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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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Why Bolton Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Taking China Off the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impeachment: Not Dead Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of Being Bolton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2020

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The Descent of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Racist Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Is It Time to Boycott the United States?

In his infinite ignorance, Donald Trump has invited world leaders to the White House for a face-to-face meeting at the end of June.

Unlike the other countries in the G7, the United States has yet to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. One of the hotspots that the White House itself has identified is none other than Washington, DC. And because of a poorly implemented re-opening of the economy, the American South is already beginning to experience a second wave of infections — in parts of Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas – that will gather force by the end of June because Trump refuses to consider another lockdown.

Meanwhile, the president himself is reluctant to practice social distancing or even don a mask: “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it,” he said back in April. He peddles snake-oil treatments for COVID-19 that, incredibly, he swallows himself. The virus has already penetrated his inner sanctum.

As if that’s not bad enough, I wouldn’t put it past Trump to add three stops on a G7 itinerary — a nursing home, a prison, and a meat-packing plant — just to demonstrate that the United States is open for business (or to infect the world leaders that he has always despised).

Aside from French President Emanuel Macron, these world leaders have not jumped at the chance to set foot in the global epicenter of the pandemic. Naturally, they’re concerned about their own health.

Really they should be concerned about the health of American democracy. Instead of giving Donald Trump the legitimacy on the world stage that he so desperately craves, the leaders of the other G7 nations should be considering a boycott of the United States. They should threaten to sanction America as well, for that is the only language Trump understands.

The G7 has done it before — with Russia. In March 2014, after it annexed Crimea, Russia was indefinitely expelled from what was then the G8. The United States, the European Union, and several other countries also imposed economic sanctions on Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine. Most of those sanctions are still in place.

Trump hasn’t invaded and annexed any foreign territory, though he’s been eying Greenland for some time now. But under Trump, the United States has violated several international laws, unraveled numerous international agreements, and trampled on one democratic institution after another at home. He is a rogue president in a rogue party presiding over a rogue power.

As the president attempts to extend his reign of error to a second term, the international community should consider sending a message to the American people: Donald Trump is an illegitimate leader who is a threat to the planet. Mere criticism of the United States is not enough. The G7 should get the ball rolling by refusing to meet with Trump, in Washington or anywhere else.

I anticipate the Twitter backlash: Isn’t it unpatriotic for Americans to call for a boycott of their own country?

Quite the contrary. It’s proof of just how far patriotic Americans are willing to go to save our country and stop the violations of international law.

Violations at the Border

In one of the first acts of his administration, Trump issued a ban on travel to the United States from seven countries, all of them predominantly Muslim.

Federal courts almost immediately blocked the executive order. Trump reissued an almost identical travel ban. The courts blocked him a second time. Trump tried a third time, throwing in North Korea and Venezuela to obscure the intention of the order. Although the federal court system again blocked the Muslim ban, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to implement the policy as it reviewed the case. In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the ban 5-4.

Although the Supreme Court has decided by a slim margin that Trump’s action is legal in the U.S. context, his Muslim travel ban remains a violation of international law. It flouts all the UN conventions against discrimination, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also violates the Refugee Convention. Imagine the uproar if a country promoted a Christian travel ban. The United States would be first in line to apply sanctions.

But the Muslim travel ban was just the first volley in the administration’s attack on border crossers and international law.

Within a few months of taking office, the Trump administration began to tear apart migrant families. Before the courts could intervene, over 4,000 children were separated from their parents. Even worse, the administration did not track these family separations, so it couldn’t guarantee that children could reunite with their families. Even when a judge blocked the policy in June 2018, the administration continued its “zero-tolerance” policy, simply under a different name, and separated another 1,100 children from their families.

This is not just a violation of international law. It’s a moral outrage.

It’s gotten even worse. During the pandemic crisis, the administration has violated U.S. anti-trafficking laws by expelling hundreds of young people from the country. Write Nomaan Merchant and Sonia Perez in The Washington Post:

Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law and a federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must have access to legal counsel and cannot be immediately deported. They are also supposed to be released to family in the U.S. or otherwise held in the least restrictive setting possible. The rules are intended to prevent children from being mistreated or falling into the hands of criminals. 

Even before the pandemic hit, the administration was violating non-refoulement laws. In July 2019, the administration changed its asylum policies to force the desperate to apply for asylum in a third country before reaching the United States.

The result has been the wholesale rejection of asylum claims. Only 1 percent of applicants under the Migrant Protection Protocols had been granted asylum through the end of January, and only two people have been granted refuge since March. According to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum-seekers can’t be returned to countries where they might face persecution.

The July 2019 action was only the latest barrier the administration has placed before asylum-seekers, all of which constitute violations of the non-refoulement principle. In November 2018, Trump attempted to block all asylum seekers from entering the United States through Mexico. A federal court ruled the policy illegal and prevented him from doing so.

This March, the administration tried again, using the pandemic as a new rationale. It generated pushback, but the administration shut down the possibility of asylum anyway. And it has started sending asylum-seekers back as part of the “Remain in Mexico” program.

Taken together, the Trump policies on immigration, refugee, and asylum policies are a massive affront to decades of patiently constructed international laws.

Targeted Assassination

So many people have been assassinated by U.S. drones that Americans have become dangerously inured to this violation of international law.

The Obama administration was responsible for the expansion of this program. But Trump has expanded even on Obama’s expansion. Worse, according to a new policy implemented last year, the administration no longer reports on the number of drone strikes and resulting civilian casualties outside of active warzones, which include Pakistan and Somalia.

Whether these drone strikes constitute a violation of international law hinges on whether they represent assassination, which is illegal, or lawful targeting in armed conflict. If the latter, they are permissible if done in self-defense or as approved by the United Nations. According to these standards, administration officials argue that the drone strikes the United States conducts in a warzone — for example, Afghanistan — are indistinguishable from more conventional aerial bombing.

But because so many U.S. drone strikes take place outside war zones where the United States is a declared combatant, international law experts like Philip Alston, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, have concluded that they often violate international law. Alston was particularly concerned about the CIA’s role in conducting drone strikes, which the Obama administration eventually scaled back after steadily increasing them. Trump, however, has reversed Obama’s policy.

Most of Trump’s drone strikes have been quiet and anonymous, at least so far as the U.S. media is concerned. The targets have also been, for the most part, non-state actors, so-called terrorists. The assassination in January of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a different matter. He was a representative of a state with which the United States is not at war. The Trump administration might consider him a “terrorist.” But according to international law, the drone strike that killed him was an assassination, no different than if a U.S. attack had taken out Iran’s president.

The Trump administration claimed that the strike was done in “self-defense,” that Soleimani was planning an attack or attacks on U.S. targets. But it did not furnish any real proof of these imminent attacks. Soleimani’s past record, however noxious, does not constitute sufficient legal rationale for assassination.

