Categories
Books Eastern Europe Featured Fiction

Splinterlands

splinterlands2

Part Field Notes from a Catastrophe, part 1984, part World War Z, John Feffer’s striking new dystopian novel, takes us deep into the battered, shattered world of 2050. The European Union has broken apart. Multiethnic great powers like Russia and China have shriveled. America’s global military footprint has virtually disappeared and the United States remains united in name only. Nationalism has proven the century’s most enduring force as ever-rising global temperatures have supercharged each-against-all competition and conflict among the now 300-plus members of an increasingly feeble United Nations.

As he navigates the world of 2050, Julian West offers a roadmap for the path we’re already on, a chronicle of impending disaster, and a faint light of hope. He may be humanity’s last best chance to explain how the world unraveled—if he can survive the savage beauty of the Splinterlands.

Publication Date: December 6, 2016; order here.


Related Articles

From Here to Dystopia, Foreign Policy In Focus,

Excerpt — AlterNet, December 7, 2016

How Donald Trump Changed Everything, 2016-2050 — TomDispatch, December 6, 2016

Splinterlands: The View from 2050 — TomDispatch, November 10, 2015


Interviews

KGNU, December 27, 2016

Catskill Review of Books, December 23, 2016

C-Realm, December 21, 2016


Event Videos

At the New School on February 16 with Elzbieta Matynia, Jeffrey Goldfarb, and Bill Hartung

 

Reviews

 

“In a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning, foreign policy analyst Feffer (Crusade 2.0) takes today’s woes of a politically fragmented, warming Earth and amplifies them into future catastrophe. Looking back from his hospital bed in 2050, octogenarian geo-paleontologist Julian West contemplates his fractured world and estranged family. West is writing the follow-up to his bestselling 2020 monograph, Splinterlands, in which he analyzes the disintegrated international community. By 2050, the refugee-saturated European Union has collapsed; the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China have splintered; and Washington, D.C., is gone, destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022. There are water wars, imitation foods made from seaweed, inequality, disease, and sleeper terrorists. On a virtual reality trip to make amends, West visits his children—professor Aurora in a deteriorating Brussels rampant with kidnappings; wealthy opportunist Gordon in Xinjiang, no longer part of China; and freedom fighter Benjamin in prosperous Botswana. His ex-wife, Rachel, lives in a commune in a snowless Vermont, now a farming paradise. Lending credibility to his predictions, Feffer includes footnotes from West’s editor written around 2058. This novel is not for the emotionally squeamish or optimistic; Feffer’s confident recitation of world collapse is terrifyingly plausible, a short but encompassing look at world tragedy. ”
Publisher Weekly, Starred Review

 

“Feffer’s book is a wild ride through a bleak future, casting a harsh, thought-provoking light on that future’s modern-day roots.”
Foreword Reviews



Splinterlands is a compelling account of what may happen to our world if there is no common future.  At 150 pages, the novel is short and readable. I think it would be an excellent supplemental text for both introductory and advanced courses in International Relations, which can provoke discussion, thought and no doubt consternation in students about the world that they are about to inherit.”
E-International Relations Review


“Splinterlands is a timely and chilling dystopian novel.”
Washington City Paper

 

“Readers who enjoy dystopian stories that hold more than a light look at political structures and their downfall will more than appreciate the in-depth approach John Feffer takes in his novel.”
–Midwest Book Review

 

“John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London, and, like the latter’s Iron Heel, Splinterlands is a vivid, suspenseful warning about the ultimate incompatibility between capitalism and human survival.”
–Mike Davis

 

“Splinterlands paints a startling portrait of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow that is fast becoming a reality today. Fast-paced, yet strangely haunting, Feffer’s latest novel looks back from 2050 on the disintegration of world order told through the story of one broken family– and offers a disturbing vision of what might await us all if we don’t act quickly.”
—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed and Living with a Wild God, and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project“A chilling portrayal of where the politics of division could take us. Now I only hope he writes the sequel to tell us how to avoid it!”
—Naomi Oreskes, co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization

Categories
Interviews

Full Interview List

In 2012-13, as part of an Open Society Foundation fellowship, I re-interviewed many of the people I talked to in 1990 when I traveled for seven months through East-Central Europe. Twenty-three years later, I also interviewed a wide range of additional people in order to get as broad a picture as possible of what has changed (and not changed) in the region since the transformations of 1989.

I send out a periodic newsletter. You can subscribe in the box in the right-hand column. I will be updating this list as I add the latest interviews from my four trips to the region.

 

Fred Abrahams, A Child of 1989 (Berlin)*

Judit Acsady, The Flowering of Feminism in Hungary (Budapest)

Mariusz Ambroziak, From Solidarity to Business (Warsaw)*

Milan Antonijevic, Human Rights in Serbia (Belgrade)

Tanase Barde, Romania’s Resort Tourism (Constanta)

Robert Basch, The Czech Culture of Corruption (Prague)

Johannes M. Becker, Heading East (Bonn)

Bill and Anne Beittel, Rebirth of the Countryside (Brodowin)*

Javor Benedek, Rebuilding Hungary’s Green Politics (Budapest)

Irfan Besirovic, Becoming Erased (Ljubljana)^

Andras Biro, Democracy without Democrats (Budapest)

Sonja Biserko, Serbia’s Future: Back to the Past? (Belgrade)

Miroslav Blazek, Doing Business in Eastern Europe (Prague)

Bogdan Bobolea, What Happened to Romania’s Irrecuperables? (Bucharest)*

Adam Bodnar, Human Rights in Poland (Warsaw)

David Bohm, Making the Best Food in the Czech Republic (Marianske Lazne)

Tatjana Bohm, Countering Sexism in East Germany (Berlin)*

Jelena Bojovic, Courting Capital (Belgrade)

Philip Bokov, A Tale of Two Reforms (Ljubljana)*

Laszlo Borbely, Avoiding the Yugoslav Scenario (Bucharest)

Luchezar Boyadjiev, Curating the Curators (Sofia)

Andras Bozoki, Hungary’s U-Turn (Budapest)

Petr Bratsky, All Politics is Local (Prague)

Robert Braun, Focusing on Inequality (Budapest)*

David Brown, Occupy Slovenia (Ljubljana)

Daniel Bucan, Croatia on the Brink (Zagreb)

Ryszard Bugaj, Poland on the Economic Periphery (Warsaw)

Goran Buldioski, The Populist Reformation (Budapest)

Martin Butora, Slovakia’s Pendulum Swing (Bratislava)

Magda Carneci, The Revolution Came Too Early (Bucharest)

Mariana Celac, An Architect of Change (Bucharest)*

David Cerny, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Provocateur (Prague)

Andrei Chiliman, Playing Party Politics (Bucharest)*

Rossitsa Chobanova, State v. Market (Sofia)

Oleg Chulev, The Same Mistake as Solidarity (Sofia)

Petru Clej, The State of Romanian Extremism (London)*

Bob Cohen, The Hungarian Horseradish (Budapest)

David Crawford, Dealing with the Stasi (Berlin)*

Gabor Csillag, Making Green Cool Again (Budapest)

Anna Csongor, Funding Roma Autonomy (Budapest)*

Jacek Czaputowicz, Challenging the Warsaw Pact from Within (Warsaw)*

Zuzanna Dabrowska, Organizing the Disappointed (Piaseczno)*

Kasim Dal, Challenging the Movement (Sofia)

Gareth Dale, The Fall of Utopianism (London)

Mijat Damjanovic, Yugoslavia Could Have Been a Leader (Belgrade)

Janos David, The Mechanics of Change (Budapest)*

Ales Debeljak, The Fragility of Federalism (Vienna)^

Pavol Demes, The Slovak Example (Bratislava)

Snezhana Dimitrova, The Perpetual Crisis (Sofia)

Predrag Dojcinovic, Addressing War Crimes (Amsterdam)

Helmut Domke, Closing Doors, Opening Doors (Berlin)*

Miroslav Durmov, Inside the Movement (Lexington)*

Smaranda Enache, The Puppet Masters of Targu Mures (Targu Mures)

Iskar Enev, Bulgaria’s Political Future (Sofia)

Katalin Ertsey, Can Politics Be Different? (Budapest)

Peter Fiedler, Workers Fight Back (Budapest)*

Tamas Fleischer, The Dam (Budapest)*

Istvan Forgacs, Roma as Consumers (Miskolc)

Branko Franceschi, High Times in Yugoslavia (Zagreb)

Rudiger Frank, The Costs of Reunification (Washington, DC)

Boris Fras, Going Organic (Ankaran)^

Ferenc Fruhwald, Eating Healthy in Hungary (Budapest)*

Zygmunt Fura, Poland’s Uncivil Society (Krakow)*

Maros Gabriel, Ensuring Free and Fair Elections (Bratislava)

Agnes Gagyi, Growing Up in Transylvania (Budapest)

Daria Gajic, Finding a Normal Path in Serbia (Nis)

Vihra Gancheva, The Bulgarian Turn (Plovdiv)

Pavel Gantar, Punks and Professors (Ljubljana)*

Charles Gati, Regime Change in Hungary (Washington)

Rayna Gavrilova, Losing My Illusions (New York)

Tin Gazivoda, Defending the Underdogs (Zagreb)

Maciej Gdula, What Happened to the Red Capitalists? (Warsaw)

Konstanty Gebert, Solidarity after Solidarity (Warsaw)*

Daniel German, Participatory Environmentalism (Budapest)

Nicolae Gheorghe, Toward a Roma Cosmopolitanism (Budapest)*

Ivo Goldstein, The Spread of Tolerance (Zagreb)^

Agnieszka Graff, Poland’s Feminist Genealogy (Czarna Bialostocka)

Marina Grasse, Fighting for Equal Opportunity (Berlin)*

Yonko Grozev, Religious Freedom in Bulgaria (Sofia)

Krzysztof Hagemejer, Poland’s Unplanned Transition (Warsaw)*

Gabor Harangozo, The Countryside Strikes Back (Budapest)

Tom Harrison, Regretting the Region’s Right Turn (New York)

Judit Hatfaludi, Lobbying for Women (Visegrad)

Dagmar Havlova, Monarchy as Metaphor (Prague)*

Tamas Hegedus, Jobbik: Looking East (Budapest)

Paul Hockenos, Following the Magic (Berlin)

Jaroslav Hofer, From Greens to Guns (Prague)*

Stanislav Holec, Expanding the Fourth Estate (Prague)

Ryszard Holzer, The Three Mistakes of Transition (Warsaw)

Milan Horacek, Inside Outsiders (Prague)

Aladar Horvath, More Malcolm X (Budapest)

Istvan Horvath, The Failure of Nationalist Politics (Cluj)

Marko Hren, We Were So Close to Preventing Genocide (Ljubljana)*

Florentina Hristea, The No-Complex Generation (Bucharest)*

Tomas Hrustic, Bridging Social Distance in Slovakia (Bratislava)

Renate Hurtgen, What Happened to East Germany’s Workers? (Berlin)

