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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

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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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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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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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Is Obama Running Again in 2020?

The U.S. presidential election in November will most likely pit current president Donald Trump against former vice president Joe Biden. These two elderly men have already begun to attack each other in speeches, in TV ads, and through their political surrogates. They are challenging each other’s fitness for office, their respective policy positions, and the advisors that surround them.

But the 2020 election will in fact revolve around a different figure entirely: former president Barack Obama.

Biden, who was Obama’s second-in-command, is unabashedly proud of the accomplishments of those eight years in office. He promises to return the country to the kind of stability and prosperity that the United States enjoyed at that time.

From day one in office, meanwhile, Donald Trump has sought to destroy as much of Obama’s legacy as he can. In the foreign policy realm, he unraveled the Iran nuclear deal, withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, and undermined the détente with Cuba, all signature Obama accomplishments. At home, he has tried to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the universal health care initiative known as Obamacare.

Trump has been determined to tear down Obama in an attempt to elevate himself. The reasons are obvious. The United States is in an economic depression with tens of millions of people suddenly out of work. More than 90,000 people have died of the coronavirus, and the pandemic shows no sign of disappearing from the country.

Trump doesn’t have a lot to show for his three years in office. He steadfastly refuses to take any responsibility for his catastrophic failures.

Instead, Trump is experimenting with putting the blame on China for everything. He has spread various conspiracy theories – that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab, that Beijing deliberate misled the world about the nature of the disease – to help shift the blame.

For domestic purposes, however, Trump needs an enemy closer to home. In November, after all, he is running against the Democratic Party, not the Chinese Communist Party.

For Trump’s base, Barack Obama is the perfect scapegoat. Many Trump supporters never believed that Obama was a legitimate president. They didn’t think he was born in the United States. They suspected that he was Muslim. And the racists in Trump’s base never accepted an African American president.

Trump has attempted to blame Obama for the U.S. lack of preparedness for COVID-19. “We inherited a lot of garbage,” Trump said. “They had tests that were no good.” The Obama administration actually had no tests, because COVID-19 didn’t exist until three years into Trump’s administration.

Trump accused the Obama administration of depleting stockpiles of essential equipment like ventilators, but in fact the Strategic National Stockpile was full of critical supplies, including ventilators. The Trump administration was simply slow in distributing those supplies to states in need.

Trump has argued that the Obama administration didn’t leave any kind of plan for dealing with a pandemic. In fact, Obama’s team prepared a detailed 69-page Pandemic Playbook. The Trump administration deliberately ignored it.

But the most outrageous charge that the Trump team has come up with in preparation for the November elections is “Obamagate.”

Over the last several weeks, Trump has elaborated yet another conspiracy theory to explain why his administration has been so incompetent and plagued by scandals. The Obama administration, he claims, was engaged in sabotaging the new administration from the very start. Obama did so, apparently, by directing the FBI to entrap incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. It also, Trump has alleged, illegally wiretapped his phone and planted a spy on his campaign staff. This was, according to Trump, “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!”

Needless to say, Trump is once again making things up. His own Justice Department has investigated the charges and concluded that there was no wiretap or spy embedded in the Trump campaign.

As for Flynn, he clearly engaged in violations in his dealings with both Russia and Turkey. He lied about the details of these conversations. And he pleaded guilty to the charges. Only recently, as a result of enormous pressure coming from Trump, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Justice Department would drop its case against Flynn, prompting Trump to claim his Obamagate claims vindicated.

Flynn is not yet off the hook. The judge presiding over the case has appointed a former prosecutor to effectively take up the Justice Department’s previous charges. As a result, Trump might ultimately regret his decision because this former prosecutor is beyond his control and may dig up even more damaging information about Flynn and the administration he briefly served in.

Trump wants his allies to pick up his Obamagate conspiracy theory and run with it. He is demanding that his congressional supporters launch an investigation and subpoena Obama to testify. He is demanding that his attorney general take another look at the FBI’s handling of the investigation into interference in the 2016 elections.

So far, at least, there is considerable reluctance, even among Trump allies, to support the president’s latest imaginary conspiracy. Neither South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham nor Attorney General Barr has given any credence to Obamagate.

Trump’s strategy all along has been to throw as many accusations as he can come up with at his opponents, with the hope that something will stick. After all, he made his name politically by pushing the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. It didn’t matter that Obama proved repeatedly that he’d been born in America.

Once again, Obama is at the center of American politics. During this year’s presidential campaign, Trump will attempt to prove that his upending of Obama’s accomplishments has benefited the country. Biden will argue that the United States has gone off the rails since Trump’s inauguration and the first step should be to put the train back on the tracks.