Other Trump administration military actions have also violated international law, such as the 59 Tomahawk missiles it rained down on Syria in April 2017. The administration didn’t even bother to seek UN authorization. Nor did it do so a year later when it launched another missile attack on Syria in response to the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The Trump administration could have argued that it was protecting a civilian population from extermination. But the missile attack came before a fact-finding mission could determine whether chemical weapons had been used. In any case, neither then nor subsequently has the Trump administration seemed to care much about protecting the lives of Syrian civilians.

But these Syrian attacks point to another reason to boycott the United States: the Trump administration’s fundamental disregard for international institutions and agreements.

International Agreements Sundered

The Trump administration has been gradually ripping up the international arms control regime that has been in place for decades.

First, it stepped away from the Iran nuclear agreement, which blocked the country’s path to acquiring nuclear weapons. Last year, it withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, a high point of U.S.-Russian efforts at arms limitation. And then, last week, it announced it would no longer participate in the Open Skies agreement, another landmark achievement to prevent accidental war that was negotiated in 1992.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to resume testing nuclear weapons, something that hasn’t happened in nearly 30 years. Technically, because the United States is not party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Trump’s action would not violate an international agreement. But if the United States were to go ahead with a test, it would put enormous stress on the CTBT, which 184 nations have signed.

The administration’s arms control policy has become positively Orwellian. Trump’s arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea, for instance, seems to believe mistakenly that he was appointed head of the Pentagon. “We know how to win these [arms] races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said in a recent videoconference. What part of “control” does he not understand?

In addition to abandoning arms control, the Trump administration has hindered efforts to control carbon emissions by trashing the Paris climate accord. It has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council. It quit UNESCO. It has threatened to leave the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

So, at what point does the international community decide that it has been attacked enough to strike back in self-defense? A boycott and economic sanctions seem more than justified given these three areas of violations: international human rights law, the laws governing the use of force, and the deliberate destruction of international agreements and institutions.

The Downsides of Boycott?

Okay, so what if the Trump administration deserves to be boycotted. That doesn’t mean that it’s strategically wise to do so.

After all, if all the globalists gang up on Trump, won’t that create a rally-around-the-president effect just in time for the November election? The very tactic designed to delegitimate Trump might end up boosting his reelection prospects.

Then there’s the perennial problem that name-and-shame tactics often don’t work with people or countries that refuse to be shamed. Virtually the entire international community agrees that the human rights situation in North Korea is abysmal. But the North Korean state doesn’t really care about the reputational damage it suffers as a result of all the official protests, UN inquiries, and grassroots campaigns. Trump seems to be similarly unshameable.

Finally, there is the challenge of collective action. The United States, despite its current difficulties, remains a powerful global actor. It’s not easy to pull together a coalition in the face of an administration determined to make deals with specific countries to destroy the unanimity required to implement a boycott and sanctions.

The first two counter-arguments are unpersuasive. At this point, nothing the international community can do will significantly alter Trump’s approval ratings. He has played his nationalism card so many times that the gambit can no longer win fresh converts. But there are still some independents and perhaps even some Republicans who would be swayed if the rest of the G7 censured the United States. These swing voters might still feel shame, too, if the international community repeatedly broadcasts the administration’s multiple violations of international law.

But let’s face it, the collective action problem is probably insurmountable. The G7 nations don’t have the guts to stand up to the United States. Trump acts with impunity, and they appease him. Thanks to the Chamberlains of the world, Trump has celebrated a Munich practically every day of his administration.

So, it’s up to popular movements to challenge Trump’s illegal actions and the international community’s appeasement of them. In developing a Boycott, Divest, Sanction campaign against the Trump administration, activists can take inspiration from the groups that worked with South Africans in the 1980s to bring down their apartheid regime.

I know, I know: everyone is hoping that Americans will solve this problem ourselves in November. But that might not happen.

So, people of the world, you’d better build your BDS box, paint “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” on the front, and stand next to it on November 3. If Trump wins on Election Day, it will be mourning in America. But let’s hope that the world doesn’t mourn: it organizes.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 27, 2020

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Articles China Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s ‘Uncreative Destruction’ of the U.S.-China Relationship

Economists like to think of the wreckage caused by stock market downturns, widespread bankruptcies, and corporate downsizing as “creative destruction.” As it destroys the old and the dysfunctional, the capitalist system continually spurs innovation, much as a forest fire prepares the ground for new growth.

Or so the representatives of the dismal science argue.

Donald Trump, who is neither economist nor scientist, has his own version of creative destruction. He is determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act and replace it with his own health insurance alternative. He has torn up the Iran nuclear deal in favor of negotiating something brand new with Tehran. He has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and argues that the United States is reducing carbon emissions in its own superior manner.

The problem, of course, is that Trump is very good at destruction but, despite his previous job as a real estate mogul, exceedingly bad at construction. Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that he never intended to replace what he is destroying with anything at all. Trump has never offered any viable alternative to Obamacare or any new negotiating framework with Iran. And prior to the recent economic downturn, U.S. carbon emissions were increasing after several years of decline.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of Trump’s uncreative destruction is his approach to China.

Previously, Trump said that he simply wanted to level the playing field by placing trade with China on a fairer and more reciprocal basis, strengthening the regime of intellectual property rights, and stopping Beijing from manipulating its currency.

He was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish this goal. The tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese products precipitated a trade war that jeopardized the livelihoods of millions of American farmers and workers. The initial trade deal that the United States and China signed in January, even though many of the U.S. tariffs remain in place, was supposed to be the grand alternative to the old and dysfunctional trade relationship.

But here again, Trump is not telling the truth. He and his team have a very different set of objectives. As with so many other elements of his domestic and foreign policy, Trump wants to tear apart the current system — in this case, the network of economic ties between the United States and China — and replace it with absolutely nothing at all.

Oh sure, Trump believes that U.S. manufacturers can step up to take the place of Chinese suppliers. More recently, as the administration “turbocharges” its efforts to isolate China in response to its purported pandemic mistakes, it has talked of creating an Economic Prosperity Network of trusted allies like South Korea, Australia, India, and Vietnam. But this is all whistling in the dark, because the administration doesn’t really understand the consequences — for the world economy, for the U.S. economy — of tearing apart the global supply chain in this way.

Just how poorly Trump understands all this is reflected in his statement last week that “we could cut off the whole relationship” with China and “save $500 billion.” This from the president who erroneously believes that China is paying the United States “billions and billions of dollars of tariffs a month.” What else do you expect from a man who received a BS in economics from Wharton?

Unlike many of the administration’s other policies, however, its hardline approach to China has some bipartisan support. Engagement with China has virtually disappeared as a policy option in the Democratic Party. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential candidate, has attempted to present himself as the tougher alternative when it comes to China, a misguided effort to fend off charges of his bedding down with Beijing.