Zoltan Illes, The Green Minister (Budapest)*

Razvan Ion, Promoting Molecular Revolution in Romania (Bucharest)

Rita Izsak, Working on Behalf of All Minorities (Budapest)

Adam Jagusiak, The Persistent Gap (New York)

Roland Jahn, The Largest Human Rights Movement in the East (Berlin)

Adam and Anna Janeczek, Pig Farming in Poland (Wyborow)

Gordana Jankovic, Reviving Local Media in Serbia (London)

Leszek Jazdzewski, Poland’s Luckiest Generation (Warsaw)

Csaba Jelinek, Hungarian Students Resist (Budapest)

Lech Jeziorny, The Risks of Doing Business in Poland (Warsaw)*

Dusan Jordovic, Serbia’s Truth-O-Meter (Belgrade)

Mladen Jovanovic, The Center Holds (Too Much) (Nis)

Violeta Jovanovic, Courting Capital (Belgrade)

Zeljko Jovanovic, Roma as Game Changers (Budapest)

Petya Kabakchieva, Remembering the Calm Life (Sofia)

Zsuzsa Kadar, Working Women (Budapest)

Vasil Kadrinov, The Politics of Memory (Plovdiv)^

Dariusz Kalan, Recreating Central Europe (Warsaw)

Mary Kaldor, Detente from Below (London)

Tsvetelin Kanchev, Roma Politics (Sofia)

Krassimir Kanev, Human Rights in Bulgaria (Sofia)^

Anton Karagiosov, The Ghettos of Eastern Europe (Plovdiv)^

Biljana Kasic, Staying Critical (Zagreb)^

Jan Kavan, Trial upon Trial (Prague)

Tchetin Kazak, Representing the Movement (Sofia)

Tomasz Kazmierczak, The Problem of Trust (Warsaw)*

Kinga Kerekes, Speaking One’s Tongue (Cluj)

Csaba Kiss, On Red Mud and Other Messes (Budapest)

Thomas Klein, Life Underground (Berlin)*

Pal Kochis, Hungary’s Independent Peace Movement (Budapest)*

Leszek Konarski, Poland’s Uncivil Society (Krakow)*

Maria Koreck, Resolving Conflicts in Romania (Targu Mures)

Ferenc Koszeg, The Disappearance of the Political Middle (Budapest)*

Alina Kozinska-Baldyga, Rescuing Rural Schools (Warsaw)*

Maciej Kozlowski, The Church as Opposition (Warsaw)*

Ivan Krastev, The Goldilocks Generation (Vienna)

Vihar Krastev, Escape from Ignorance and Chalga (Varna)*

Miroslav Krupicka, Pushing Boundaries (Prague)*

Hieronim Kubiak, Reforming the Party (Krakow)*

Ewa Kulik, Solidarity Underground (Warsaw)

Andreja Kuluncic, The Artist as Bullhorn (Zagreb)^

Daniel Kumermann, Tales of the Fantastic (Prague)*

Pavol Kustar, Sixty Seconds of Art (Bratislava)

Rasto Kuzel, Reviving Slovak Civil Society (Bratislava)

Deyan Kyuranov, The Regime Changer (Sofia)*^

Marie Landsberg, Germany’s Third Generation East (Berlin)

Joanne Landy, Regretting the Region’s Right Turn (New York)

Bogdan Lapinski, The Leap into Business (Warsaw)

Attila Ledenyi, Starting Out with Fidesz (Budapest)*

Vera Lengsfeld, The Stasi’s Long Shadow (Berlin)

Marin Lessenski, Playing Catch Up (Sofia)

Sonja Licht, The Oracle of Belgrade (Belgrade)*

Jan Litynski, The Disappointment of Fulfilled Dreams (Warsaw)

Michal Luczewski, Church and State in Poland (Warsaw)

David MacBryde, Swords and Ploughshares in Germany (Berlin)*

Srdjan Majstorovic, Serbia’s Strategic Ambiguity and EU Integration (Belgrade)

Gyongyi Mangel, Hungary’s Green Wave Crashes (Budapest)*

Konstantin Markov, Rocking the Regime (Sofia)

Tomaz Mastnak, The Future of Social Movements (Ljubljana)*

Vasile Mathe, A Commitment to Children (Cluj)

Alexander Matus, Ensuring Free and Fair Elections (Bratislava)

Elzbieta Matynia, The Remarkable Round Table (New York)

Georgi Medarov, Bulgaria’s New Left (Sofia)

Joze Mencinger, Slovenia’s Gradualist Transition (Ljubljana)

Maria Metodieva, The Persistence of Discrimination (Sofia)

Katalin Mezey, The Republic of Writers (Budapest)

Kristina Micanovic, Starting Over Again in Croatia (Motovun)

Petar Milat, Challenging Gentrification (Zagreb)^

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe, Organizing the Public (Sofia)

Nevena Milosheva-Krushe, Bulgaria: The Next Generation (Sofia)

Bojana Milosevic, Serbia’s Truth-O-Meter (Belgrade)

Ognyan Minchev, Where Bulgaria Went Wrong (Sofia)

Maya Mircheva, The Pinnacle of Pessimism (Sofia)

Balint Misetics, Housing Is for All (Budapest)

Ruth and Hans Misselwitz, The Pankow Peace Group (Berlin)*

Dirk Moldt, Squat Paradise (Berlin)

Veronika Mora, Ecotopia (Budapest)*

Marian Munteanu, The Accidental Activist (Bucharest)

Thibault Muzergues, Training the Next Generation (Bratislava)

Seung-Hee Nah, Cement (Washington, DC)

Balazs Nagy Navarro, Protesting Media Control in Hungary (Budapest)

Julieta Nagy Navarro, Cultivating Empathy in Hungary (Budapest)

Rasa Nedeljkov, The Future of Serbian Civil Society (Belgrade)

Irina Nedeva, Voice to the Voiceless (Sofia)

Dragos Negrescu, Romania’s Missed Opportunity (Brussels)*

Aryeh Neier, Helping from Outside (New York)

Iordan Nihrizov, The Decline of Social Democracy (Sofia)*

Michaela Novotna, To the People (Prague)*

Wanda Nowicka, Shaking Up Politics (Warsaw)

Piotr Ogrodzinski, Public and Private in Poland (Warsaw)*

Eva Ohrablova, Running Political Campaigns in Slovakia (Bratislava)

Mira Oklobdzija, Guilt as Destiny (Trieste)*

Larry Olomoofe, The Rubik’s Cube of Roma Rights (Warsaw)

Michael Otrisal, Televising Religion (Prague)*

Kurt Paetzold, Confronting History (Berlin)

Liliana Pagu, Empowering Women in Romania (Bucharest)

Alena Panikova, Creating an NGO Culture (Bratislava)

Borka Pavicevic, Catharsis! (Belgrade)

Julius Pecha (plus Stano and Anicka), Roma Youth Get Organized (Kecerovce)

Marie Perinova, The Czech Culture of Corruption (Prague)

Robert Perisic, Life in Fast Forward (New York)

Kamara Peter, A Migrant’s Story (Budapest)

Dimitrina Petrova, The Lost Treasure of Revolutions (London)

Marcin Piotrowski, Modernizing the Polish Military (Warsaw)

Sara Pistotnik, Occupy Slovenia (Ljubljana)^

Florin Poenaru, LeftEast (Budapest)

Agnieszka Pomaska, The Politics of Youth (Warsaw)

Stefan Popov, Taming the Wild East (Sofia)

Dragoslav Popovic, Speaking Openly in Serbia (Belgrade)

Gerd Poppe, Creating a Parallel Society (Berlin)

Tomas Pospiszyl, Public, Private, and Political Art (Prague)

Vladimir Prchlik, Addressing Nuclear Power (Prague)*

Wojciech Przybylski, Poland’s Politics of Dissatisfaction (Warsaw)

Zarko Puhovski, Democracy Is Not Enough (Zagreb)*^

Eva Quistorp, Bridging the East-West Divide (Berlin)

Bela Racz, Becoming a Leader (Budapest)

Slawomir Rakowiecki, The Land of Junk Contracts (Warsaw)

Zsuzsanna Ranki, Managing the Economic Transition (Budapest)*

Alice Pop Ratyis, Roma and Local Politics (Bucharest)

Janusz Reykowski, Negotiating the Transition in Poland (Warsaw)*

Costi Rogozanu, Romania’s Fragile New Left (Bucharest)

Stefan Roloff, Them (Berlin)

Mihai Florin Rosca, Romania’s Fraying Social Safety Net (Cluj)

Rudiger Rossig, YU-Rock! (Berlin)

Philipp Rotmann, Germany’s Post-Reunification Foreign Policy (Berlin)

Marcel Rotter, The File (Fredericksburg)

Irene Runge, Pushed to the Margins (Berlin)*

Vukosava Crnjanski Sabovic, Serbia’s Truth-O-Meter (Belgrade)

Jeffrey Sachs, Returning Poland to Europe (New York)

Neza Kogovsek Salamon, Restoring the Erased (Ljubljana)^

Gottfried Schleinitz, The Monday Demonstrations (Leipzig)*

Matthias Schwerendt, An Inclusive Germany (Berlin)

Milena Dragicevic Sesic, Life under Sanctions (Belgrade)

Volen Siderov, The World According to Ataka (Sofia)

Slawomir Sierakowski, Reinventing the Left in Poland (Cambridge)

Jirina Siklova, Engendering Change (Prague)

Michal Simecka, Rethinking Democracy in Europe (Bratislava)

Marta Simeckova and Martin Simecka, The End of Claustrophobia (Bratislava)

Michael Simmons, Roma and the Civil Rights Movement (Philadelphia)

Rastislav Sipos, The Sound of Music (Bratislava)

Svetlana Slapsak, Women against Nationalism (Ljubljana)^

Ann Snitow, The Energy of Delusion (New York)

Ladislav Snopko, Creating a Spectacle (Prague)

Taskin Tankut Soykan, Islamophobia in East-Central Europe (Warsaw)

Daniel Srb, Croatia’s Unpopulist Party (Zagreb)

Natasha Srdoc and Joel Anand Samy, The Misrule of Law (Washington, DC)

Krassen Stanchev, The Green Marketeer (Sofia)*

Jan Filip Stanilko, Reinventing Republicanism in Poland (Warsaw)

Stephan Stoyanov, Both Sides Now (New York)

Michal Sutowski, The Strange Non-Death of Polish Neo-Liberalism (Warsaw)

Ilona Svihlikova, Building a New Economy (Prague)

Marcin Swiecicki, The Market Before the Market (Warsaw)

Zbigniew Szawarski and Dorota Szawarska, The Moral Revolution (Warsaw)*

Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Challenging the Surveillance Society (Warsaw)

Orhan Tahir, The Failure of Funding Roma Integration (Sofia)

Gaspar Miklos Tamas, The Boomerang Intellectual (Budapest)

Yanina Taneva, The Ideas Factory (Sofia)