I hope that Obamagate never gains any traction outside of Trump’s narrow base. But Obama will cast a long shadow on the November election nonetheless. He remains more politically popular than either Trump or Biden. For Trump to have any chance to reelection, he has to drag down Obama’s reputation. So, expect the current president to continue to slam the previous president repeatedly between now and the presidential election. This campaign of mudslinging and baseless accusations is the scandal the media should focus on.

Hankyoreh, May 24, 2020

 

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Death and the Economy: A Dialogue

Welcome to Chewing the Fat, our weekly talk show here at WXYZ. 

Today, we have a special treat for you — two guests who will answer the question on everyone’s mind. Should we stay at home in virtual quarantine or should we head out the front door and reopen the economy?

The coronavirus pandemic is still claiming lives — nearly a thousand a day here in the United States. But other countries, like New Zealand, have effectively eradicated the disease. There is a huge disparity within countries as well, within states, even within cities. And some countries that have loosened their quarantine restrictions, like China and South Korea, have seen fresh outbreaks of the disease.  

Meanwhile, the global economy has taken a major hit. GDP has dropped deeper and faster than at any time since the Great Depression. Unemployment here in the United States stands at 15 percent and rising. People don’t know if they’ll keep their current jobs, get their old jobs back, ever get a job again. The government can print money to keep things going, but individuals can’t do that. A lot of us just don’t know how we’re going to pay the rent or get our next meal. 

Frank Jacobs is a Texas legislator, a businessman, and a vocal advocate of re-opening the economy. Frank, you’ve been talking about the Texas Solution. Tell us about that.

Frank Jacobs: I own a chain of 15 movie theaters across this great state of Texas. We opened up five of those this last weekend. This is what I told customers. I said: Take your mask off and relax. Breathe in some great buttery popcorn smells, watch a great movie, and just enjoy some time with your family. And that’s what I’ve been saying to people all over the state as part of what I call the Texas Solution. Here in Texas —

Cassandra Jones: Are you crazy?!

That’s our other guest, Cassandra Jones, an infectious disease specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. 

Cassandra: The number of coronavirus cases is rising in your state. And that’s even before your governor declared your reopening. And you’re not testing enough in Texas, not compared to other states and not compared to what you need to be testing in order to safely reopen the economy.

Frank: Well, let me tell you that in our movie theaters, we are taking every precaution and then some. Everyone will be six feet or more away from each other. We’ll be cleaning every surface. It will be a lot safer than going to the supermarket, where people get much closer to each other. We’ll be giving my employees their jobs back and safely providing some much-needed entertainment. If you don’t want to go see a movie, hey, that’s fine. But we’re providing an option for those of us who do.

Cassandra: You’re not talking drive-ins. If someone coughs or sneezes in your enclosed movie theater, the air will circulate any potential viruses to everyone else. And you’re not taking into account all the other interactions that take place because you’re opening up your movie theaters. In the parking lot. On the sidewalks. At the gas station where people are filling up their tanks. At the restaurants where they’re eating before or after the show.

Frank: With all respect, if we don’t start opening up the economy in these small ways, then there won’t be an economy left to reopen. Our approach here in Texas is very careful.

Cassandra: Your governor acknowledges that reopening the economy is going to cause deaths. And your lieutenant governor said that “there’s more important things than living.” He was talking about basically sacrificing lives — the lives of senior citizens, of people of color, of folks with preexisting health conditions — and for what? For making sure that the stock market goes back up? When it comes to the vulnerable members of our community, your Texas Solution sounds a whole lot like the Final Solution.

Frank: Now hold on there. No one is talking about sacrificing people. It’s the opposite. We’re talking about saving lives. Making sure that people have enough money to eat, to feed their children.

Cassandra: But more people are going to die as a result of the relaxation of restrictions. That’s a fact. Suddenly all the people who got bent out of shape about how there were going to be “death panels” because of the Affordable Care Act, now they’ve basically set themselves up as a death panel, deciding on how many people are going to live or die.

Frank: No one is talking about death panels. This is the right to life. Hey, listen, nearly 40,000 people die every year on America’s highways. It’s the leading cause of death for people under the age of 55. But we don’t ban cars. Instead we improve auto safety. We come up with better and better methods of reducing the risk of going out on the roads. And it works. Back in the 1970s, more than 50,000 people a year were dying in car accidents.