Finger to the wind, Biden is crafting policies in response not just to Trump but to public opinion. In 2017, 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, compared to 47 percent who held an unfavorable opinion of the country, according to Pew. In this year’s survey, only 26 percent looked at China positively versus 66 percent who viewed it negatively. The latter category includes 62 percent of Democrats.

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Michael Greenwald sums up the new conventional wisdom of the centrists:

The United States can no longer remain content with the notion of a Chinese economic threat arising in the distant future. The advent of COVID-19 has made it more apparent than any other time including the US-China trade war that now is the moment for the United States, European Union, and other like-minded countries to diversify supply chains away from China.

That’s what makes Trump’s uncreative destruction vis a vis China so dangerous. It may not stop after November, no matter who wins the election.

The Great Disentanglement

China’s economic shutdown at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic disrupted many global supply chains, prompting a number of countries and corporations to accelerate their strategy of reducing their dependency on China for components.

Rising labor costs in China, concerns over human rights abuses there, but especially the trade war between Washington and Beijing had contributed to the U.S. fashion industry and tech firms like Apple rethinking their own supply chains. Japan, heavily dependent on Chinese trade, is using $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to subsidize the move of Japanese firms out of China.

The Trump administration is thus swimming with the current in its effort to isolate China. It has imposed sanctions because of China’s violations of Uyghur human rights. It has levied penalties against China for its cooperation with Iranian firms. And it has threatened to add another set of tariffs on top of the existing ones for China’s handling of the coronavirus.

Its latest initiative has been to tighten the screws on the Chinese technology firm, Huawei. Last week, the administration announced sanctions against any firms using U.S.-made equipment that supply the Chinese tech giant. The chief victim of these new restrictions will be the Taiwanese firm TSMC, which supplies 90 percent of Huawei’s smartphone chips.

In other words, the Trump administration is committed not only to severing U.S. economic connections with China. It wants to put as much pressure on other countries as well to disentangle themselves from Chinese manufacturing. Taiwan, of course, has no particular love for Mainland China. It battles Beijing on a daily basis to get international recognition — from other countries and from global organizations like the World Health Organization.

But the Taiwanese economy is also heavily dependent on its cross-strait neighbor. As Eleanor Albert points out:

China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the island’s total trade, and trade between the two reached $150.5 billion in 2018 (up from $35 billion in 1999). China and Taiwan have also agreed to allow banks, insurers, and other financial service providers to work in both markets.

And it probably won’t be Huawei but Taiwan that suffers from the U.S. move. As Michael Reilly notes, “Huawei’s size in the global market means its Taiwanese suppliers cannot easily find an alternative customer of comparable standing to replace it.” China, meanwhile, will either find another source of chips outside the U.S. sphere, or it will do what the United States has been threatening to do: bring production of critical components back closer to home.

Another key player in the containment of China is India. Trump’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, is more than simply an ideological affection. Trump sealed a $3 billion in military sales deal with India in February, with a trade deal still on the horizon.

Modi, in turn, is hoping to be the biggest beneficiary of the falling out between Washington and Beijing. “The government in April reached out to more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and through overseas missions to offer incentives for manufacturers seeking to move out of China,” reports Bloomberg. “India is prioritizing medical equipment suppliers, food processing units, textiles, leather, and auto part makers among more than 550 products covered in the discussions.”

Vietnam is another regional competitor that the United States is supporting in its containment strategy. With only a couple hundred reported coronavirus cases and zero deaths, Vietnam is poised to emerge from the current crisis virtually unscathed. With low labor costs and an authoritarian government that can enforce deals, it is already a favored alternative for corporations looking for alternatives to China. But wildcat strikes have been happening in greater numbers in the country, and the Vietnamese government recently approved the country’s first independent trade union.

Yet with a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure, China will continue to look more attractive to investors than India or Vietnam.

Don’t Count Out China

If your image of the Chinese economy is stuck in the 1980s — cheap toys and mass-produced baubles — then you probably think that severing economic ties with the country is no big deal. America can produce its own plastic junk, right?

But China is no longer hurrying to catch up to the West. In some ways, the West is already in China’s rearview mirror.

Huawei is well-known for the part it’s playing in the rollout of 5G networks worldwide. China is not only ahead of the curve in upgrading to 5G domestically, it is busy manufacturing all the new tech that will run on these high-speed networks, like virtual reality and augmented reality and AI-driven devices.

Perhaps more to the point, China is not simply part of the global supply chain. It is using these new technologies to revolutionize the global supply chain.

For instance, it’s using 3-D modeling to shorten product development. It has long integrated drones into its distribution networks. “Chinese supply chain companies are incorporating groundbreaking technologies like cloud-based systems, data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) and using them to redesign supply chain operations,” writes Adina-Laura Achim.

And don’t discount the role of a well-financed, centralized, authoritarian government. The Trump administration is, frankly, at a huge disadvantage when it tries to pressure companies to relocate their operations. Writes Manisha Mirchandani:

The global technology and consumer electronics sectors are especially reliant on China’s infrastructure and specialized labor pool, neither of which will be easy to replicate. The Chinese government is already mobilizing resources to convince producers of China’s unique merits as a manufacturing location. Zhengzhou, within Henan Province, has appointed officials to support Apple’s partner Foxconn in mitigating the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, while the Ministry of Finance is increasing credit support to the manufacturing sector. Further, the Chinese government is likely to channel stimulus efforts to develop the country’s high-tech manufacturing infrastructure, moving away from its low-value manufacturing base and accelerating its vision for a technology-driven services economy.  

The Trump administration is playing the short game, trying to use tariffs and anti-Chinese sentiment to hobble a rising power. China, on the other hand, is playing the long game, translating its trade surpluses into structural advantages in a fast-evolving global economy.

Will the Conflict Turn Hot?

Despite the economic ravages of the pandemic, the Pentagon continues to demand the lion’s share of the U.S. budget. It wants another $705 billion for 2021, after increasing its budget by 20 percent between 2016 and 2020.

This appalling waste of government resources has already caused long-term damage to the economic competitiveness of the United States. But it’s all the money the Pentagon is spending on “deterring China” that might prove more devastating in the short term.

The U.S. Navy announced this month that it was sending its entire forward-deployed sub fleet on “contingency response operations” as a warning to China. Last month, the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Strike Group sailed into the South China Sea to support Malaysia’s oil exploration in an area that China claims. Aside from the reality that oil exploration makes no economic sense at a time of record low oil prices, the United States should be helping the countries bordering the South China Sea come to a fair resolution of their disputes, not throwing more armaments at the problem.

There’s also heightened risk of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and even in outer space. A huge portion of the Pentagon’s budget goes toward preparing for war with China — and, frankly, provoking war as well.