Malgorzata Tarasiewicz, Building the Women’s Movement (Sopot)*

Mark Thompson, Passions v. Interests (London)

Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Commission (Washington, DC)

Vaclav Trojan, Behind the Velvet Revolution (Prague)

Thomas Tschirner, Growing Up during Die Wende (Berlin)*

Ulrich Tschirner, Being Quaker in East Germany (Wittemberg)*

Mircea Tuglea, A Sad Country Full of Humor (Constanta)

Jan Urban, And Justice for All? (Prague)

Laszlo Urban, Hungary’s Economic Leap (Budapest)*

Viorel Ursu, The Race from the Bottom (Brussels)

Tibor Varady, This Is Not a Transition (Budapest)

Szilvia Varro, From Journalism to Activism (Budapest)

Judit Vasarhelyi, Toward Local Resilience (Kapolcs)*

Michal Vasilko, Sixty Seconds of Art (Bratislava)

Tana Keleova Vasilkova, Becoming a Bestseller (Bratislava)

Julia Vass, Making Green Cool Again (Budapest)

Ivan Vejvoda, Making the Leap Together (Washington, DC)

Viktor Vida, Making Green Cool Again (Budapest)

Ovidiu Voicu, Making the Castle Transparent (Bucharest)

Vojko Volk, Reconnecting the Balkans (Zagreb)*

Danilo Vukovic, Two Cheers for Government (Belgrade)

Wojciech Waligorski, Making It in Lowicz (Lowicz)*

Jamie Walker, Conflict Resolution and German Reunification (Berlin)

Reinhard Weisshuhn, Maintaining a Moral Politics (Berlin)*

Danuta Wiewiora, Working with the Marginalized (Rowy)*

Karolina Wigura, Rescuing Polish Liberalism (Warsaw)

Kuba Wygnanski, How to Launch People (Warsaw)

Roumen Yanovski, One Step Forward and… (Sofia)^

Rachel Zacharia, Rebuilding Poland’s Jewish Community (Warsaw)

Mitja Zagar, Could the Yugoslav Wars Have Been Avoided (Vrsar)*

Jacek Zakowski, The Revolution Devours Its Children (Warsaw)*

Ilona Zambo, The First Roma Feminist (Budapest)

Aleksandar Zograf, Lucid Dreaming in Pancevo (Pancevo)

Ryszard Zoltaniecki, The Fetishism of Economic Growth (Warsaw)*

Jelka Zorn, Erased and Forgotten (Ljubljana)^

Imre Ungvari Zrinyi, Game of (Nationalist) Cards (Targu Mures)

 

* Includes previous interview from the 1990s

^ Includes previous interview from the 2000s

 

 

Categories
Art Articles Featured

Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights

The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

In the US, the Second Wave Is Already Here

If the United States had quick-thinking and efficient leadership, the pandemic would have infected about 100,000 people and killed only a couple thousand. That’s the experience of South Korea, times seven to account for the difference in population.

If the United States had overwhelmed but reasonably sensible leadership, the coronavirus pandemic would have racked up somewhere near a million infections at this point and killed about 36,000 people. That’s what would have happened here if we’d had a German-style response.

Instead, as of the beginning of July, the infection rate in the United States is a world-leading 2.6 million and the death toll has topped 126,000. There are countries with worse death rates per million people, but with a couple exceptions they’re either small (like Belgium) or presided over by leaders (like Boris Johnson in the UK) as idiotic as ours.

That is tragic enough. But now comes Act Two.

If the United States had practically any administrative team other than the Trump-Pence clown show, it would have at least flattened the curve at this point, no matter how many infections and deaths had occurred during the first wave of the outbreak. Americans would then be cautiously enjoying their summers, bracing for a second wave of infections that most epidemiologists have predicted for the fall.

Instead, while Europe and much of Asia are tracking down and containing small pockets of infection that reach at most into three digits, the United States is dealing with its highest daily number of infections yet — over 40,000 a day.

Remember those early statistics about how many more tests South Korea was conducting per day compared to what the United States was doing in a week? We are currently suffering the consequences of that disparity. Every day, the United States is now adding three times the number of infections that South Korea has had during its entire outbreak.

The Trump administration’s response to the threat of a second wave is: why wait?

American Lunacy

Donald Trump doesn’t like masks. He has refused to wear them. He has ignored the advice of health officials, members of his administration, and his congressional enablers. Trump is such an outlier on the mask issue that even Dick Cheney has consented to being photographed wearing facial protection.

Astonishingly, the president said, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, that some people are wearing masks “to signal disapproval of him.” To the extent that people associate Trump with Death itself or are wearing masks so that they can live long enough to vote the Grim Reaper out of office, the president is right. The pandemic in America has indeed become all about Trump: his appalling ineptitude and sociopathic cruelty.

Masks are just the tip of the iceberg toward which the president is steering Titanic America. Trump was warned multiple times that an indoor campaign rally in the middle of a pandemic was not a good idea. A group of Tulsa citizens and businesses launched a legal effort to stop the event from happening on the grounds that it would only contribute to the ongoing spike in infections. The Oklahoma Supreme Court put the kibosh on the legal challenge.

Trump not only went ahead with the rally last month, he seemed to do everything possible to ensure that it would be a public health hazard. His advance team had eight people who tested positive with the disease. His organizers removed stickers from seats that were designed to maintain a modicum of distance between audience members. In the end, the 6,000 people who showed up were all crowded together like sardine superspreaders. Most followed their leader by not wearing masks.

Tulsa subsequently experienced a new uptick in COVID-19 cases, though it’s not clear how many can be traced back to the rally. That’s because Oklahoma has an inadequate contact tracing system.

Not content to help boost the numbers for the coronavirus in Oklahoma, Trump then went on to Arizona, where he stopped at a megachurch for a rally with student supporters. Such churches have been the epicenters of new outbreaks in Oregon, West Virginia, and Texas. At the Arizona event, neither Trump nor many of his young worshippers wore masks. Trump told them several times that the United States was “at the end of the pandemic.”

Trump has done just about everything to distract Americans from the second wave of infections engulfing us. He has deployed racism (“kung flu”) to defect responsibility. He has studiously avoided the topic of the pandemic. He has claimed that the numbers are up because of more testing (wrong).

Even the Trump administration doesn’t have Trump’s back on this one. The vice president now wears a mask and urges others to do so as well. The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, is not reassuring in the least: “The window is closing, we have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibility,” he said recently. “We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

Meanwhile, many governors are demonstrating that idiocy is not the monopoly of the president.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, refuses to mandate the use of masks. Houston’s spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations has maxed out the capacity of the intensive care units at city hospitals. Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s response? He told the hospitals to stop reporting that particular statistic because it was generating negative headlines. Peekaboo: if we close our eyes, the pandemic will magically be over.

Of course, if people didn’t listen to Trump or their death-defying governors and simply stayed home, they could collectively flatten the curve. But no, many Americans have flocked to beaches, bars, churches, and dance clubs. They’ve been egged on by cheerleaders for a fast economic recovery who are either genuinely concerned about unemployment and widespread bankruptcies or fear that Trump can’t win reelection without a rapid rebound.

In some cases, the cheerleaders themselves have become victims of their own heedlessness. The head of Reopen Maryland, Tim Walters, came down with the coronavirus last week. It was not, alas, a Saul-on-the-way-to-Damascus moment: he hasn’t changed his views on reopening, wearing masks, or sharing contact information with government tracers.

Instead of getting the message, too many people are going after the messengers. The Washington Post reports that attacks on public health officials who counsel safe behavior have been particularly intense in Ohio, California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. In Colorado, according to the executive director of the Colrado Association of Local Public Health Officials, “80 percent of members had reported being threatened and more than that were at risk of termination or lost funding.”

Keep Out Americans

It is any wonder that the European Union, when contemplating the opening of borders to travelers and tourists, decided to continue to ban Americans?

This week, Europe will welcome visitors from around the world. With a few exceptions, those will not be American visitors. Who gets in instead? Rwandans, Tunisians, Uruguayans, Serbians, Moroccans, Japanese, South Koreans. Oh, and just in case you think there’s a North American bias, Canadians are welcome as well. And if China lifts its ban on European visitors, then Chinese will soon be taking their summer holidays in Paris and Rome.

If America manages to get this second wave of infections under control, Europe will reconsider. But why should Europe reconsider?

I’m reminded of those pictures of people you see posted at convenience stores — shoplifters, scam artists, stolen credit card users. Those photos are a reminder to the scofflaws not to return to the scene of the crime. Europe has posted an American flag at the passport control booths at its airports. Americans are the world’s scofflaws.

Too many Americans have proven themselves to be entirely irresponsible when it comes to the health of the community. That goes for too many public officials as well, from mayors to governors to the president himself.

So, it makes sense for the world to keep its distance, not just six feet but an entire ocean if possible. The entire country should be quarantined until we stop electing public health risks to office and, as a citizenry, start acting like adults instead of kindergartners who feel compelled to eat every marshmallow in sight rather than postpone gratification until it’s safe to indulge.

It’s not just America, of course. The virus continues to rage in Brazil, India, and South Africa. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, points out that “although many countries have made some progress, globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up. We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives, but the hard reality is that this is not even close to being over.”

In the good old days, like four years ago, the United States for all its flaws would have been at the forefront of addressing this public health emergency.

Let’s face it: we are now the public health emergency.

FPIF, July 1, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Korea

Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

The De-Trumpification of America

Let’s assume that Donald Trump loses the election in November.

Yes, that’s a mighty big assumption, despite all the polls currently favoring the Democrats. If the economy begins to recover and the first wave of Covid-19 subsides (without a second wave striking), Donald Trump’s reelection prospects could improve greatly. The Republican Party has a huge war chest ready to fund ads galore, massive targeted outreach, and widespread voter suppression. And if all that isn’t enough, the president could borrow a tactic from the dictators he so admires and cancel the election outright out of concern over the coronavirus or some fabricated emergency.

Playing up fears of Trump’s reelection is a useful get-out-the-vote strategy, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the election happens and the president loses unambiguously. A majority of Americans will sigh with relief. Still, don’t count on Trump — and more important, Trumpism — evaporating like a nightmare at daybreak.

To begin with, there’s the president’s legendary base of support, the one-third of Americans who’d continue to back him even if he were to shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue (or, through criminal negligence, effectively murder more than 100,000 people by ignoring a pandemic for 70 days). Such Trumpists aren’t going to suddenly emigrate en masse to New Zealand, as some liberals threatened to do after the last presidential election.

For the time being, the president still has an entire party apparatus behind him, having transformed the Republicans into little more than a personality cult, banishing dissenters like former Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to the political hinterlands, and silencing the handful of so-called moderates that remain.