Cassandra: A car accident is not an infectious disease. Our models show that, even with the necessary interventions, we’ll have well more than 100,000 deaths in this country. If we relax those controls, the difference would be an order of magnitude.

For our non-scientific listeners, you’re talking about a million, yes? A million deaths.

Cassandra: That’s correct.

Frank: Other countries have been opening up around the world. They’ve taken a sensible approach that balances medical prudence and economic risk. Take a look at Europe. We’re 29 million people in Texas. We’re nearly twice the size of the Netherlands. About 40,000 Dutch have been infected, with over 5,000 dead. But here we’ve only had a little more than a thousand deaths and fewer than 40,000 infections. And, look, the Dutch opened up their primary schools and day care centers last month.

Cassandra: The countries you’re talking about have seen a substantial reduction in the infection rate. Netherlands has cut infections from over 1,000 a day to less than 300 a day. Italy was seeing over 6,000 new infections a day back in March. They’re now under 1,000 a day. The same with Spain, with Germany. These countries have much more robust systems of testing and contact tracing than we have in the United States. We are almost completely in the dark here in this country as to the real spread of this disease. In Europe, they’re operating in a much more information-rich environment.

Frank: Hats off to those Europeans. But here in America, we can make decisions for ourselves. We don’t need the state telling us what to do. We had a fellow here in Texas at Prestige Ameritech, the last domestic mask producer, who was all ready to restart production of N-95 masks way back in January. He notified the federal government, and they just blew him off. All that bureaucracy and red tape: it’s heartbreaking. Here in Texas, we know not to depend on government. We believe more in individual responsibility.

Cassandra: Individual responsibility? How about all those students on Spring Break partying and spreading the virus? Or that party last weekend in Ft. Worth where 600 people got together to shoot off fireworks and then started shooting each other? Most Americans are taking their responsibilities very seriously by staying home. But all it takes for an infectious disease to spread is a minority of the irresponsible.

Frank: But you don’t have a plan, do you? A plan to reopen the economy? If we listened to you, we’d all starve to death at home. Millions of us! That’s the order of magnitude I’m talking about.

Cassandra: We wait until the infection rate drops substantially. We wait until we have a robust testing and tracing system in place. We wait for more effective treatments, widespread antibody tests, and, ultimately, a vaccine.

Frank: Wait. Wait. Wait. A lot of us don’t have the luxury of waiting. You have a job, Ms. Jones, that you can no doubt do from home. You are in a comfortable place where you can wait. The rest of us depend on going back to factories, to running restaurants, to building houses.

Cassandra: I’m not saying that we can’t reopen the economy. I’m saying that we have to do so responsibly.

Frank: Well, here’s something to chew on. People die because of the economy all the time. They die in workplace accidents. They die commuting to work. They die because of air pollution caused by factories and cars and energy production. Every morning we get out of bed in the morning, we are taking a risk. Living is a risk.

Cassandra: That may be true. But some folks are at greater risks than others. The counties that are disproportionately African-American account for nearly 60 percent of the coronavirus deaths. In New York City, 70 percent of the essential workers are people of color.

Frank: Here in Texas, by opening up the state, we’re actually spreading that risk around!

Cassandra: You’re spreading the risk by spreading the disease.

Frank: You liberal types are always pointing to Sweden as the model the United States should be emulating. So, what about the Swedish model of tackling this pandemic? The government is full of social democrats and Greens. All lefty types. But there’s no lockdown. You can eat out at a restaurant. The schools remain open. Sure, there are some common-sense restrictions, like no gatherings larger than 50 people and no visits to nursing homes. They’ve had more deaths than neighboring Norway, which went for a complete lockdown. But the Swedes also haven’t ruined their economy.

Cassandra: But Sweden also has a very robust testing system. And contact tracing. They have a much stronger social safety net than we have here in the United States, with paid sick leave for workers. And people there complied with the voluntary distancing recommendations. What works for Sweden won’t work for Texas. Unless you’re planning to put in place a strong social safety net and rein in some of that good ol’ boy individualism.

Armed militia members in Texas are demonstrating around the state on behalf of non-essential businesses that want to open up.

Frank: Well, we’re definitely not sheep down here in Texas. Just because the government says something doesn’t mean it’s right. And I say that as a representative of government. The bottom line is that we can’t know for sure about my plan or anyone else’s plan unless we test them. You’re all for testing, right?

Cassandra: That’s not what I meant.

Frank: Every year more than 2,000 infants die in this state. That’s twice as many lives as the coronavirus has claimed. It doesn’t make any of us happy. We’ve reduced those numbers over the last decade, but we can’t get it to zero tomorrow. Everyone says that this virus is going to be with us for a long time. So, we have to figure out a way to live with it as well.