What does this all have to do with the Great Disentanglement?

The close economic ties between the United States and China have always represented a significant constraint on military confrontation. Surely the two countries would not risk grievous economic harm by coming to blows. Economic cooperation also provides multiple channels for resolving conflicts and communicating discontent. The United States and Soviet Union never had that kind of buffer.

If the Great Disentanglement goes forward, however, then the two countries have less to lose economically in a military confrontation. Trading partners, of course, sometimes go to war with one another. But as the data demonstrates, more trade generally translates into less war.

There are lots and lots of problems in the U.S.-China economic relationship. But they pale in comparison to World War III.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 20, 2020

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Articles China Featured US Foreign Policy

Debunking Trump’s China Nonsense

Conspiracy theorists never let a crisis go to waste.

When something truly terrible happens, the conspiracy theorist sets to work to determine the dark, hidden forces at work behind the scenes that have produced the crisis. Some people might see God or the Devil as the prime mover behind a catastrophe. Others throw up their hands and mutter, “shit happens.”

Not conspiracy theorists. They need to find a secret human culprit, preferably someone or something that they’ve been warning about for years.

A conspiracy theorist begins with a conclusion — the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Democratic Party is running a child pornography ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC — and then works backward to fashion a faulty timeline that leads to that conclusion. Along the way, the theorist marshals the plausible, the implausible, and the downright ludicrous in an effort to prove a far-fetched contention. In this way, conspiracy theorists shoehorn messy reality into their simplistic worldviews.

The current pandemic presents a grand opportunity for conspiracy theorists. Go on the Internet and you’ll find a bumper crop of lunatic notions:

  • Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, one of the few sane voices coming out of the Trump administration, is actually “a Deep-State Hillary Clinton–loving stooge,” according to the right-wing American Thinker.
  • Billionaire Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could put microchips into people’s heads, argues the unshameable Trump ally Roger Stone.
  • The pandemic is just a ploy to push vaccines into people’s veins. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” writes anti-vaxxer Larry Cook. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.”
  • The rollout of 5G networks caused the coronavirus.

It’s bad enough to be hit by a pandemic and a massive economic downturn. Now we also have to deal with a calamitous collapse in common sense?

Still, all of these conspiracy theories pale in significance next to the crazy and dangerous propositions about China and the coronavirus coming from Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and much of the Republican Party. The other conspiracy theories circulate the Internet like bad memes, chasing their tails until they’re replaced with newer nonsense.

The Trump administration is playing a different game. Desperate to defect responsibility for its own catastrophic failures, Trump is weaponizing his China conspiracies — with considerably greater economic and geopolitical consequences.

Did the Lab Do It?

The Trump administration has made several accusations against China. It has asserted that the coronavirus was manufactured in a biological laboratory in Wuhan. It has argued that China engaged in a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread around the world. It has said that China underestimated the severity of the epidemic and hoarded medical equipment.

The administration is now preparing to take actions that will make the earlier trade war with China look like a mere disagreement among friends.

Let’s start with the various coronavirus origin theories.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, was the epicenter of the current pandemic. In that same city, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention study coronaviruses and the bats that carry them.

For conspiracy theorists, proximity is a sufficient smoking gun. They began linking one or the other institute to the outbreak back in January 2020. At the end of January, The Washington Post was already debunking the notion that the virus was manufactured in a lab. In February, 27 prominent public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet that they and their colleagues “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”

None of that has prevented Trump and Pompeo from asserting otherwise. Pompeo said this weekend that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. He neglected to furnish any of this evidence. When reminded that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the virus was not manmade, Pompeo was forced to walk back his initial statement.

It’s possible, of course, that a sample of the virus collected in the wild accidentally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A set of State Department cables from 2018 reported on concerns over safety standards at the institute. Lab mishaps indeed happen with disturbing frequency. In the United States, for instance, such breaches have involved anthrax, Ebola, and the plague. So, an accidental breach at a Wuhan lab is within the realm of possibility.

But scientists who have sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus maintain that it is unlike the particular bat coronavirus studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But what if scientists in Wuhan had manipulated the virus they were studying, hoping to create what they call a “gain of function”? Again, given the genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus, there’s no evidence of this kind of manipulation.

As The Washington Post concluded in its Fact Checker analysis, “The balance of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature — be it the Wuhan market or somewhere else. Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.”

Cover-Up?

As usual, Donald Trump is accusing others of sins that he has committed in spades. The president ignored various briefings throughout January 2020 about the dangers of the coronavirus. He now claims that he only learned in late January about the disease and that these briefings stressed that it was “non-threatening.”

Given the overwhelming evidence of the earlier briefings — he ignored direct warnings from Alex Azar on January 18 and an intelligence briefing on January 23 — Trump is doing his damnedest to pretend ignorance.

Now, let’s jump ahead more than a month. If Trump had issued social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier than he did — on March 2 rather than March 16 — the death toll could have been reduced by 90 percent, according to two epidemiologists writing in The New York Times. That’s over 60,000 deaths (and rising) that should rest on the president’s conscience (if he possessed one). Of course, other politicians — like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — should have also acted with greater urgency. But there’s no substitute for confident national leadership. And there’s no nightmare like bad national leadership.

And now, in the midst of his own dizzying attempts at covering up his own mistakes, Trump has decided to blame China for its own cover-up. “They made a mistake, they tried to cover it, like a fire,” he said at a Fox News virtual town hall over the weekend. “They couldn’t put out the fire.”

Unlike the United States, China had no advance warning that a new disease was about to strike and spread. Still, when doctors started to report a new disease in Wuhan in late December, the Chinese government reacted with its usual authoritarian approach. It tried to clamp down on the bad news. So, yes, that was a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the only one, as I noted in a column in mid-March.

But it was only three weeks between the identification of the new disease and the lockdown of Wuhan. The disease emerged at the end of December and by the third week of January, when deaths were in the low double digits and infections still in the triple digits, virtually all of Hubei province was under quarantine. In between identification and lockdown, China briefed the World Health Organization on the situation and released the genome sequence of the new disease.

And China practiced early detection and isolation, a technique that South Korea would implement even more effectively. As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature back in March:

Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people. But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “That was amazing,” he says.

So, China was putting out the fire with greater dispatch than most other countries. It’s one of the reasons why it has been the first country to emerge from the other side of the crisis. The rapid containment of China’s outbreak is one of the major reasons that other countries even had a chance at containing their own.

What about Homeland Security’s contention that China misrepresented the severity of the crisis in order to stock up on medical supplies? This seems unlikely. The Chinese government didn’t seem to understand the severity of the crisis in those early days. In fact, it was only later, between January 24 and February 27, that China imported “2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators,” according to Chinese statistics.