Trump enjoys institutional support as well, having replaced so many putative deep-staters with civil servants prepared to unquestioningly do his bidding. He’s personally fired his perceived government enemies, chief among them six inspectors general. Minions like former body man John McEntee, former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and presidential aide Stephen Miller have all purged experts, replacing them in the government bureaucracy with loyalists. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has done the heavy lifting in the Senate, filling the judicial system with Trump flunkies: two Supreme Court judges, more than 50 Court of Appeals judges, and 140 District Court judges so far.

Ever the money man, the president has secured a reliable cash flow, bringing the uber-wealthy class of conservative donors onto his team, a total of 80 billionaires, including Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, Texas banker Andy Beal, World Wrestling Entertainment cofounder Linda McMahon, Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel, and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Thanks to his violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump has also funneled taxpayer money into his own business: millions spent on rooms at the Trump Organization’s hotels and golf clubs. Even before factoring in his money — Trump personally spent $66 million of his own dollars on the 2016 election — his campaign fund already has more than one-third of a billion dollars.

And then there’s the bulk of conservative civil society — ranging from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and evangelicals like Franklin Graham to the anti-abortion lobby and the International Union of Police Associations — that now operates in his corner. Despite the entertainment world’s general loathing of the president, he’s even lined up a celebrity or two like rapper Kanye West and actress Roseanne Barr along with a handful of D-listers like actor Jon Voight and Barack Obama’s half-brother Malik. On the fringes roam the true “bad hombres”: white supremacists, live-free-or-die militiamen, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Taken together, these component parts of Trumpism form that most dangerous of creatures, a political chimera with the head of an establishment machine and the body of a radical social movement. This creature has its hands on the levers of power, its boots on the ground, and its eyes on the prize of four more years.

Are all these people and institutions true believers in Donald Trump? Probably not. Sporting more of a performative style than a coherent ideology, he is, to misquote Lenin, a “useful idiot.” When he’s no longer useful — that is, no longer in power — he’ll only be an idiot and the opportunists will move on.

While Trump may be expendable, Trumpism — which lies at the intersections of racial and sexual anxiety, hatred of government and the expert class, and opposition to cosmopolitan internationalism — is not so easily rooted out. Drawing heavily on American traditions of Know-Nothing-ism, America-First-ism, and Goldwater Republicanism, Trump’s essential worldview will survive the 2020 election.

If their candidate loses in November, Trumpists will dig in their heels just as their predecessors did after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Only a month after his inauguration, the Tea Party was already up and running. But the Tea Party will prove child’s play compared to the resistance the Trumpists are likely to mount if their candidate tanks on Election Day 2020. And such resistance could succeed in finishing what Trump started — disuniting the country and destroying the democratic experiment — unless, that is, the United States were to undergo a thorough de-Trumpification.

Other societies have gone through such processes, but those efforts — Reconstruction after the American Civil War, denazification in Germany after World War II, and de-Baathification after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 — have all been flawed in various ways. Reconsidering them, however, might help us avoid repeating the mistakes of history as we try to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Regime Change

The United States hasn’t recently been invaded, lost a major war in its homeland, or had its government fall to a popular uprising.

That’s usually what it takes to dislodge a deeply entrenched ruling ideology. The South lost the Civil War, the Nazis World War II, and Saddam Hussein the second Gulf War. Those defeats provided the winners with unprecedented opportunities to remake the old order, but don’t seem to apply to America in 2020. The electoral defeat of a president and party, if that’s even what happens in November, doesn’t constitute regime change. It’s just the kind of peaceful transition of power that’s the cornerstone of democratic stability.

But let’s face it: 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a normal election year. Conservative pundits, like military historian Victor Davis Hanson, believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats have brought the country to the brink of a literal civil war. During last year’s impeachment hearings, Trump himself tweeted approvingly a comment made by Robert Jeffress, an evangelical ally, that impeachment “will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Meanwhile, typically enough, Clinton’s first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, suspects that President Trump’s flagrant disregard of the Constitution will precipitate major social unrest, even as comedian Bill Maher urges Democrats to reach out to Trump supporters as part of a bid to defeat the president — or risk civil war.

Many Americans seem to agree. In a 2018 Rasmussen poll, one-third of respondents thought it likely that another civil war would break out within five years. According to a 2019 civility poll from the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, the consensus was that the country is already two-thirds of the way toward a civil war.

Nor is there much confidence that the 2020 presidential election will go smoothly. Take your pick from a menu of potential disruptions: allegations of voter fraud and Republican voter suppression, a resurgence of the coronavirus, voting machine software glitches, Russian hackers, confusion over mail-in ballots, or an authoritarian president who repeatedly jokes about serving more than two terms. A recent Georgia primary offered a warning of what might come, with fiascos aplenty, particularly for voters of color. There weren’t enough polling places, people waited in line for endless hours, absentee ballots never arrived at homes. Multiply Georgia by 50 and you’d have a full-blown crisis of political legitimacy.

Even if this country manages to pull off the 2020 presidential election, a post-election insurrection is not out of the question. During the lame-duck period, a defeated Trump might call on his supporters — gun owners, militia members, active-service military — to serve as a Praetorian guard to keep him in office. Mark Villalta, an attendee at Trumpstock in Arizona last October, was typical of some Trump supporters in confessing that he’s hoarding weapons just in case Trump loses. “Nothing less than a civil war would happen,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”

It’s essential to ensure that the November 3rd election is free and fair, but if Trump loses, then the bigger problems are likely to begin.

Confederacy of Dunces

In the 1860 election, America confronted a polarized electorate, a stupendously mediocre president in James Buchanan, and a clear geographic divide between north and south, urban and rural. Not even the election of Abraham Lincoln could save the union. The attack on Fort Sumter, the opening salvo of the Civil War, took place roughly a month after his inauguration.

Donald Trump seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the “War Between the States,” resisting as he’s done recently the removal of “beautiful” Confederate statues and the redesignation of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. In the last Oscar season, he even wished that Gone with the Wind had won rather than some South Korean film he’d never heard of. Such favoritism for the disgraced and vanquished should be as politically disqualifying as a Heil Hitler salute.

The reason that Trump can get away with his Confederate nostalgia comes, at least in part, from the failure of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War to extirpate racism and its associated economic inequality from American society. In fact, as historian Allen Guelzo points out, “Reconstruction did not fail so much as it was overthrown. Southern whites played the most obvious role in this overthrow, but they would never have succeeded without the consent of the Northern Democrats, who had never been in favor of an equitable Reconstruction.”

The Democrats of the time, in other words, became a party of resistance — to Reconstruction, civil rights, and the radical Republicans of that moment. So the Confederacy continued to live on not only in the hearts and minds of defeated Southern whites but also in the racist policies that elected officials in both parts of the country would resurrect.

Here, then, is a lesson of the Civil War’s aftermath for this moment. Today’s Republicans, the equivalent of the northern Democrats of the post-Civil War era and a true confederacy of dunces, cannot be allowed to persist in their current incarnation as a vehicle for Trumpism. A thorough thumping at the polls in November is a necessary but insufficient response to what they’ve become.

Gaining a congressional majority, in other words, is not enough. The Democrats and chastened Republicans would have to work to make that party a far less extreme force in American politics, abandoning Trump and reclaiming Lincoln.

“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” Barack Obama insisted as he entered office in 2009, sidestepping efforts to investigate the wrongdoing of the George W. Bush administration. He was convinced that such forward thinking would unite the country. He was wrong.

To avoid a Reconstruction-like fiasco, the next administration would have to drain the swamp Trump created, bring criminal charges against the former president and his key followers, and launch a serious campaign to change the hearts and minds of Americans who have been drawn to this president’s agenda.

Detoxifying Government

When Saddam Hussein fell and American troops took Baghdad, the United States established an occupation authority that attempted to expunge all traces of the former Iraqi autocrat’s Baath Party from that society. At the time, the State Department considered three basic positions on what came to be known as de-Baathification: focus just on Saddam’s inner circle of about 50 top-ranking officials, expand that circle to include a larger number of top politicians, or eradicate Baathism altogether because “democratization is simply not possible unless and until the entire apparatus of control and authority is uprooted.”

Thanks to Paul Bremer, the head of that Coalition Provisional Authority, the third option became its very first directive, which led to the ejection of between 35,000 and 50,000 Iraqi civil servants onto the streets of their country. “In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos, and soaring unemployment,” wrote pundit Fareed Zakaria in 2007. “We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly.”

That thoroughgoing purge, along with the literal dismantling of the Iraqi army, generated a deep distrust of the American occupation and provided an instant pool of recruits for any militant resistance, fueling an all-out war.

The good news is that since Trumpism has only been a governing ideology for three years, it hasn’t (yet) penetrated the civil service or the military to the degree that Baathism dominated the Iraqi government and armed forces. Since Trump appointees don’t form a particularly deep state, however much Trump would have liked to create one of his own, no Iraq-style resistance is on the horizon.

The judiciary is another matter. The roughly 200 judges that Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already managed to appoint for life will do their best to block all attempts to deconstruct Trumpism. If it can be shown that any of these judges engaged in serious ethical or criminal misconduct, then impeachment would be an option. However, you can’t impeach judges just because you don’t like their rulings (though some Republican legislators did try to do just that in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago).

Instead of attempting to remove individual judges, it would be more strategic to go after their ideological backer, the Federalist Society, an uber-conservative legal organization that has functioned as a judicial matchmaker for Trump, providing him with a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. All but eight of his federal appellate court picks have been members of the society.

You can’t outlaw a legal society, however lunatic its interpretation of the Constitution may be. However, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who’s on the Judiciary Committee, proposes to make it illegal for judges to be members of the Federalist Society. An added benefit: such a move would also go after the big money behind the attempted right-wing takeover of the court system because, as Whitehouse points out, “the Federalist Society is at the center of a network of dark-money-funded conservative organizations whose purpose is to influence court composition and outcomes.”

Detoxifying the court system is crucial not only for reversing Trump’s regressive policies but for clearing the way to prosecute him for his wrongdoing.

Hauling Them into Court

At Nuremberg after World War II, the Allied victors put nearly 200 Nazis on trial for various crimes: 161 were convicted and 37 sentenced to death. The precedents established there and at other war crimes trials have guided contemporary tribunals culminating in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It would be satisfying if the U.S. government could give Donald Trump and some of his top aides to the ICC for their violations of international law at the U.S.-Mexico border, the assassination of the head of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and similar actions. But that’s unimaginable even for a government led by President Joe Biden in which the Democrats had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. So it will be up to the American courts to charge and convict Trump, which has so far failed to happen, despite some cases related to his tax returns and allegations of sexual assault still inching forward.

The Nuremberg process developed new standards to prosecute the Nazis. Since the barriers have grown high indeed, the Trumpian opposition would have to get more creative to make sure that Trump goes to jail.

As soon as he is no longer president, federal prosecutors should label Donald Trump and his top associates an ongoing criminal organization and begin the process of bringing them to justice under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. For years, after all, the president has been acting like a mafia godfather, demanding loyalty, bullying competitors, and scorning “rats.” Last year, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee laid out in graphic detail ways in which the president and his gang were guilty of racketeering: bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice, and the like.