Cassandra: Or die with it.

Frank: Well, some people are going to die. But most of the deaths in Texas have been in nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants. The governor is sending surge response teams to those hotspots to contain them. It seems more sensible to me to focus attention on containing the hotspots than trying to keep everyone under house arrest.

Cassandra: You’re basically saying that old people, prisoners, and low-income workers are expendable. That’s a cruel and disgusting policy. And it’s not even effective. The virus doesn’t stay in hot zones. By opening up the state, you’re providing the virus with millions more hosts to infect. And that will mean a lot more deaths, and not just in institutional settings.

Frank: Look, the Pilgrims knew that some of them were going to die on the ships coming over here from England. The settlers of the westward expansion knew that some of them were not going to make it to California. And our soldiers knew that some of them were going to die defending democracy overseas. That’s what it means to be American. We take risks. Live free or die, right?

Cassandra: All of those people volunteered. They knew the risks. And when they took those risks, they weren’t endangering their whole community. Increasing exposure to the coronavirus is a whole different category of risk. My grandmother is not volunteering to fight overseas or drive a covered wagon across the Great Plains. But these new state directives put her at risk.

Frank: I wouldn’t recommend that your grandmother go out to see a movie any time soon. Or go to a restaurant. At-risk populations probably shouldn’t be taking the risks that you or I can take.

Cassandra: You still don’t see that these are not individual risks —

Frank: And you still don’t see the importance of individual choice —

Well, we’ve run out of time, folks. On this show and maybe in this country as well. We’re facing the greatest threat to America in a generation, in two or three generations, and we can’t figure out how to pull together and get the job done? 

This is not the America I know. But maybe the America I know just doesn’t exist anymore. 

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 13, 2020

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Who’s Responsible for America’s Coronavirus Fiasco?

Donald Trump said that he would make America number one again. And now the United States leads the world in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths. It is a dubious achievement.

How could this have happened? The United States is supposed to have one of the best medical systems in the world. The Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, is world-renowned for its expertise in infectious diseases. And the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on disaster preparedness.

As if this weren’t enough, the Trump administration had plenty of advance warning. This novel coronavirus emerged at the end of December in China. The first known case of the disease appeared in the United States on January 20. China was overwhelmed by the coronavirus in early February. South Korea was hit hard at the end of February and Italy at the beginning of March.

But it wouldn’t be until March 13 that Trump declared a national emergency.

The Trump administration even had plenty of warning from its own high-ranking officials. The intelligence community was preparing briefings for the president. The CDC created a structure for dealing with the new disease in early January. On January 18, Heath Secretary Alex Azar tried to talk to the president about COVID-19, but Trump only wanted to discuss when vaping products would be back on the market.

“Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it,” one official told The Washington Post.

On January 23, the World Health Organization released all the information about COVID-19 that was necessary to understand its potential global impact. Some members of the Trump administration, like Azar, tried to push the president to take the threat seriously. But others, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, saw opportunity in the epidemic gathering force in China. “I think it will help accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” Ross told the press.

Between the identification of the threat and his ultimate recognition of the seriousness of the problem, Trump wasted over two months. During that period, the president should have seen what was happening in other countries and applied the lessons learned. He should have marshalled the necessary resources to manufacture testing kits and distribute them widely. He should have put in place a robust contact tracing system. And he should have identified the weaknesses in the U.S. hospital system and sought to remedy them.

Trump is not solely responsible for the COVID-19 calamity in the United States. The virus caught many countries by surprise. But those that responded quickly and effectively managed to reduce the infection rate and, more importantly, the mortality rate. Around 220 people have died of the virus in South Korea, out of an infected population of 10,500: a 2 percent mortality rate. In the United States, over 23,000 have died out of nearly 600,000 infected, a mortality rate of 4 percent: near twice that of South Korea.

The U.S. governors who responded with appropriate urgency to the epidemic have avoided some of the worst impact. Washington was the first state to get hit hard, but it has successfully reduced the infection rate. California has kept the mortality rate to 3 percent.

But a number of governors and many Republican lawmakers in Washington, DC were as cavalier as Trump in their approach to this outbreak. Early on, several of these politicians dismissed COVID-19 as a hoax to undermine the Trump presidency. In mid-March, influential Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Ca) was still dismissing fears of infection by saying “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.”

Trump managed to avoid impeachment despite his blatant unconstitutional actions. Because of the collapse of the U.S. economy, he may well lose the presidential election in November.

