),
From time to time, I write in this space to people of historical note who have passed on, musing or, perhaps, fantasizing that my words might reach them. And so, George, today, I am reaching out to you.
I recently reread your two most heralded novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. While I found both to be unsettling, as they were intended to be, I found them to be remarkably prophetic. They illustrate the extent to which truth, today, is so often relegated to nothing more than one’s point of view or what this or that political leader says is so.
That stark reality which, today, is demonstrated with mind-numbing frequency represents to me the genius and the real prophesy of your work. Truth, which should always be the most prized quality we seek in our national discourse, is today so often trivialized and cheapened and, thereby, depreciated to the lowest coin of the political realm.
You warned us of the journey on which you were about to take us in 1984 when you opened with, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Clocks striking thirteen, as a metaphor, are an everyday occurrence in this land of ours. Truth, for many, has indeed become the lowest coin in the realm.
There are those on the Left who, painting with a very wide brush, insist that we are a racist nation. They, like the thought police in 1984, cancel anyone who transgresses or who, many years ago, may have transgressed by speaking insensitively or foolishly, even in their youth.
On the Right, a cult of personality has emerged with, at least at the moment, almost unwavering allegiance to a one-term, soundly defeated president who calls the fourth estate the enemy of the people. His spokesperson introduced, with a straight face, the dystopian notion of alternate facts. Remarkably, no sooner had the political idea of alternate facts been raised by an American presidential spokesperson then your novels 1984 and Animal Farm have catapulted anew to best-seller status.
Of course, you were so much more than merely a novelist with a rich imagination. You traveled to Spain to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and were severely wounded. George, you risked your life to oppose fascism. To you, writing about fascism and authoritarianism and a totalitarian takeover wasn’t simply good grist for the literary mill. It was a passion. Some might read 1984 or Animal Farm and see your work as literary entertainment. They would be missing the point. These literary works are much more a warning than entertainment.
As literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “1984 is a profound, terrifying and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the future, and like any such fantasy serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present.” In your case, George, the writing must have also caused you to agonize over what that rhetorical magnifying glass revealed about your own flirtations with racism and antisemitism. Surely that must be why you criticized the popularity of antisemitism in Britain, denouncing it as an irrational absurdity.
There is no Ministry of Truth in America today. 1984 has gained a new resurgence because the fantasia at its heart has blossomed into a reality we cannot ignore today. No one forces anyone to listen to 1984’s Big Brother pronouncements on the ubiquitous telescreens of 1984. Instead, we have become a land of thought silos where tens of millions of citizens absorb, primarily, information that conforms to their worldview while tuning out all that challenges that worldview. Still, supercomputers, the learning machines of Google and Facebook and YouTube, Tik-Tok and Redditt make the tools of 1984’s Ministry of Truth seem, by comparison, as Atari’s Pong of 1972.
This reality today, the self-selection of information that conforms to our inner-most predispositions to the near exclusion of competing points of view, is eerily close to the fictional reality you described so presciently in 1984. George, you, of course, could have never met MIT professor Sinal Aral who wrote, The Hype Machine, which was published in the United States just last year. I suspect you would be terrified at just how close 1984 came to describing the capability, if not the reality, with which we live today.
It took a few decades to realize just how possible was the world you created in 1984. The technology upon which the dystopia you so elegantly described was dependent, however, is now alive and well and generating unimaginable information about all of us. How well we will use it remains to be seen.
MIT’s Irving Wladawsky-Berger recently described Professor Aral’s work. As Wladawsky-Berger observed, “today, supercomputers ingest what we post, how we read, who we follow, how we react to the content we see, and how we treat one another. It then reasons over this data to display new content. We tend to choose what the machine suggests because we don’t have the time or attention to search more broadly… By providing us with an algorithmically curated set of options; technology both enables and constrains us. In this way, what Professor Aral describes as the Hype Machine influences what we read, who we select as friends, what we buy, and even who we love.”
Think of it, George. Today, super learning machines predict how we will act by instantly analyzing massive amounts of information that we reveal to these supercomputers every minute of every day. Every day what we type, what we say, even our facial expressions reacting to what we read and see can be analyzed. These machines can, and do, learn what we are doing and what makes us sad or happy. Just think if 1984’s Big Brother had such tools.
One thing Professor Aral says he has learned, from twenty years researching and working with social media and their supercomputers, is that “these technologies hold the potential for exceptional promise and tremendous peril – and neither the promise nor the peril is guaranteed. Social media could deliver an incredible wave of productivity, innovation, social welfare, democratization, equality, health, positivity, unity, and progress. At the same time, it can and, if left unchecked, will deliver death blows to our democracies, our economies, and our public health. Today we are at a crossroads of these realities.”