The House of Representatives impeached the president, but with the help of his Republican enablers, he managed to avoid removal from office. Getting read the RICO Act, on the other hand, could leave him facing years in prison and the Trump Organization would be liable for treble damages as compensation for victims. As Forbes contributor Steve Denning concluded during the impeachment proceedings:

While impeachment would obviously be a severe personal sanction for Donald Trump, convicting the Trump Organization as a RICO enterprise could be far worse. If Trump is ‘only’ impeached, he could always go back to his family business, sadder but perhaps wiser. But if the Trump Organization were to be convicted as a criminal enterprise under the RICO Act, there might be no business for Trump to go back to.

U.S. diplomat Herbert Pell, instrumental in bringing war-crimes charges against the Nazis during World War II, saw “how Confederate veterans in the South had created for themselves a misty-eyed mythology about the U.S. Civil War and was determined that the Nazis would not do the same.” As Dan Plesch explained in his study of international war crimes tribunals, “Pell’s motivation was to prevent postwar nostalgia for the Nazis breeding more war.”

Putting Trump on trial would not only remove him from the political equation but could effectively delegitimize Trumpism and prevent a second round of it from occurring.

The Popularity of Trumpism

Nazism didn’t die with Adolf Hitler’s suicide, the collapse of his regime, or those convictions at Nuremberg. More than 10% of the German population had belonged to the Nazi Party. Early efforts at denazification sputtered out largely because the United States and its allies needed a stable, prosperous Germany at the heart of Cold War Europe — and Germany quietly allowed former Nazis to remain in every echelon of society. Seven years after the war, for instance, 60% of the civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis.

Nazi ideology was even more difficult to root out. According to a public opinion survey conducted in West Germany in 1947, 55% percent of those living under the U.S. occupation believed that “National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out.” Worse yet, the majority of those in this category were under 30, not just the old guard.

As bizarre as Donald Trump might be, Trumpism itself is not a new American phenomenon. The difference is that the far right never before had such access to power, not during the George W. Bush era, not even during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It always remained on the margins, kept alive by the likes of the John Birch Society, the occasional extreme member of Congress, and weirdo talk show hosts like Alex Jones of InfoWars.

The danger of Trump lies in his remarkable capacity to mainstream views that previously had been beyond the pale (at least in official Washington). A significant number of Americans feel liberated, thanks to his imprimatur, to give voice to the worst angels of their nature. Transforming such deep-seated belief systems represents quite a different challenge than changing the guard in the Oval Office and beyond. After all, democratic societies don’t send people off to reeducation camps. Certain communities, like universities, can legislate against hate speech, but it’s people’s hearts and minds, not just their tongues, that must be reached.

To do so, it’s imperative to separate the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters from the illegitimate ones. Yes, “bad hombres” are attracted to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but many of the disenfranchised who voted for him were motivated by a disgust at political elites and the raging economic inequality they produced in this land. After the triple whammy of the coronavirus pandemic (and its disproportionate impact on the working poor), the economic semi-collapse that followed its spread (and the disproportionate benefits Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and other billionaires drew from it), and an epidemic of police violence (visited on people of color), more and more Americans are coming to feel that the status quo is simply unacceptable. They’re disgusted by Republican duplicity but also by the Democrats’ version of business as usual.

Because Trumpism is a cancer on the body politic, the treatment will require radical interventions, including the transformation of the Republican Party, a purge of Trumpists from government, and the indictment of the president and his top cronies as a criminal enterprise. To avoid a second Civil War, however, a second American Revolution would need to address the root causes of Trumpism, especially political corruption, deep-seated racism, and extreme economic inequality.

Otherwise, even if The Donald loses this election, the political creature he represents will rise from the ashes and eventually return to power (President Tom Cotton? President Ivanka?!). America can’t survive another civil war, but neither can it afford another failed Reconstruction, a half-hearted de-Trumpification of America, and a return to the previous status quo.

TomDispatch, June 26, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Why Bolton Matters

Unreliable narrators are a staple of literature. Consider the delusional, self-serving narrator of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or the way Humbert Humbert used his cultured references and gorgeous prose to dress up his crimes in Nabokov’s Lolita.

Now along comes John Bolton and his account of time served in the Trump administration as national security advisor.

Bolton’s latest book has been attacked as fiction by the president, members of his administration, and even members of the administrations of other countries (like South Korea). Bolton is a thoroughly unpleasant hatchet man who has opposed arms control treaties, diplomacy in most forms, and international institutions of all varieties. He is reliably paleoconservative. But does that make him a reliable narrator of his own story as well?

The picture Bolton paints of the Trump administration is a familiar one. We’ve been treated to a succession of tell-all accounts of the horror that has been Donald Trump’s tenure as president: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s A Very Stable Genius, even A Warning by Anonymous. Each one has added a little more paint to the Hieronymus Bosch picture of the presidency: monsters, unspeakable acts, darkness, and chaos.

Other than a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with atrocity, why is yet another account necessary, and from such a potentially unreliable narrator as John Bolton to boot?

The critics of Bolton’s trustworthiness have a point. But Bolton’s unreliability resides not so much in his ideology as his opportunism.

As a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy,” he’ll do whatever it takes to attain power. He has a terminal case of Washingtonitis: he thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and he reeks of entitlement. He entered the Trump administration not as a true believer in Trump, only a true believer in himself. His book not surprisingly portrays John Bolton as the only person in the Trump administration with any sense at all.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Bolton’s so-called revelations.

Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Taking China Off the Table

Foreign policy will not likely be the tipping point for the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s base generally doesn’t care what happens beyond America’s borders (except to keep it beyond America’s borders). And the anti-Trump camp just wants to get rid of the president, regardless of what he has done in the international arena.

Still, Trump is running on his foreign policy record. For instance, he has been busy trying to portray his opponent, Joe Biden, as somehow pro-China. “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly,” Trump tweeted back in April. “They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”

Then came the ad campaign that portrayed “Beijing Biden” as “China’s puppet” who favors engagement with Beijing without caveats and Biden’s son as the beneficiary of sweetheart deals with the Chinese. The Trump ads slam China for its handling of the coronavirus and suggest that Biden would have fumbled the U.S. response out of deference to Beijing (uh, sound familiar?).

The inconvenient truth, however, is that Trump, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “has been China’s stooge, a sycophantic flatterer and enabler of President Xi Jinping.”

In fact, Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump, not so much because of this sycophancy, but because Trump has been busy upending U.S. alliances that have constrained Chinese geopolitical influence. The trade disputes are an irritant, but China can’t expect Joe Biden to be any easier to deal with on that score. Four more years of Trump, on the other hand, would mean four more years of the ebbing of U.S. engagement in world affairs.

As Trump and Biden escalate their China-bashing, along comes Bolton. No friend of Beijing, the national security advisor is appalled at Trump’s exchanges with Xi Jinping. In one such conversation, Trump effectively signs up the Chinese leader as an in-kind contributor to his reelection campaign. Bolton had to excise Trump’s actual words from his book, but Vanity Fair has filled in the blanks:

According to an unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair by a source, Trump’s ask is even more crudely shocking when you read Trump’s specific language. “Make sure I win,” Trump allegedly told Xi during a dinner at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan last summer. “I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms.… Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.

Trump was, of course, impeached for attempting the same strategy with Ukraine.

The other shocking revelation from Bolton’s book is Trump’s response to China’s construction of “re-education” camps for the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. It’s not simply that Trump ignored China’s action, as he contends, to ensure that trade negotiations moved forward. According to Bolton, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

An American president encouraged another country to engage in a massive human rights violation?

True, American presidents have given the green light to such things in the past: Sukarno’s slaughter of suspected Communists in Indonesia in 1965, Pinochet’s coup and subsequent crackdown on Allende supporters in Chile in 1973, the Salvadoran government’s widespread human rights violations in the 1980s. Horrifying as these atrocities were, American conservatives could rationalize U.S. support for these dictatorships because they were U.S. allies.

But China? That’s going to be a difficult sell for an electorate that’s already been primed, by the Trump administration itself, to demonize Beijing.

So, in effect, the Bolton book has removed China from the 2020 election campaign. Trump will think twice about accusing Biden of cozy ties with Beijing when the Democrats can literally throw the book (Bolton’s, that is) at the president.

Impeachment: Not Dead Yet

Trump loves to play the role of a cornered badger that emerges triumphant in the end. Impeachment would have given an ordinary politician pause. Trump simply held up the Senate’s failure to convict as exoneration, despite all the damning evidence produced by the whistleblower and the subsequent Mueller investigation.

The Democrats wanted Bolton to testify during the hearings. He refused to do so voluntarily. Later, he said that he would testify before the Senate if it issued a subpoena. The Republicans, with the exception of Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), voted against calling additional witnesses.

Bolton argues in his book that the Democrats made a mess of the impeachment inquiry. Yet, he could have corroborated the charge of collusion with Ukraine and provided evidence of impeachable offenses in other realms of foreign policy. He didn’t do so.

Now, of course, some Republicans are saying that it would have been better for Bolton to have testified before Congress rather than save his revelations for now. “One of the things about making allegations in a book for $29.95 — certainly it’s going to be a best-seller I’m sure — the problem is that when you’re selling it in a book, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be cross-examined,” Tim Scott (R-SC) recently said.

If Scott and one other Republican had simply voted for additional witnesses, they could have made that happen. And they could have saved themselves the cost of buying Bolton’s book.

In the end, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the final votes on impeachment. Except for Romney, the Republicans were unwilling to break with the president.

Bolton’s book, however, is disinterring all the issues surrounding impeachment and in a light unfavorable to the president. Bolton confirms the infamous quid pro quo — military assistance in exchange for an investigation into the Ukraine dealings of Biden’s son — that Trump discussed in a phone call with the Ukrainian president and that was flagged by a whistleblower. “Nor, at the time, did I think Trump’s comments in the call reflected any major change in direction; the linkage of the military assistance with the Giuliani fantasies was already baked in. The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall,” Bolton writes.

Before you shell out $29.95 for the book (actually $32.50 list price), you might wait to see if Congress drags Bolton back to tell his story. This week, Adam Schiff (D-CA) hinted that he might depose the former national security advisor before the House Intelligence Committee.

Who knows? Trump might have to reckon with a second impeachment hearing as he heads into November.

The Benefits of Being Bolton

Bolton predictably criticizes Trump for not being sufficiently hawkish. The president wanted to withdraw troops from the Middle East. He wanted to make nice with North Korea. He had the gall to prioritize trade with China.

From a progressive point of view, that makes Bolton an unreliable narrator. Maybe he was tweaking the facts to make himself look stalwart and wise at the expense of a slow-witted, insufficiently martial president.

But here’s the thing: Bolton hasn’t written anything in his book that contradicts other accounts of the presidency. There was plenty of evidence of the quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump did not hide his admiration for Xi Jinping. The president is obsessed with getting re-elected, not because he particularly likes his job but because he must prove that he is a winner.