But could he also be held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans?

When asked by the press whether Trump has “blood on his hands,” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden responded, “I think that’s a little too harsh.”

But others are more willing to investigate the president’s culpability. Glenn Kirschner, a long-time federal prosecutor, believes that Trump will have to face a number of gross negligence suits once he is no longer protected by the Oval Office. “I actually think he will see charges brought in each jurisdiction in which people have died as a result of his gross negligence,” Kirschner argues. “So I have a feeling that he has got a lot of criminal legal exposure coming at him beginning in January 2021.”

Of course, such suits would not be the only charges that Trump would face on leaving office. He could face charges of obstruction of justice stemming from the impeachment proceedings. He could face various charges of financial impropriety connected to the profits his business concerns made during his presidency. He might even face charges internationally for violating human rights conventions in his treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Trump is well aware of his vulnerability once he leaves office. That’s why he will fight as hard as he can, and as dirty as he can, to win re-election in November. He has continued to lie about his actions and even about his own previous statements. He denied saying, for instance, that he didn’t believe governors needed all the medical equipment they were requesting and that he wouldn’t return the calls of governors whom he didn’t like, even though both statements are in the public record.

He has systematically dismissed the oversight mechanisms that could expose his administration’s fraud and wrongdoing.

He is doing what he can to suppress voter turnout, for instance by calling into question the legitimacy of absentee ballots. He has even admitted that if more people vote, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

He will try to restart the U.S. economy as soon as possible regardless of the human cost. Indeed, Trump is singularly focused on the elections and saving his own political skin – not on saving the lives of Americans.

If Trump wins in November, he could again use presidential immunity to escape justice. If he loses, he might just try to stay in office anyway. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time he would violate the law or disregard the rules and principles of democracy.

Hankyoreh, April 19, 2020

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A Global Green New Deal Could Defeat the Far Right—And Save the Planet

The best way to fight the rising far right is to go green. That’s what dozens of academics, researchers, and activists told me over the course of 80 interviews this year.

Over the last decade, the radical right has come to power in the United States, Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. It has joined forces with autocrats in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Thailand to create a new illiberal ecosystem. Together, they are challenging the rule of law, democratic governance, and the gains made by social movements that have expanded the rights of women and minorities.

The radical right has appealed to all those who feel threatened by the more rapid movement of capital and people across borders. The center parties that have pushed this project of globalization have lost at the polls, while the left has failed to articulate a clear alternative.

Yet despite its political successes, the radical right has an Achilles’ heel. It has no credible response to the most urgent threat facing the planet: the current climate crisis.

For the last couple years, radical right leaders like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have ignored climate change and boosted support for extractive industries like oil and coal. Thanks to Trump, the United States is the only country to pull out of the Paris climate deal. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, reneged on Brazil’s offer to host this year’s climate confab, which is has just wrapped up in Madrid instead.

Despite these ostrich moves by Trump and Bolsonaro, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

According to the most recent UN report, the world has utterly failed to restrain carbon emissions despite dire warnings from the scientific community. The two biggest offenders, the United States and China, actually increased their carbon emissions last year. The scientific consensus is that the world must execute a much faster pivot away from fossil fuels.

The radical right doesn’t have a plan to reduce carbon emissions. One wing of the movement continues to deny that there even is a crisis. The other wing is focused on dealing with only the demographic effects of the climate crisis—by proposing higher walls to keep out a future wave of climate refugees.

By comparison, the various Green New Deals on the table offer a comprehensive response that addresses the scale of the problem.

The U.S. version offered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) proposes significant investments in making America’s infrastructure and transportation carbon-neutral. The Europeans and Canadians are pushing similar plans in parallel. The government in New Zealand, meanwhile, unveiled a “wellbeing budget” this year that also combines a reduction in carbon emissions with improving the livelihoods of those left behind by globalization.

A massive transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy is not only sensible from an environmental point of view. It also addresses the insecurity so many people feel about their economic future in an era of automation and downsizing. The Green New Deal—like its earlier World War II-era cousin, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dea —promises to be a major job creation program.

And not just for the Global North.

A major transfusion of money into the Green Climate Fund would help the Global South leapfrog over existing dirty technologies. By providing jobs in countries currently experiencing economic crisis throughout the Global South, these GNDs would also reduce the massive displacement of people who would otherwise be forced to migrate to find new opportunities—or more habitable land—abroad.

The current global economic system is clearly broken, which has opened the way for a global far-right reaction. By contrast, the Green New Deal offers a set of principles of sustainability that can help restructure the global economy so that it helps people and the planet—while undermining the far right’s appeal.