But this was well after China was telling the world that the epidemic was serious, and it coincided with its efforts to deal with its own crisis. Was it hoarding, or was it preparing for a potential catastrophe of 500 million infected people?

Could China have done better? Absolutely. Earlier action would have even more significantly reduced the infection rate. Even the Chinese government has admitted that. “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies,” the Politburo admitted in a report in early February, “we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.” Trump, in contrast, has made no such admission of deficiencies.

Let’s be clear: China screwed up during one critical week at the beginning of January when it misunderstood or downplayed the risk of the new disease. But compare that with the two months of Trump dismissing the severity of COVID-19. During that period, by the way, Trump had nothing but praise for China’s handling of the crisis.

It’s not just the Trump administration that is dumping on China. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published a tendentious piece last week that mixed the factual with the fictional. He correctly notes that China silenced critics. But then adds that China “manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity.” Follow that link and you’ll discover that China updated its statistics to account for uncounted deaths, for instance those that died at home.

Perhaps Rogin hasn’t been paying attention to the reporting in his own paper about excess U.S. deaths during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, at least some of which will ultimately be attributed to the pandemic. “The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States,” the April 27 article concluded.

China could indeed be a great deal more transparent about its statistics, the origins of the virus, and its response to the pandemic. But The Economist is off base when it asserts that “China’s opacity has allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.” The relationship between opacity and conspiracy theories is by no means so direct. Obama went to great lengths to prove his citizenship, and it did little to quiet the “birther” movement.

Many conspiracy theories are politically motivated. The Trump administration feels an urgent need to shift the blame. China could submit to a full proctological exam, and Trump would still accuse Beijing of covering its ass.

Trump on the Offensive

The United States and China have been entangled economically for decades. Trump is determined to end all that. His earlier trade sanctions have done much to untie the two economies, as suppliers and importers in both countries have looked for other partners. The battle over the world’s digital infrastructure has also sharpened competition between two IT giants.

The pandemic is providing a pretext for Trump to double down.

“We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” a State Department undersecretary told Reuters. Trump is also targeting scientific cooperation between the two countries. He is considering an executive order banning government pension funds from investing in Chinese companies. He signed into law the Taiwan Act in March committing Washington to push other countries to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

The president’s more radical advisors are even pushing Trump to default on the U.S. debt to China, claiming that withholding repayment would constitute a form of reparations for the damage that China has “caused” with the coronavirus. (Ah, so calling it the “China virus” was not merely racist, it was part of building a legal case for compensation.) Since the “Spanish flu” originated in the United States, Trump may open up the United States to more court challenges than it bargained for.

“The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game,” observes Max Boot in The Washington Post, “lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States brings the arguments closer to the present day. “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous,” Cui Tiankai argues. “If that made sense, then who was to compensate for the fatalities of the H1N1 flu and HIV/AIDS? Who was to pay for the huge losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis?”

Floating the nuclear option of debt default is probably just another example of Trump’s tactic of calculated overreach. He’s likely gearing up for another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which will then seem sensible in comparison (instead of just plain insane given the circumstances). But who knows: Trump likes dramatic, unprecedented, and stupid actions.

I was never a big fan of the “adults in the room.” But realists like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are no longer counseling caution in the administration. Instead, squawking in Trump’s ear is a flock of hawks — Pompeo, Peter Navarro, and the National Security Council’s China hand, Matt Pottinger. Trump is susceptible to man-crushing on autocrat Xi Jinping. The hawks are determined to nip that relationship in the bud.

Of course, you don’t have to be a realist to understand that an economic and diplomatic war with China at this point is a bad idea. You just have to register a modicum of brain activity. The U.S. economy is crashing. The pandemic here is far from over (despite what some governors and gun owners think). What a great time to make it even more difficult for U.S. farmers and manufacturers to survive the downturn.

It’s not as if China is weak at the moment and eager to capitulate. It has recovered from the pandemic. It has reopened its economy in a more-or-less responsible fashion. It has the financial resources to help countries that have been hobbled by the crisis. It has achieved even greater international credit in the wake of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, for instance by upping its contribution to the WHO as Trump suspends U.S. payments.

Trump, however, knows that only a conspiracy theory (or better yet, several) can get him reelected. Compared to his previous efforts in the genre — the “birther movement,” Obama’s alleged wiretapping of his phone — this mythmaking about China has the full force of the U.S. government behind it, along with much of the pundit class, and a bunch of disgruntled allies as well.

The Republican Party, desperate to deflect attention not only from the pandemic and the economic depression but from Trump’s patent irresponsibility as well, has seized on China as an electoral “Hail Mary” pass. Republican congressional candidates are now running ads that blame China for “the Wuhan epidemic,” promise to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole,” and warn, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”

With November in their sights, Trump and the Republicans are digging themselves into a hole —  all the way to China.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 6, 2020

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Trump Rex

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that, after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, dystopian fiction enjoyed a spike in popularity. However, novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which soared on Amazon, would prove more horror stories than roadmaps. Like so many ominous sounds from a dark basement, they provided good scares but didn’t foreshadow the actual Trumpian future.

Of course, it didn’t take an Orwell or an Atwood to extrapolate from the statements of candidate Trump to the policies of President Trump — and such projections bore little resemblance to the worlds of Big Brother or an all-powerful patriarchy. Many Americans quickly began bracing themselves for something quite different: less totalitarian than total chaos. There would likely be unmitigated corruption, new wars, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, along with an unprecedented reduction in government services and the further concentration of power in the executive branch. And it was a given that there would be boastfully incoherent presidential addresses, as well as mockery from officials in countries that had only recently been our closest allies. A Trumpian dystopia would be a Frankenstein monster constructed of the worst parts of previous administrations with plenty of ugly invective and narcissistic preening thrown in for bad measure.

And yet, there was still a lingering hope that those unsettling noises from the basement were just the equivalent of a broken furnace — annoying and expensive to fix, yes, but nothing like a living, breathing monster. Trump, after all, was going to be a singularly incompetent leader, or so his multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures suggested. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to do that much damage tweeting from the White House or phoning in from the links. And even if his minions in Congress did manage to push through some disturbing legislation, the guardrails of democracy would continue to contain his administration, and dystopias would, for the most part, remain the stuff of scary novels, not everyday life.

For many Americans, a Trump presidency did indeed usher in harder times. The earnings of farmers, dependent on exporting their crops, plummeted during the trade war with China. Nearly 700,000 people were poised to lose access to food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from Haiti, El Salvador, and other countries faced the loss of their temporary protected status.

Still, many of those farmers received government subsidies to offset their losses and the courts blocked the administration from following through on some of its cruelest immigration policies, at least postponing the worst nightmares. Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections signaled a possible post-Trumpian future, as the Democrats, led by a crew of new women candidates, won control of the House of Representatives. Admittedly, the ultimate failure of the impeachment effort was a setback, but it was still just a matter of holding on for less than a year until election 2020 and then quite possibly waving the Trump era farewell.