What makes Bolton’s observations most valuable is not their novelty or their acuity but his credentials as a hawk’s hawk. His book isn’t going to make any Democrats or independents or moderate Republicans change their minds about Trump. But it will introduce some doubts into hardcore conservative supporters. They might not publicly renounce the president. Like Bolton himself, they might not even pull the lever for the Democratic candidate.

But they might decide, because of Bolton, to stay home on November 3, just like so many Republicans decided not to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa this last weekend.

And that, ultimately, is what really puts the fear of Bolton into the Trump reelection campaign.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2020

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Articles China Featured

Conservatives Are Comparing Racial Justice Protestors to Maoists

In their effort to transform their discomfort with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests into a superficially sophisticated critique, right-wing “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have latched onto a dubious historical analogy.

When former congressman Newt Gingrich, the National Review’s David Harsanyi, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and other right-wingers look at the protests against police violence, they see the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, turned China upside down. Initially instigated by Mao Zedong to outflank his more liberal opponents, the Cultural Revolution drew millions of young people into a bewildering assortment of Red Guard factions that purged “reactionary” elements from institutions, destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, and even fought pitched battles against each other. As Mao quickly lost control over the movement, the Red Guards threw China into such chaos that even the country’s nuclear weapons complex was at risk.

The Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, resulted in at least a million deaths, and led to the destruction, in Beijing alone, of nearly 5,000 of the city’s 6,800 officially designated sites of historical interest.

Keep that in mind as you read what Joel Pollak, an editor-at-large at Breitbart, has to say:

Black Lives Matter” has become America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution — a radical, youth-led purge of the vestiges of traditional culture and authority within a one-party state.

In this case, the one-party system is the “blue archipelago” of Democrat-run cities, most of which have not had Republican leaders for decades, and likely never will again.

But whereas China’s radicals helped Mao consolidate power, Black Lives Matter may destabilize the entire country.

The most striking similarity between the two movements is the ritual humiliation of individuals seen to represent “the system.” Mobs of demonstrators have marched up to police and demanded that they kneel with them, or to them. Some officers, in a bid to defuse tensions, have obliged.

What a fascinating set of comparisons.

Only a white conservative born in South Africa would equate the traditional culture of ancient temples with statues of white racists. The United States is a one-party state, oops, can’t say that, since the Republicans control the executive and the Senate, so Pollak immediately pivots to something very different, a “blue archipelago” of cities, even though #BlackLivesMatter protests took place in plenty of “red archipelago” towns and cities as well: Wilmington (North Carolina), Odessa (Texas), Grand Island (Nebraska), and dozens of other places that voted for Trump and have sent Republicans to Congress.

The Red Guards didn’t help Mao consolidate power because they in fact destabilized the entire country. But Pollak has to make out that the current U.S. protestors are worse, so the former helped a dictator while the latter “may destabilize the entire country.” But wait, isn’t the United States already destabilized by a pandemic and an economic collapse?

And now for the only concrete comparison, which revolves around ritual humiliation. The Red Guards put dunce caps on their professors and leading cultural figures and forced them to engage in self-criticism sessions. It was quite easy to do that, since the Red Guards had larger numbers and sometimes weapons as well and their opponents were unarmed. Today’s protestors, meanwhile, are the unarmed ones, and they face the armed representatives of the state, who don’t have to defer to the protestors if they don’t want to.

No one has placed dunce caps on their heads. When they kneel, they do so out of actual solidarity, which probably troubles Pollak a good deal more than the imaginary humiliation, or else in a cynical play for the cameras.

Statues and Op-Eds

If it were just one crazy Breitbart writer, it would be easy to dismiss the violence that Pollak has committed against the art of analogy. But various conservatives, libertarians, and even a “libertarian Marxist” have seized on the Cultural Revolution analogy — probably because they believe that any associations with China are by definition bad and no one really understands references to Jacobins and the French Revolution any more.

The Cultural Revolution comparisons usually fall into two categories. In the first, the analogists want to demonstrate that the current protestors aspire to expunge the past. In the second, they want to prove that the protestors aim to prohibit free speech.

In the bizarre UK magazine Spiked!, the editor and former Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill lays out the first kind of comparison:

Britain is in the throes of a Cultural Revolution. Statues are being tumbled, past art erased, people cancelled. Wide-eyed Woke Guards, heirs to Maoist-style intolerance, are compiling lists of monuments to target and individuals to humiliate. They are remorseless. Nothing old that runs counter to their newthink can be tolerated. Tear it all down.

Sounds pretty scary. What’s actually happened is that protestors have dumped one statue — of slave trader Edward Colston — into the drink and spray-painted “racist” on a statue of Winston Churchill. The UK is now having a discussion about history and how to commemorate it. That’s not exactly Cultural Revolution-style anarchy. Rather, it’s a rather commonplace occurrence.

Even the statue-toppling is more common than O’Neill suggests. It’s not like Stalin statues still look down on people throughout Eastern Europe. Statues of ruthless colonial oppressors were pulled down throughout Africa as part of the independence process. Oh, and what about Ozymandias, the once powerful King of Kings that the poet Shelley discovered as just a pair of legs in the sand?

In the second category, the analogists are particularly exercised by The New York Times backtracking on a Tom Cotton op-ed it published on June 3. In “Send in the Troops,” Senator Cotton (R-AR) urged the use of the U.S. military to quell the unrest surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“What you are seeing is Maoism, people who are supposed to be in public confess that they’ve been guilty, people who have to toe whatever the party line is,” opined Newt Gingrich on Fox News. “When we see an institution as famous and as powerful as The New York Times collapse totally in front of the mob, it tells you what’s going on in terms of American elites.”

The mob? The New York Times made its decision to retract Cotton’s op-ed because, first, it contained factual inaccuracies and language unbefitting The Gray Lady’s editorial page. Second, it received pushback from its own staff.

The editors concluded, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.”

And unlike Maoist China, the Times published several pieces — by Brett Stephens and Ross Douthat — that supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed.

None of that has stopped the National Review’s David Harsanyi from concluding during the Cotton affair that “we’re in the dawn of a high-tech, bloodless Cultural Revolution; one that relies on intimidation, public shaming, and economic ruin to dictate what words and ideas are permissible in the public square.”

Now, if Harsanyi were talking about the impact of the Koch brothers on public debate in the United States — trying to intimidate and publicly shame money in politics journalist Jane Mayer in an attempt to stop her investigations, spending millions of dollars to dictate acceptable discourse — then maybe he’d be on to something.

Which leads us to a much more apt Cultural Revolution analogy.

Trump Plays Mao

A powerful leader appeals to a group of crazy, gun-toting followers to go after his political opponents. He pits the anarchy of the mob against the level-headed policies of experts and sensible politicians.

Definitely Mao.

But also Donald Trump.

When militia members showed up outside state capitols and the houses of governors to protest stay-at-home measures, the solidly Republican head of the National Association of Manufacturers called them “IDIOTS.” In a video call, Jay Timmons continued, “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes. And they have no concern, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about what they want.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the protests. He called on his followers to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. For Virginians, he had an extra message: “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The Second Amendment pertains to the right to keep and bear arms.

When the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death overwhelmed the anti-quarantine actions, Trump displayed the other side of Mao by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. military to suppress the demonstrations. Tom Cotton’s vocal support for the action notwithstanding, Trump got serious pushback from former generals and active duty military. Thanks to Pentagon chief Mark Esper refusal to support Trump’s move, America was saved from a Tiananmen Square scenario.

Rebuffed, Trump has retreated to his previous position of backing America’s version of the Red Guard. Marjorie Taylor Greene is running for Congress in Georgia on the Republican Party ticket. If she wins — and she has a very good chance — she’ll be the first member of Congress to believe in the QAnon conspiracy (think: “deep state” times crazy). In June, she posted a video of herself wielding a semi-automatic and a message for “Antifa terrorists to stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” Trump endorsed her and then congratulated her for winning the recent primary.

After The Washington Post recently published an unflattering profile of her, Greene tweeted, “The Chinese propagandists at the Washington Post are attacking me the same way they attack Donald Trump, and other conservatives.”

I always knew that the 2020 elections were going to feature some back and forth about China. But I never could have imagined Donald Trump as Mao teaming up with Republican wackos in the garb of the Red Guards to fight the reformers who are trying to save the country from a lacerating Cultural Revolution.

And conservative pundits have the gall to twist the very same analogy into a pretzel to throw against their enemies?

Only in Trump’s through-the-looking-glass America.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 17, 2020

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Emperor Trump Now Stands Partially Naked

A child exposing the nakedness of the emperor by speaking truth to power?

Not these days.

More than half of the United States — not just liberals and the left but also the mainstream media and some Republicans — has been shouting at Emperor Trump for months on end that he has no clothes. These declarations have fallen on deaf ears, for Donald Trump is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging his own flaws.

Also, there are still plenty of people telling Trump what he wants to hear. The president is surrounded by family members, advisors, and careerists who have refused to acknowledge the simple truth that the White House has been occupied for more than three years by a person that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once called King Moron (oops, I misquote: he actually said a “f**king moron”).

In the last week, however, this picture has begun to change. Three important clothiers of the president have said that maybe the commander-in-chief has been experiencing a wardrobe malfunction all along.

Twitter, Justin Trudeau, and James Mattis all took their turns in the spotlight recently to challenge the American president. Representing three important constituencies — social media, the Pentagon, and the international community — all three in their own way have chipped away at Trump’s power.

True, they have all provided important cover for the naked leader in the past. Also, their statements could have been clearer calls to arms. But now, all three can help precipitate the “run for the exit” moment that will spell Trump’s downfall.

We’ll have to wait until November to be sure, but the president might have effectively lost his reelection bid this month, well before Election Day.

Social Media

Donald Trump once wooed the mainstream media. He chatted up gossip columnists. He pretended over the phone that he was his own publicist, singing the praises of his boss. He so desperately wanted to be on the cover of Time that he created dummy versions of the magazine proclaiming that “Trump is hitting on all fronts” and hung them in at least five of his golf clubs. Throughout, he groused that the media was not sufficiently flattering.

Twitter provided Trump with the ideal solution to his chronic need for attention. He no longer had to rely on the media and instead could communicate directly to his followers. He could simultaneously disparage the mainstream media as “fake news” and dispense his own fake news by tweet.

In the first three years of his presidency, Trump fired off more than 11,000 tweets. Many of them were rambling attacks on his opponents (somehow Trump manages to be rambling in under 280 characters). But some of them were actual policy announcements or served some other tactical purpose.

Twitter wasn’t simply a tool of the presidency. It became the presidency.

According to this New York Times analysis of this incessant Twitterstorm:

Early on, top aides wanted to restrain the president’s Twitter habit, even considering asking the company to impose a 15-minute delay on Mr. Trump’s messages. But 11,390 presidential tweets later, many administration officials and lawmakers embrace his Twitter obsession, flocking to his social media chief with suggestions. Policy meetings are hijacked when Mr. Trump gets an idea for a tweet, drawing in cabinet members and others for wordsmithing. And as a president often at war with his own bureaucracy, he deploys Twitter to break through logjams, overrule, or humiliate recalcitrant advisers and pre-empt his staff.