The radical right has won elections by ramping up fear: of others, of the future, of do-nothing government. It’s time to turn that around and revive a politics of hope.

The 80 people I talked to pointed to the student climate strikes as the most promising movement at the moment. But as those students understand better than their elders, there’s no politics without a planet. A Global Green New Deal is perhaps out last best hope to save that planet.

Newsweek, December 17, 2019

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Impeachment’s Effect on Trump’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. Congress. He has committed a range of potentially impeachable offenses. But the Democrats have decided to focus the impeachment investigation on one aspect of the president’s foreign policy. Trump tried to persuade a foreign government, Ukraine, to dig up evidence of corruption connected to one of his Democratic challengers, Joe Biden. This is a direct violation of campaign finance laws.

Trump has not tried to deny his actions. He released a partial transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president, which he continually described as “perfect” even though it provided sufficient evidence of his wrongdoing to warrant an investigation. The very next week, Trump turned around and asked China to also help in investigating Biden and his son Hunter. And instead of following the rule of law and cooperating with Congress, Trump has instructed everyone in the administration to refuse to testify and ignore any subpoenas. This is a clear case of obstruction.

So, Trump is not letting the impeachment inquiry alter his approach to foreign policy. He has continued his highly personalistic approach of reaching out to leaders and making the deals that best help not the United States or U.S. allies but Trump’s own political and economic standing. He continues to focus on using his foreign connections to improve his chances in the 2020 elections. He still hopes to get a Nobel Peace Prize for a successful deal (for instance, with North Korea). And he is still making baffling decisions in an effort to keep favored autocrats on his side.

Consider his recent phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Against the advice of many in his administration, Trump agreed to withdraw U.S. military personnel in northern Syria and effectively gave Turkey the green light to launch cross-border attacks on Syrian Kurds. Even Trump’s Republican Party supporters in Congress were aghast at the president’s willingness to abandon the Kurds, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Why does Trump do what Erdogan wants him to do? In addition to wanting to avoid a conflict with a NATO ally, Trump argues for ending U.S. wars and bringing U.S. soldiers home. That is certainly popular among U.S. voters these days. But then, shortly after the announced withdrawal from Syria, Trump authorized the deployment of an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia (on top of the 1,000 troops sent earlier in October). In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria.

Taken together, Trump’s moves provide more evidence that his foreign policy is focused on rolling back Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief adversary in the region, and the two countries are fighting what amounts to a proxy war in Yemen. Trump might see Turkey, predominantly Sunni, as a potential ally against Iran, although Ankara and Tehran have increased their cooperation in recent years.

Before the impeachment scandal broke, Trump seemed to be exploring ways of resolving various disputes with Iran – for instance, through the good offices of Pakistani leader Imran Khan. But bringing the regime in Tehran to heel has been a more consistent obsession of Trump’s.

Perhaps the president is figuring that whichever way the Iran crisis goes, it will distract attention from the impeachment hearings. If Trump manages to resolve tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, then he can present himself as an indispensable peacemaker – and make the case that Congress should stop its impeachment “witch hunt” for national security reasons. If all attempts at peacemaking fail, Trump can lead the country into a war with Iran – and rely on the rally-around-the-flag effect to bolster his reelection prospects.

For the time being, Trump is emphasizing his capabilities as a dealmaker. “We have a lot of countries in a very good position right now, despite the ‘witch hunt,’ which hurts our country and it hurts America,” he has said. “But Iran wants to do something. North Korea wants to do something, and China would like to do something.”

Foreign policy has gotten the president into hot water. Now he is emphasizing that foreign policy will save his presidency. But it’s not clear whether other countries will cooperate.

Trump has been continually promising a trade deal with China. A partial agreement is now in place that suspends a U.S. tariff hike in exchange for Beijing buying some more U.S. agricultural products and promising to address issues of intellectual property rights. China knows that the U.S. president is increasingly desperate to show some sign of progress in trade negotiations – to calm the U.S. stock market and strengthen his claim that U.S. economic health depends on his presence in the White House. But Beijing also knows that impeachment and the 2020 elections increase its leverage. So, it’s not going to agree to just anything.

North Korea is also not willing to accept any old deal from the United States. In Stockholm, North Korean representatives expressed frustration at the U.S. negotiating position. The Trump administration has reportedly offered the lifting of sanctions on coal and textile exports in exchange for closing down Yongbyon and halting the production of highly enriched uranium. Although such an offer departs from Washington’s previous all-or-nothing approach, North Korea is likely looking for more substantial changes in the sanctions regime. In the meantime, Pyongyang has been testing short-range missiles and a new submarine-capable missile.