That has now all changed.

Thanks to the coronavirus, dystopia is here, right now — but with a twist. As science fiction writer William Gibson once so aptly put it, “The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” In April 2020, the same applies to our new world.

Pandemic

Dystopia arrived not with a bang, but a cough. The culprit wasn’t a looming monster or a totalitarian state, but a microscopic speck that’s technically not even alive. And that basement, by the way, turned out to be far-off Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first appeared. With Hubei province overwhelmed by sickness and death, China responded by using the powers of a centralized state to shut down everything — from travel to restaurants, public gatherings to dissent — in a draconian fashion.

The Trump administration chose to ignore those warnings.

Meanwhile, given the level of international travel in a globalized economy, other countries soon became hotspots. South Korea used technology — widespread testing, contact tracing, and apps to monitor quarantining — to contain the problem. Iran’s initial poor response, even as members of its leadership took sick and in some cases died, was compounded by punitive Trump administration sanctions. The hospitals in northern Italy were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and the government suddenly shut down the country in a belated attempt to stave off disaster.

Still, Washington dawdled. Trump and his crew squandered 70 full days during which they could have implemented valuable lessons being painfully learned elsewhere in the world.

Now, Covid-19 has decisively put the lie to American exceptionalism. Not only can it happen here, but it’s happening here, far worse than anywhere else. The United States is adding upwards of 30,000 new infections daily, twice the rate of China on February 12th, that country’s worst day, and nearly five times what Italy faced at its peak on March 20th.

Meanwhile, adding depression to disease, the U.S. economy has crashed. Claims for unemployment benefits have risen by an astounding 17 million in just three weeks, pushing the jobless rate close to 10% (and still rising fast). Yes, the whole global economy is taking a hit, but other countries have moved in more sensible directions. China’s blunt-force quarantine has now enabled it to restart its economy, South Korea’s pinpoint approach has so far avoided a full-scale economic lockdown, and Denmark has paid its companies directly to maintain their payrolls and retain workers during the downturn of self-isolation.

In other words, in true dystopian fashion, Washington has managed to fumble both its response to the pandemic and its potential economic recovery plan. Presidential incompetence, incomprehension, and intransigence have been key to these glaring failures. The myriad defects that Donald Trump displayed from his first day in the White House, then largely grist for the monologues of late-night talk-show hosts, have now turned truly tragic. They include his stunning disregard for science, his undeniable compulsion to spread misinformation, his complete refusal to take responsibility for anything negative, his thoroughgoing contempt for government, and his abrupt vacillations in policy.

Most of all, the president exhibited extraordinary hubris. Out of a belief in his own infallibility, he thinks he knows better than the experts, any experts, no matter the topic.

As it happens, he doesn’t.

In ordinary times, such an epic fail might bring thousands, even hundreds of thousands, out into the streets to protest. Not in this pandemic moment, however. Most Americans, if they can, are now sheltering in place, watching a dystopian scenario unfold in real time on their screens and expressing gratitude to front-line workers who are suiting up to fight the microscopic monster every day.

When the world outside becomes too much to bear, we escape into stories. Right now, however, dystopian fiction about other times and places just doesn’t do the trick. Instead, desperate to understand how and why this fate has befallen us, we’ve been watching films about infectious disease. In early March, 2011’s Contagion became the number one streaming movie of the moment, while Outbreak recently cracked Netflix’s top 10 even though it came out 25 years ago. And when we’re not streaming, we’re reading novels about epidemics that, from Camus to Crichton, are back on bestseller lists.

Don’t be surprised if you’re feeling a nagging sense of déjà vu. Bingeing on stories about plagues during a plague? Doesn’t that ring a bell? Could it have been something you were assigned to read or see on stage back in school?

Know Thyself — Or Not

In 430 BC, the second year of its war with Sparta, the legendary democracy of Athens in ancient Greece was struck by an unknown infectious disease. The Athenians first suspected that the Spartans had poisoned their reservoirs. As it turned out, though, their undemocratic adversary wasn’t to blame. According to the historian Thucydides, the plague came from faraway Ethiopia and entered the city by ship. Since Athens had built its empire with naval power, it was perhaps grimly fitting that its greatest strength would prove in that moment to be its signal weakness.

The plague spread quickly. “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods,” wrote Thucydides. “In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” (Sound familiar?) The disease soon overwhelmed the city’s rudimentary health-care system and dead bodies lay about the streets, rotting and unburied. And yet, despite the plague, the Peloponnesian War continued. That forever war of the ancient world (sound familiar again?), already in its second round, wouldn’t end until 405 BC, a quarter-century later.

Over five years and three successive outbreaks, the plague would, however, ultimately claim more Athenian lives than the war. Nearly a quarter of that city-state’s population, an estimated 100,000 people, would die from the disease. Even its esteemed leader, Pericles, would lose two sons. Another victim: the vaunted Athenian political system. According to classical scholar Katherine Kelaidis, “The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy.”

During those plague years, Athens didn’t, however, completely lock down the city. It continued, for instance, to hold its annual drama festival at the Theater of Dionysus where, at some point, a new play by Sophocles had its debut. In itself, that was anything but unusual as he wrote more than 100 plays during his long lifetime. But this drama also proved painfully topical. Sophocles took the legendary story of Oedipus the king and added a wholly original element: he set its plot in motion with a plague.

Oedipus Rex takes place in Thebes while “a fiery demon” grips the city. Its king, Oedipus, desperate to understand why the gods have called such a plague down upon his realm, sends an emissary to the famed Delphic Oracle to find out. Its answer is unexpected: to rid Thebes of the plague, he must bring to justice the murderer of the previous king. As it happens, Oedipus himself killed that previous king. What’s worse, that king was also his father. In doing so, Oedipus had, however inadvertently, fulfilled the first part of a previous Delphic prophecy: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In other words, he is the cause of the religious pollution that has brought plague down on Thebes.

All of this qualified Oedipus as the classic example of the tragic hero, a son of nobility who lacks self-knowledge, in this case an understanding of his true origins. Moreover, he demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance, believing that only he can rule wisely or save Thebes. Even when the oracle predicts a tragic outcome for him, he scoffs, believing that the will of the gods is no impediment to his actions.

The Greek word for this kind of arrogance is hubris and, in Greek drama, it’s associated with the pride that precedes the fall of a powerful man. The inevitable result of hubris is a visit from Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, often depicted with a sword and scales.