Twitter has helped Trump. And Trump has helped poison Twitter.

Although the social media giant has had no problem deleting praise for the Islamic State, it hasn’t shown comparable due diligence toward white nationalism. According to an account of a discussion at a Twitter staff meeting, a technical employee explained that “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material. Banning politicians wouldn’t be accepted by society as a trade-off for flagging all of the white supremacist propaganda.”

With the compliance of social media platforms, Trump and his coterie of Republican extremists have helped to mainstream otherwise marginal content.

But that tide might be turning. At the end of May, Twitter took the unprecedented step of labeling two of Trump’s tweets, directing readers to accurate sources of information on mail-in balloting and announcing that Trump had violated its policies on glorifying violence. Then, last week, Twitter took down an account that retweeted all of Trump’s utterances, again for violating its policies.

Trump, predictably, went ballistic. He lashed out on Twitter (the man is impervious to irony). He retaliated with an executive order to lift some of the liability protections on social media companies.

It’s not as if Trump is going to abandon his principle mode of communication. This last weekend, after all, he broke his own Twitter record by sending out 200 Tweets in a 24-hour period, including 74 in one hour. By increasing the outflow of his firehose, Trump seems to be daring Twitter to keep up with its labels.

Twitter hasn’t deplatformed Trump, as it has some other darlings of the alt-right. It let slide Trump’s latest Twitter outrage — promoting a conspiracy theory about a Buffalo protestor injured by the police — because the use of a question mark marked it as “speculative” (Really? Really??).

But with its labels, Twitter is finally saying that no one is above the law — the admittedly loose laws of the internet — not even the president of the United States.

Justin Trudeau

In the United States, we are still talking about the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a cop knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him.

In Canada, they’re talking about 21 seconds.

That’s the pause that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to answer a question on Trump’s threat to use the military against those protesting Floyd’s death. Trudeau could have used that time to criticize Trump directly. Instead, after his long pause, he chose to speak of the problems facing people of color in his own country. “There is systemic racism in Canada,” he said.

Trump has never hesitated to lambaste other heads of state. He called Trudeau “two-faced” as well as “very dishonest and weak.” He labeled comments by Emanuel Macron “very, very nasty.” He criticized comments of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen as “nasty and inappropriate.” With comments about friends like these, you can imagine how Trump tongue-lashes his enemies.

For the most part, the international community has quietly tolerated Trump. They’ve delivered tersely worded rebuttals. They’ve made fun of him behind his back. But they haven’t directly or personally criticized him.

Given the power of the United States, it’s unlikely that the leader of an allied country will take the president to task. So, perhaps the best we can hope for is 21 seconds of silence, during which the rest of us can voice the thoughts we think are going through Justin Trudeau’s mind.

Maybe it’s because I worked for a Quaker organization for many years, but I think that sometimes silence can speak volumes.

James Mattis

Former Pentagon chief Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis was one of the more prominent “adults in the room” who were supposed to rein in Trump. He failed. He resigned in December 2018 after disagreeing with Trump’s push to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. When he resigned and later when he published his memoir the following year, Mattis kept his thoughts on Trump to himself.

Last week, Mattis broke his silence with a remarkable statement in The Atlantic criticizing the president’s threatened use of the military against protesters. He said, in part:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.

In all my years as a protester, I have never witnessed someone of Mattis’s background and standing actually side with folks on the street. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation,” he said.

It wasn’t just Mattis. Former chair of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen wrote a similar condemnation of Trump as did former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan John Allen. It was the journalistic equivalent of D-Day, with the generals landing their forces on Omaha Beach in the hopes of dethroning their adversary several months hence.

Yes, yes, I know: Mattis, Mullen, and Allen are no leftists. You can’t even call them liberals or moderates. Andy Kroll is right to point out in Rolling Stone that these are “the same military leaders who endorsed and defended a policy of forever war that has led to tens of thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans and Syrians and Yemenis and Pakistanis, hundreds of thousands of injuries physical and mental suffered by U.S. service members, and many billions of taxpayer dollars poured into endless conflict.”

Kroll is both right and spectacularly off the mark. After all, Donald Trump similarly dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of Joe Biden by linking him to America’s failed wars.

The fact that these old establishment figures have blood on their hands is precisely the point. Noam Chomsky denouncing Donald Trump is not news. Everyone expects the leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to criticize the president. I’ve been slamming Trump from day one of his presidency (and many months before), but I doubt my preaching goes very far beyond the choir.

All the attacks on Trump from left and center are what journalists call “dog bites man.” It’s no surprise. But “Mad Dog bites man”? That’s a different story altogether.

The military has been the most trusted institution in U.S. society for decades. According to Gallup, it enjoyed a 73 percent approval rating in 2019 — compared to 38 percent for both the presidency and the Supreme Court, 36 percent for organized religion, and 11 percent for Congress.

People listen to the military. And by people, here I mean folks who voted for Donald Trump, continue to support the president, and are still thinking about voting for him in November.

As importantly, these generals are willing to take enemy fire — from Fox News, from crazy Internet trolls, from the president himself—so that other former Trump enablers might be more willing to stand up and speak their minds.

Immediately after Mattis waded into the debate, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) confessed her concerns about Trump and said that she hasn’t made up her mind about who to support in November. Francis Rooney, a Republican member of Congress from Florida, is now leaning toward Biden. A number of prominent Republicans won’t vote for Trump, but they also are reluctant to say so in public.

This doesn’t exactly constitute a surge. A solid core of the party remains firmly behind the president. The more telegenic version of Trump, Tom Cotton (R-AR), is enjoying a swell of support after The New York Times criticized its own handling of the senator’s incendiary and inaccurate piece, “Send in the Military.” So far, Mattis has not played the role of the journalist Edward R. Murrow taking down the demagogue Joe McCarthy.

But you have to believe that statements from Mattis and others are at least going to introduce an element of doubt into the minds of some true believers. Active duty soldiers and veterans who voted for Trump — he received 61 percent of the veteran vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 34 percent — might just heed the generals. And the latest polls suggest that both older Americans and white Americans are starting to abandon Trump.

I don’t expect Mitch McConnell or Tom Cotton to denounce Trump. Much of the Republican Party will loyally follow the president into his White House bunker. But thanks to the truth-telling of Mattis and others, everyone else will be laughing all the way to the polls at the emperor stripped bare by his enablers.

June 10, 2020, Foreign Policy In Focus

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

The Descent of America

Complaints about American decline have been commonplace since at least the Vietnam War era.

In the late 1980s, declinism experienced an upsurge with the publication of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, which warned of the dangers of imperial overstretch. Even America’s putative victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War represented only a minor lull in the chatter about the erosion of U.S. status relative to other countries, particularly a rising China.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the grumbling over America’s crumbling usually spikes around the release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial infrastructure report card.

In 2017, the ASCE awarded America a D+ for the state of its roads, bridges, schools, parks, and public transportation. The grade was no surprise to many Americans. “This is an advanced economy?” people ask themselves as they wait for a broken-down bus, hit a pothole on the highway, turn away from the undrinkable water coming out of their taps, or drop their child at a school that’s just a few steps away from being condemned.

In U.S. schools, D is unsatisfactory but still officially passing. In terms of infrastructure, the United States teeters perilously on the edge of failure.

In the last few months, however, America has gone over the edge. The country has quickly, recklessly, impulsively entered the failure zone.

First, there’s the failure of leadership. The country has been ruled for the last three years by a corrupt, incompetent, would-be dictator who, when faced with a spate of crises, has proven spectacularly unfit for the job.

Second, there’s the failure to protect American lives. More than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a level of death generally seen only in wartime.

Third, there’s the failure of the American dream. The economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate has surged to nearly 20 percent.

Finally, there’s the chronic failure of American racism. In the last week, people have taken to the streets to protest the death of yet another African American at the hands of the police. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis handcuffed George Floyd on suspicion of forgery, pinned him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, and killed him. Floyd was one of over 7,500 people killed by the police since 2013.

Protestors are fed up with police profiling, targeting, and killing. But they are also outraged at the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic collapse on people of color. The anger is entirely understandable. “I can’t breathe” applies to victims of police violence and the coronavirus both.

The protests themselves are a sign of hope, notwithstanding the over 60,000 National Guard that have poured onto the streets in 24 states.

Also hopeful are the expressions of solidarity during these protests. Cops in a number of cities have gotten down on one knee with protestors. Several mayors, like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken truth to the power of the president. Here in Washington, the owner of a restaurant burned by looters said, “Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor. We have been through three months of being closed; we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”

And yet, if you add up the economic, political, social, and medical deficits, it’s hard to imagine calling America an advanced industrialized nation at the moment. It is extraordinary to see such a rapid loss of status in real time, as opposed to a time-lapse animation of the rise and fall of some ancient civilization. “I’ve seen this kind of violence,” a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia told The Washington Post. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse.”

The middle and upper classes may well be caught by surprise. But the current protests are a potent reminder that for a sizable portion of the American population, the country has never been advanced because they live in what Michael Harrington, nearly 60 years ago, called “the other America.”

Trump’s Racist Response

Donald Trump has always positioned himself as a law-and-order politician, even as his words and actions create disorder and violate laws.

He never possessed much if any empathy for victims of police violence. In response to George Floyd’s death, after a cursory expression of condolence, Trump quickly pivoted to deriding protesters, Democratic governors, “THUGS,” and the like. He promised that anyone who breached the White House fence would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He announced that he would declare the antifa movement a terrorist organization. He sounded like a minor-league dictator with his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Later, on a call with governors, he suggested that “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He added, “You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Despite Trump’s calls for law and order, the far right is actually cheering on the occasional violence of the protests because it feeds into their attempts to push the country into a race riot. Militia members, white extremists, and “boogaloo bois” want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “accelerate” the demise of liberal, multicultural America. They’ve even showed up at the protests against police violence and promoted their own violent actions online.

Militant disruptions of otherwise peaceful demonstrations ultimately advance this far-right agenda. Such violence also advances Trump’s agenda.

Following his own version of accelerationism, the president has done everything within his power to destroy the country from within, using hateful language, implementing polarizing policies, and seeming to revel in the chaos that his administration has fostered. Declaring some version of martial law to contain the chaos he has helped to create — but in reality to promote more chaos and himself as the only person to address it — may be the only hope he has at this point of gaining a second term in office.

As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times, “Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway.” Ultimately, though, it’s Trump himself who wants uncontested sway, and he thinks he can crowd-surf the unrest toward that goal.

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

There’s always been an element of racism to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

From day one, for instance, Trump favored predominantly white countries in his immigration policy, instituting a Muslim travel ban and denigrating “shithole countries” when “we should have more people from places like Norway.” He told four U.S. congresswomen — three of them born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He relishes blaming the coronavirus outbreak on “the Chinese,” knowing full well that his conspiracy theories feed into anti-Asian sentiment.