Trump knows that any sign of weakness is like blood in the water for the sharks of the international community. Foreign leaders will try to take advantage of that weakness, as Erdogan has apparently already done. As the impeachment inquiry gathers force, the U.S. president will be sorely tempted to demonstrate that he is not weak – by dispatching U.S. military forces, taking a hard line in trade negotiations, and continuing to put heavy demands on allies.

Trump’s impulsiveness is already becoming more pronounced. If he was an unpredictable president before the impeachment hearings began, he has become only more erratic. The bumpy road of U.S. foreign policy is about to get even bumpier.

Hankyoreh, October 12, 2019

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For Trump, Regime Change Begins at Home

A month after he won the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump gave a speech in North Carolina where he declared that “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.”

It’s still commonplace for foreign policy analysts of the leftright, and center to distinguish Trump from his predecessors by pointing out that he hasn’t pursued the regime-policies of either neoconservatives or liberal internationalists. After all, there’s been no Iraq or Libya on Trump’s watch.

It’s a pretty myth.

True, Trump has no beef against dictators who write him “beautiful” letters, so regime change is off the table for the time being with North Korea. But Trump developed a specific animus against Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and did what he could to push him out of office. First, Trump talked about the military option. Then he ratcheted up sanctions against the country. Finally, he supported what might have been a coup if the plotters hadn’t made such a mess of it.

With Iran, the regime-change policy has been both subtler and more aggressive. Rather than encourage a coup within the country, Trump has developed a variety of different strategies to squeeze the regime.

First, he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (over the objections of a number of his key advisors). Then he imposed ever-more punitive sanctions on the country and pressed hard against nations that continued to import energy from Tehran. Finally, he has continued to stand by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to destabilize Iran.

So far, Trump hasn’t sent in the soldiers. But the goal of the administration remains the same.

Of course, Trump denies that regime change is his objective. But it doesn’t really matter what Trump says. His rhetoric floats above reality like smog over a city.

Rather than debate the finer points of Trump’s objectives — which change from day to day, perhaps minute to minute — let’s reverse the lens. If it’s difficult to determine precisely what Trump’s intentions are toward countries he knows nothing about, it’s much easier to figure out what Trump wants to do in the one country he does know something about.

Trump wants regime change in the United States. He’s not interested in changing the leadership in the White House, as long as he’s occupying the Oval Office. But he does want to change the very nature of the government.

Fox News and others love to talk about a “coup” by a “deep state” desperate to remove Trump from power. It’s but one more example of the radical right projecting its covert hopes and fears onto its adversaries.

The coup is real. But it’s all about Trump transforming American governance from within and expanding executive power to the max. It’s not Trump vs. the “deep state.” It’s Trump vs. the state, full stop.

Incredibly, Trump has been busy enlisting the services of foreign leaders who can help make that happen. And it’s this malfeasance — on top of his other crimes — that has now driven Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to attempt a regime change of their own.

From Norway to Ukraine

Trump has flouted U.S. rules and regulations, relying on the incorrigible American love of outlaws to maintain his political base. The publication of the Mueller report, which detailed the wrongdoing of the Trump campaign and its connections to Russia, should have made the president think twice about once again enlisting the services of a foreign government to improve his own electoral chances.

But when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on June 13, Trump responded, “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it…It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it.” Federal law, of course, prohibits the solicitation of anything of value from a foreign government in connection with an election.

The next month, Trump flipped the script. Instead of a foreign leader phoning in with a juicy morsel of information, Trump himself was trying to extract the intel from an unwilling or at least uncomfortable interlocutor. In a phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump reportedly pressured the Ukrainian president to initiate a corruption investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son.

Someone in the intelligence community who listened in on the phone call — and possibly Trump’s other communications with foreign leaders — decided that the president crossed a line. This person blew the whistle, which is how the phone call came to public notice.

Trump admits that he talked about Biden with the Ukrainian leader. He even admits that he put a hold on U.S. military aid to Ukraine prior to the phone call. But Trump denies any wrongdoing, including any hint that U.S. aid would stop flowing if Zelensky didn’t comply with the request.

Trump, as usual, has tried to turn the tables by accusing both Joe Biden and his son of impropriety. Hunter Biden had served on the board of a large Ukrainian natural-gas company, Burisma, while his father was vice president.