And so, George, you drew back the curtain and gave us a glimpse of where we find ourselves today. An incredible array of information is at our fingertips. We have the tools to use the information to vastly improve the outlook for humankind or to allow ourselves to be misdirected into the dystopia of 1984.
1984’s Big Brother can remain a fictional warning, or Big Brother can become a ubiquitous reality in our lives. We are on the cusp of either eventuality, and the decision is ours to make. Thank you, George, for making the choice so clear.GOP: CANCEL CULTURE ON STEROIDS
Cancel Culture has, until now, been pretty much the exclusive signature weapon of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party and, to some extent, of the hallowed halls of the academy. It has served as a coup d’état administered to those whose conduct the left has considered to be beyond the pale. Not anymore.
Now comes the new vindictive Republican cancel culture, which condemns to oblivion any Republican who, essentially, has displeased Donald Trump, the current ringmaster of the party. Sadly, the targets of the new Republican cancel culture are invariably found among those Republicans who put the country ahead of party and who vote conscience rather than fealty.
The Wyoming Republican Party voted last weekend to refuse to recognize Rep. Liz Cheney as a Republican. That bears repeating. Liz Cheney has been banished from the Republican Party in Wyoming. She was also expelled from party leadership in Congress for condemning the January 6th insurrection, for which former President Trump was cheer-leader-in-chief. What folly!
Surprisingly, Republicans from the Equality State didn’t also formally name her a RINO (Republican In Name Only); so bizarre was their action. Liz Cheney is as true-blue a Republican as there is. Few Republicans can match her solid Republican voting record, nor, sad to say, her sense of honor. Liz Cheney is an American first and a political party member second. She is a true American hero who understands that sometimes party loyalty demands too much.
Liz Cheney and a pitifully small group of Republicans (think Representative Adam Kinzinger, Senator Mitt Romney, former Governor, John Kasich, the late Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary of State, Collin Powell, Governor Larry Hogan, and, indeed, others) understand that our Country and our Constitution come before party and before allegiance to a former angry and vindictive Republican president who was decisively voted out of office. But why stick with the likes of Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, and Larry Hogan when you can embrace the likes of Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz.
Apparently, infrastructure is not good for the Country when a Democratic congress enacts and a Democratic President signs the enabling legislation. Trump, who in the past, changed party affiliation five times, incurred near-trillion-dollar deficits as President, established job-killing tariffs, and produced greater trade deficits during his four years as President than his immediate predecessor did during his last four years in office, quickly labeled all of the Republicans who supported the infrastructure bill enacted this week as RINO’s. Really?
Think of it. In March of 2020, Trump supported a $2Trillion infrastructure program, writing that, “This is the time to craft an infrastructure overhaul…It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!” But that was then when he sat in the oval office. Now, he races to condemn and cancel Republicans who voted for the $1Trillion infrastructure bill enacted and signed into law by President Biden last week.
Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, didn’t mince words. “Trump cancel culture needs to end,” he said. “This kind of purging and silencing of dissent in service to The Dear Leader is what happens in socialist dictatorships and authoritarian regimes—not in America.” Hogan was unequivocal in his criticism of Trump. “Republicans would have taken back the House and won the Senate without Trump and his losing record weighing us down. We need more – not less – of these (Republican) candidates winning in 2022… If we attack candidates who can win, we lose. It appears Trump would rather bring down the Republican Party with him than see the party succeed without him. If we let him, then we deserve the result.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Governor Hogan’s father, the late Larry Hogan, was my dear friend and business partner many years ago when his son, the current governor, was still in junior high school. The senior Hogan, like his son, always put principle before politics. The conservative congressman was banished by his own party (as he knew he would be) when, in 1974, he became the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote for all three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. He called me the night before that historic vote to tell me he had no choice but to vote to impeach and that it was going to end his congressional career. Only one other Republican in the entire history of Maryland’s 5th congressional district had ever won any elective office. That was for one two-year term during an Eisenhower landslide. The very conservative Republicans in Maryland’s 5th congressional district were certain to turn him out in the next primary, the senior Hogan said. And, indeed, they did. No Republican has held that congressional seat since.
Just as so many of today’s Republicans are willing to sublimate principle in the service of power, so too will the party reap what it has sown. In America, sooner or later, principle prevails…Doesn’t it?