Of course, either money or nuclear weapons can turn a “shithole” country into a friend, with Trump cozying up to Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. That’s always been Trump’s modus operandi: he is truly race-blind when it comes to the powerful.

Donald Trump didn’t suddenly introduce racism into U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote back in January 2018, “Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like ‘shitholes’ even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.” Racism is reflected in U.S. budget priorities, in the minuscule size of foreign aid programs, in the pattern of U.S. interventions, in the racial composition of the U.S. Army’s “essential workers” (otherwise known as grunts), and even in the Pentagon’s militarization of domestic policing. Trump certainly didn’t create any of these dynamics, though he has often aggravated them.

Still, the current president’s elevation of racism is not simply rhetorical. There is method to his mania.

Trump is using racism as a tool to destroy whatever lingering commitment the United States has to liberal internationalism. The latter philosophy inspired Americans to help create the United Nations, launch the Peace Corps, administer foreign aid programs, and collaborate with other countries to fight global warming. This liberal internationalism has always had its defects, from paternalism to naivete. But it’s a damn sight better than the illiberal nationalism that Trump offers as an alternative.

Trump’s deployment of racism at home and abroad cuts the legs out from under liberal internationalism. No other country can take America’s human rights rhetoric seriously. No other country can accept America’s claim to impartiality as a broker of peace deals, climate deals, any deals. First put your own house in order, they will say.

Putting our own house in order has long been the motivation of U.S. social movements. Think of the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. They have also inspired human rights movements devoted to home improvement in countries around the world. Even today, the U.S. protests against police violence have inspired nearly 15,000 people to demonstrate in Paris, 10,000 demonstrators in Amsterdam, tens of thousands in Auckland, thousands in London and Berlin and throughout Australia.

U.S. support of human rights abroad can and should be an extension of these social movements. That’s something that Trump’s racism at home and attacks on liberal internationalism abroad threaten as well.

“Let’s hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers — from China, Russia, and even from Europe,” observes Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”

Unfortunately, Trump has his own ideas of how to put the American house in order up to and including burning the house down. The antidote to Trump’s racist nationalism is not less internationalism but more: rejoining the international bodies that Trump pulled out of, reentering the accords that Trump unsigned, patiently rebuilding U.S. engagement in the world on an equal basis.

Such a re-engagement has to go hand in hand with a difficult reckoning with America’s own racism, for the inequality perpetuated domestically mirrors the inequality maintained on a global scale.

Only in this way can America stop its descent and climb back into the community of nations.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

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Articles Featured Islamophobia

New Zealand: David Confronts Two Goliaths

After the election of Donald Trump, New Zealand became the go-to option for terrified Americans fantasizing about emigration. Three years later, New Zealand has burnished its reputation as a credible refuge by successfully confronting two epidemics that continue to plague the United States—one political, the other medical.

New Zealand’s most recent success has been its handling of the coronavirus. After seven weeks of an extraordinarily stringent lockdown—closed borders, suspended in-country travel, no takeout—the government has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at 1,500, with only 21 deaths. That’s 4.3 deaths per million, compared to 246 per million in the United States. Thanks to rigorous testing and an updated contact tracing system, New Zealand has brought its active caseload to below 100 (as of this writing).

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced further steps to open the economy so that Kiwis can once again visit restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms. The borders remain effectively closed, and Ardern promises to reimpose strict controls if cases spike. But few other democratic countries can claim this kind of success with so few casualties.

New Zealand has a couple of advantages over other countries. It’s a relatively small, isolated island nation with a very low population density. It has a strong social welfare system that even its conservatives support.

Perhaps most importantly, the government and the people were tested a year ago by a different kind of outbreak. New Zealand’s effective handling of the coronavirus was prefigured by its dramatic response to a right-wing murder spree in the country’s second-largest city.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist originally from New South Wales in Australia opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The shooter advertised his far-right credentials by titling his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which linked him to other anti-immigration extremists, including shooters in El Paso in 2019 and Pittsburgh in 2018, who believe that foreigners and immigrants are plotting to “replace” predominantly white majorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This ideology is integral to the epidemic of far-right violence that has gathered force worldwide over the last decade.

The Christchurch attacks were a surprise to many inside and outside of New Zealand. “This is an incredibly tolerant, multicultural country,” notes Paul Spoonley of Massey University in Auckland. “In an international value study, the proportion of New Zealanders who see immigrants as contributing positively to the country is probably two to four times higher that in countries in mainland Europe. To be anti-immigrant or against a particular religion is politically damaging.”

New Zealand’s current reputation for tolerance belies its history of discrimination against immigrants and the indigenous Maori. The country has also been home to a small but globally connected far-right community, which was implicated in several murders and more than 100 incidents of racist violence between 2005 and 2013.

Prior to 2019, the Muslim community repeatedly complained that the New Zealand authorities weren’t properly addressing Islamophobic threats. “It was taken quite lightly because we always believed that New Zealand was the safest place on earth, that things like that happen somewhere else,” observes Ikhlaq Kashkari, the president of the Muslim Association of New Zealand. “We were living with a false sense of security, even though we were getting more news every day from around the world about the promotion of Islamophobia.”

Christchurch itself was not immune to these trends. “When Christchurch emerged as having a problem, the defenses went up and local representatives said, ‘We’re not a racist city,’” says Rawiri Taonui, New Zealand’s first professor of indigenous studies. “There have been more racist incidents in Christchurch than pretty much anywhere in the country.”

Despite rising Islamophobia and a history of far-right organizing, the New Zealand authorities were not primed to look for a white man like the Christchurch shooter. “After 9/11, a number of people here suddenly labeled all the Muslim people of New Zealand who were living peacefully in the country as terrorists,” points out Meng Foon, New Zealand’s commissioner of race relations. “The New Zealand secret service targeted them more and, unfortunately, missed the shooter last year in Christchurch. They dropped the ball in terms of monitoring white supremacists.”

Such failures were on par with the performance of other countries. But New Zealand’s response after March 15 was something altogether different. Squarely addressing its failures, the Ardern government immediately and unequivocally responded to the Christchurch killings with an unusual combination of empathy for the victims and zero tolerance for the culture that nurtured the perpetrator’s hatred, all the while recognizing the need for cross-border coordination. As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of policy approach that paid off a year later when the coronavirus hit.

After March 15, Prime Minister Ardern demonstrated what leadership looks like. Following the example of the mayor of Christchurch, Ardern swiftly called the massacre “terrorism.” She donned a hijab and reached out to the Muslim community, refused to speak the name of the perpetrator, and introduced sweeping gun-control measures. She even went to the island of Fiji to console family members of those killed on March 15.

Ardern enjoyed broad support for these moves. Unlike in the United States, where repeated mass shootings have not led to substantial gun control, New Zealand outlawed automatic weapons “with widespread public support and universal parliamentary support (119 out of 120 MPs voted in favor),” Paul Spoonley notes. “There was some grumbling among those who go hunting that the ban had gone too far or was actioned too rapidly. Also, illegal weapons are not subject to registration and restrictions on sales. But we’re light years away from the United States.”

The government moved more forcefully to preempt right-wing violence, launching dozens of investigations into extremist groups and individuals, jailing a neo-Nazi who shared a video of the Christchurch killings, and arresting a Defense Force soldier with links to the far right. It has also pushed forward with a new effort to amend existing laws to outlaw hate speech. “If all the New Zealand government does is extend the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act, it will safely avoid curtailing free speech,” concludes Martin Cocker of Netsafe. Although such prohibitions against hate speech set New Zealand apart from countries like the United States, the state has to be careful not to simply ban unpopular opinions. “It’s very difficult to combat the kind of things we’re seeing online without creating measures that could very easily impinge on free speech,” Cocker notes.

Perhaps Ardern’s most ambitious project has been the Christchurch Call, “a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Only two months after the shootings, New Zealand joined France in pushing for change at the international level. “They knew that they were unlikely to drive global change on social media as a country of 5 million people far away from the main political centers in the US and Europe,” observes Matthew Feldman of the Centre for the Analysis of the Right Wing. “They put white nationalism very squarely on the UN General Assembly agenda.”

The big players—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—all signed on to the Call, committing to develop algorithms and AI tools to quickly identify and remove hateful content from their platforms. Any Kiwi who views extremist content online is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups. The Call also inspired Australia to pass a law that criminalizes social media companies that don’t expeditiously remove “abhorrent violent material.” That’s all to the good, but it hasn’t yet detoxified the Internet. The Call, which is nonbinding, has been limited in its impact given the “lack of alignment among countries and a lack of consistent pressure on multinationals,” Martin Cocker adds. “If the Christchurch Call moved to the point of achieving consistency among countries in terms of what they demand from industry, it could continue to have some influence.”

When the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty in late March, New Zealand was saved from the spectacle of a very public trial. “His guilty plea will likely reduce the priority of efforts to curb the far right,” Matt Nipert of The New Zealand Herald says. “My concern is that New Zealand still views him as a lone wolf, as one deranged individual, that it’s not our problem, that an Australian came here to do it. That’s true, but the problem is global. These groups operate across borders and see themselves as a brotherhood, not as citizens of a country. Someone did an analysis of who logs on to 8chan. You can’t see their identities, but you can see where they log on from, and New Zealand was very highly ranked.”

New Zealand was blindsided by the Christchurch killings last year and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, even though there was indeed some advance warning in both instances. Nevertheless, the Ardern government moved quickly to break the chain of infection through well-calculated, radical interventions. It showed zero tolerance by jailing right-wing extremists after March 15 and, during the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, demoting the health minister who blithely visited a beach. The government knows the battle, in both cases, is not over. It is continuing to monitor the coronavirus and right-wing extremism, because it understands that epidemics can recur.

Although the Covid-19 response has been more top-down, both efforts received overwhelming domestic support. Ardern’s approval rating rose to 51 percent a month after the Christchurch killings and has soared to 65 percent during the coronavirus crisis.

In both cases, too, New Zealand has recognized that it can’t fight these problems alone. It issued the Christchurch Call to spur international action against the spread of far-right ideology, and it has been cooperating regionally and internationally to address the coronavirus.

According to Meng Foon, the New Zealand government also learned from its initial mistake of ignoring the threat of white extremism. It was determined to make sure that its response to the coronavirus was fully inclusive. As a result, the virus has not had the kind of disproportionate impact on people of color so evident in the United States.

“I don’t think any person of color has died of Covid-19,” he notes. “Only about 4 percent of the total of those who contracted Covid-19 are Maori and Pacific Islander.”

For Ikhlaq Kashkari, the key commonality has been the quality of the social response. He chokes up when he remembers how many people came out to support mosques in the days after the Christchurch shootings. “People have gone out of their way to help each other as they did on March 15,” he says. “Our slogan here is: Stay home, stay safe, and be kind. Those three things explain it all.”

The Nation, May 25, 2020