Although there is no evidence that Hunter Biden’s position affected Obama administration policy toward Ukraine, that hasn’t prevented Trump’s attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, from trying to manufacture such a connection. In 2018, Giuliani started building a case that Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor general Viktor Shokin because he was investigating Hunter Biden and Burisma’s co-founder Mykola Zlochevsky.

As Adam Entous explains in The New Yorker:

There is no credible evidence that Biden sought Shokin’s removal in order to protect Hunter. According to Amos Hochstein, the Obama Administration’s special envoy for energy policy, Shokin was removed because of concerns by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the U.S. government that he wasn’t pursuing corruption investigations. Contrary to the assertions that Shokin was fired because he was investigating Burisma and Zlochevsky, Hochstein said, “many of us in the U.S. government believed that Shokin was the one protecting Zlochevsky.”

Facts be damned, Republican supporters of Trump are scrambling to get ahead of the scandal. The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), reading the old cue cards from Russiagate, immediately blamed everything on Hillary Clinton and the opposition research she’d dug up on Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian connections to counter his father’s possible presidential candidacy in 2016. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged Trump to release a transcript of the phone conversation because he’s convinced that it will exonerate Trump.

It’s not the scandal itself that reveals Trump’s executive overreach. It’s his blithe disregard of all rules in his quest for absolute power. He simply refuses to be handcuffed (literally and figuratively).

In a democracy, the state — its checks-and-balances, its bureaucracy — is the box that contains any potential autocrats. The Republican Party adopted its anti-statist philosophy largely to benefit businesses and the wealthy. Trump has a different agenda. He’s against the American state largely to benefit himself.

The Siren Call of Impeachment

The Democrats have been in a quandary since practically day one of the Trump administration.

Here was a president whose crimes and misdemeanors preceded his assumption of office. But for the first two years of Trump’s term, the Democrats were a minority in both houses of Congress. After 2018, they controlled the House, which meant that they could launch a series of investigations that the president and his team have stonewalled. Because the Senate remains in Republican hands, impeachment continues to be a long shot.

And yet, Trump continues to act with impunity. So, the Ukraine call has emerged as the proverbial line in the sand. A number of prominent Democrats threatened to proceed with impeachment if Trump didn’t disclose the full contents of his call with Zelensky. Some otherwise centrist Democrats, like Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, joined the bandwagon.

Trump backed down by promising to release both a transcript of his phone call with Zelensky and the whistleblower’s complaint. But Pelosi decided on Tuesday to press forward with an impeachment inquiry nonetheless. Right now, it looks as though the impeachment inquiry will focus only on the Ukraine matter rather than the other obstruction and financial issues that congressional committees are investigating.

Impeachment of Trump, at this point, is both a legal and moral necessity. It’s also very likely a political trap.

Trump relishes the role of an underdog, persecuted by the powerful. It’s what enables him to connect to a political base that, aside from his deep-pocket funders, feels disempowered by a rigged economy and a sclerotic political system. Impeachment, for this constituency, vindicates the narrative of the “deep state.”

Indeed, it suggests that the entire state is out to get Trump – which it is and should. But impeachment is the only thing that can turn the most powerful man in the world into a cornered victim and thus, for a significant number of American voters, a sympathetic character.

Even better for Trump if impeachment hinges on this particular scandal. The rough transcript of the phone call, released on Wednesday, does not exonerate the president. It demonstrates that he brought up the Bidens as part of an implied offer of greater assistance to Ukraine. But it’s not a slam-dunk either, since there was no specific quid pro quo. A more comprehensive transcript as well as the whistleblower’s full complaint might provide more details. But inevitably there will be room for interpretation, and Trump will drive the bulldozer of his reelection campaign right through that gap.

Public opinion, at this early juncture, is against impeachment. According to a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday morning, which doesn’t reflect the events of the last few days, shows that 37 percent of Americans favor impeachment and 57 percent are opposed. Virtually no Republicans support impeachment.

Yet, if the Dems had continued to equivocate, they would have appeared weak and lacking the leadership necessary to govern the country. Appeasing Trump is not a good election strategy.

There’s no easy way out of this impossible situation. But let’s think inside the box. Or, rather, inside the boxing ring.

At a rally last year, Biden said of Trump, “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Trump responded by tweet: “He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

So, let Trump and Biden fight a battle royal, just the two of them out back of the White House. If the country gets lucky, they’ll knock each other out — and out of the running for 2020. It would be a gift of regime change for both political parties. And maybe someone who’s not so punchdrunk will occupy the Oval Office in 2021.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 25, 2019