Focused as it was on the inevitable downfall of a tragic hero in a plague-stricken city, Oedipus Rex must have been deeply disturbing, if not terrifying, to watch in the Athens of that moment. Given the pandemic at hand, it’s remarkable that Athenians were still staging plays at all. But like Oedipus, its citizens undoubtedly wanted to better understand the cause of their affliction. This early example of horror fiction — with its plot twists involving murder, incest, and pandemic — surely helped some of them come to terms with their predicament and decide who or what to blame for it, just as, almost 2,500 years later, we watch films or read novels about plagues, among other things, to try to grasp ours.

In that first season of the plague, the citizens of Athens would indeed turn their fury against their leader, Pericles, and drive him from office. Later, after a brief return to power, he, too, would die of the disease.

Every Society Gets the Tragic Hero It Deserves

Now, another democracy is being overwhelmed by contagion. It, too, is involved in endless wars and led by a man whom millions of its citizens once believed to be the last-chance savior of the country.

Donald Trump didn’t kill his father or marry his mother, nor is he the cause of the coronavirus.

Still, in other respects, he hews to a distinctly modern, reality-TV version of the tragic hero. He, of course, became as rich as Croesus, even as he bathed in the adulation of his television viewers. Thanks to the Delphic Oracle of the Electoral College, he then rose to the most powerful political position in the world. Yet, through it all, he has exhibited virtually no self-knowledge. To this day, his understanding of his own faults remains near zero, while his amplification of his imagined strengths is off the Richter scale. Admittedly, Donald Trump lacks the gravitas of Oedipus and would never have been able to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, but this is twenty-first-century America, not ancient Greece, and every society gets the tragic hero it deserves.

As with Oedipus, the president’s extraordinary arrogance has put the country in peril. His denial of the scientific evidence for climate change prompted him to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a monumental blunder that will plague later generations. His “deconstruction of the administrative state,” the unravelling of government institutions patiently constructed by his predecessors, significantly crippled his administration’s response to the coronavirus. His gargantuan pre-pandemic addition to the national debt through simultaneous tax cuts and military budget increases put the country at great economic risk. All of these policies were pushed through over the advice of wiser counsels, even within his administration.

Now, on a daily basis, the president appears before the American people and pretends to know much more than he does: about when to lift shelter-in-place restrictions (Easter because “it’s a beautiful day”), which experimental drugs to use (“I’m not a doctor, but I have common sense”), and how to meet the needs of states desperate for ventilators (“try getting it yourselves”). Serial failure has not tempered his hubris, not faintly. In adversity, he’s simply fallen back on a tactic he’s deployed his whole life in the face of adversity: double down. If hubris didn’t work, then über-hubris is the cure.

Through it all, Donald Trump has somehow eluded the grasp of Nemesis. Poised with her scales of justice, the goddess watched over last year’s impeachment hearings. Yet courtesy of a phalanx of Republican senators, Trump was not brought to justice, despite his unconstitutional behavior.

Now, it seems, Nemesis has returned, this time brandishing her sword.

Trump’s incompetence in the face of Covid-19 has helped cause a soaring American death toll. The U.S. is being serially laid to waste, a reality for which he accepts no responsibility. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Trump Rex has not the slightest interest in confronting the truth of his sins or the horror of his actions. Don’t expect the president to put out his own eyes, as Oedipus does at the end of the play. No need, in fact. Trump has always been blind and, not surprisingly, his blind ambition combined with his blind greed has culminated in an administration in which the blind are indeed leading the blind.

Come November, it falls to the American people, if all goes well, to deliver the ultimate judgment of Nemesis.

The End of the World?

Dystopian fiction is about how the world ends — not the extinction of the planet but the end of our familiar world. How we got from here to dystopia isn’t normally central to such novels. In fact, the end of that familiar world has usually taken place before you open the book and you may, at best, see it through brief flashbacks. The point is to plunge you directly into a future from hell like, for example, the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nightmares don’t work with long explanatory introductions.

In a similar fashion, we’re not experiencing the end of the world itself right now. We’re not (yet) in the midst of nuclear annihilation or, say, the extinction of the human species via some extreme version of climate change. The current coronavirus pandemic is an apocalypse, to be sure, but a passing one. As Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki wrote long ago about the everyday horrors of communism in A Minor Apocalypse, “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only their world which was dying.”

Herein lies the sobering reassurance of such stories. They remind us that worlds, like people, die all the time, only to be replaced by new worlds. Cities fall and rise again, as do civilizations. Even dystopian places like Idi Amin’s Uganda or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian killing fields eventually burn out. The handmaid lives to tell her tale and Gilead, too, crumbles in the end.

Athens survived the plague, though its democracy was compromised by war and disease. America, too, will live on. But it will have lost some further measure of its greatness thanks in no small part to the man who, however cynically, wanted to make it great again.

TomDispatch, April 17, 2020

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The Next Pandemic

Congress is already thinking about how to prevent the next pandemic.

See how quickly Cory Booker (D-NJ) has teamed up with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to write a letter calling for a global ban on “wet markets.” The current pandemic is reputed to have originated in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. So, having identified what they believe to be the root of the problem, these politicians want to eliminate it.

In an era of political polarization, even modest bipartisan action is noteworthy — and cause for suspicion.

Booker and Graham could have benefited humanity by reaching across the aisle to do pretty much anything other than co-writing that letter. If they’d done just a little homework, they would have discovered that a “wet market” is any place that sells perishable goods like meat and produce — as opposed to a “dry market” where you can get appliances.

Wet markets are a vital part of life in most of the world. Only some sell the kind of wildlife, dead or alive, that can generate zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Your local farmers market, for instance, qualifies as a wet market. “Calling for a ban on all wet markets based on the Wuhan wet market, which purportedly sold live wildlife, is like banning all pet ownership based on what goes down in Tiger King,” writes Martha Cheng in The Atlantic.

It also might seem strange for Congress to focus attention on the next pandemic when it has done such a lousy job dealing with the current pandemic. Instead of dictating policies to other countries, the senators should be doing more to ensure that state authorities have testing kits, hospitals have critical supplies, and citizens have the economic wherewithal to survive the ongoing economic downturn.

Instead of going far afield to find blame, Booker and Graham could have found a worthier target right down the block. The Trump administration, through its overwhelming incompetence, has turned the United States into an enormous Petri dish of infection. By threatening to restart the economy without either squashing the curve or ensuring that enough testing kits and a tracing system are in place, Trump is threatening to offer up thousands of new hosts for this novel coronavirus.

And by canceling U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization this week, President The-Buck-Stops-Anywhere-But-Here is kneecapping the one global institution that can help save us from the next pandemic. “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said by way of explanation.

According to that logic, I can cancel my federal tax payments this year.

When I was preparing to write this column about the next pandemic, I discovered that I’d already done so: in an article for the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.

In 2014.

So, before I return to what the world is doing now to prevent the next COVID-19 outbreak, let’s step back for a moment to September 2014, when the world was confronting the specter of Ebola. That episode contains some important lessons for today.

Back in 2014

In the South Korean movie The Host, the American military pours formaldehyde into the Han River and inadvertently creates a monster. This freak of nature not only goes on a murderous rampage but also is the host of a deadly virus. The movie, inspired by a real-life incident of contamination, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of tampering with the environment.

At first glance, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa would seem to have nothing to do with such ecological issues. The plague, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, most likely came from an infected fruit bat that bit a toddler in a remote area of eastern Guinea in December 2013. The disease spread quickly from there to urban locations and then across borders. Beginning this summer, it has dominated the headlines. In August, it very nearly overshadowed the summit of African leaders that took place in Washington, DC.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever. It has a very high mortality rate. There are no known vaccines, though several experimental drugs are currently being tested. Several outbreaks of Ebola have taken place in the past, but mostly in remote areas. Since it first appeared in the Congo region in 1976, Ebola has claimed around 3,000 lives.

For all the media attention surrounding the current outbreak, Ebola is not the most pressing medical issue facing Africa today. Every day, 2,000 African children die from diarrhea. Every minute, an African child dies of malaria. In 2011 alone, 1.2 million Africans died of HIV/AIDS. The Ebola epidemic would have to increase several hundred-fold to match these numbers.

What makes these diseases so tragic in their effects is that effective treatments exist that could bring the mortality rate down to near zero. In the case of diarrhea, that means clean water and sanitation; for malaria, that means mosquito nets and prescription drugs; for HIV/AIDS that means antiretroviral treatments. So far, the money has not been available in sufficient quantities to address these problems.

Diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS no longer threaten lives at an epidemic level in industrialized countries. Ebola threatens to be something quite different, since it has resisted treatment. The media has covered the Ebola outbreak so extensively in part because of fears that the disease could spread beyond Africa. Books like The Hot Zone and movies like Contagion have primed people to expect the next major pandemic to emerge any day. But because of the way it spreads — through direct contact with infected bodily fluids — Ebola is not likely to become the next pandemic.

Another reason the media loves to write about Ebola is because it fits comfortably into a neo-colonial view of Africa as a place of barbaric customs such as eating “bush meat.” The consumption of infected chimpanzee or bat meat has been linked in the past to Ebola outbreaks. In this case, however, the outbreak had nothing to do with eating anything. And plenty of people in America eat “bush meat,” which we simply call “game” — venison, boar, and squirrels — and few people consider that to be barbaric.

Of course, Ebola is worrisome because of the speed with which it has spread. One of the reasons that Ebola has spread so quickly is that medical personnel in Africa are already stretched thin dealing with these other diseases.

But the other reason for Ebola’s spread is environmental. The current outbreak of Ebola differs from all previous ones because it spread from a remote area to urban centers. And that happened in part because of deforestation.

The area where this strain of Ebola first appeared — the Western Guinean Lowland Forests — have been cut down by loggers or to make way for farmers. West Africa as a whole has been losing more forests annually — nearly a million hectares — than any other place in the world. Humans are venturing into places that were hitherto largely untouched.

In other words, residents in the region are now more likely than ever to have contact with carriers of Ebola. And they will also have more contact with one another, creating more opportunities for the spread of the disease.

The environmental destruction of Africa’s forests may well produce more outbreaks of the disease. And it might spread to areas with inadequate medical infrastructure. But if we’re going to worry about the next global epidemic, it will more likely come from the flu or SARS, not Ebola.

Still, we should be concerned about how our changing environment affects the spread of disease. Rising temperatures connected to human activity — global warming — has been linked to the spread of malaria and the greater incidence of flu epidemics. We simply don’t know what alteration of the environment will trigger a calamitous pandemic.

At the end of The Host, the monster dies. And eventually the current Ebola outbreak will burn out. But if we continue to treat our environment as a place to dump our garbage, the garbage will eventually come back and haunt us. It won’t take the form of a science fiction monster. But Ebola, malaria, and SARS can be just as lethal as anything the movies have dreamed up for us.

Lessons Moving Forward

That outbreak of Ebola would last for two-and-a-half years and claim over 11,000 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In 2018, meanwhile, 405,000 people died of malaria, 94 percent of them in Africa. Also that year, 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. And diarrheal diseases like rotavirus, cholera, and shigella kill more people than homicide, suicide, military conflict, and terrorism combined: nearly 1.6 million people in 2017 versus 1.35 million deaths from those other causes.

So far, COVID-19 has killed about 128,000 people. In the United States, 26,000 people have died, and the latest predictions are that about 69,000 will perish here by the time the pandemic fades. If that rate of increase holds across the globe — with lower rates in some countries and higher rates in others — then COVID-19 will be responsible for about 340,000 deaths.

That’s a lot of people. And it could be a lot more if this coronavirus becomes entrenched in countries with little medical infrastructure, in overcrowded refugee camps, or in places without water for hand-washing. But this estimate of around 340,000 fatalities doesn’t approach the annual death tolls of the other diseases.

Of course, this projected death toll for COVID-19 already takes into account significant countermeasures (social distancing, economic lockdown) to avoid the kind of horrific death tolls associated with past pandemics, like the Spanish flu of 1918 that left as many as 50 million dead.

But why hasn’t the industrialized world funded similar efforts to radically reduce malaria deaths? Could it be because the disease isn’t infectious and doesn’t threaten the Global North?

Nor has the global response to COVID-19 addressed the root causes of the pandemic. Wet markets, as with bush meat and Ebola, are not the ultimate precipitating factors. UN Environmental Program head Inger Anderson is looking at the same data as Booker and Graham about the source of zoonotic diseases and has come to very different conclusions. “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

It’s not just deforestation. Climate change plays a role too. “As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat,” explains Aaron Bernstein of Harvard’s Center of Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”

The scientific community, funded by governments and private foundations, is focused on preventing the next pandemic. The search is on for an antiviral drug that can either mess with the way this coronavirus reproduces or, as Matthew Hutson explains in The New Yorker, alter the cellular mechanisms of the human host to address a suite of viruses. The Pentagon’s R & D arm DARPA, meanwhile, is researching how to stop a pandemic even further back in the chain of infection by identifying and vaccinating the animal hosts. The idea is to prevent the leap of infectious disease from animal to human in the first place.

These scientific efforts are admirable and necessary. But even stopping pandemics before they make the leap to humans is intervening too late in the process. We will always play catch-up with these wily viruses if we continue our all-out war on the environment.

Yes, we need a coronavirus truce in the various military conflicts around the world. More fundamentally, we need a truce in our assault on the planet.

If we don’t pay substantial reparations to make good our relationship with Mother Earth, she will continue to send us these little viral messages: stop being selfish and arrogant, pay attention to the important things in life, and for crying out loud start listening to your mother.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 15, 2020

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COVID-19 and the Global Economy

THE MODERN GLOBAL economy rests on the foundation of modern medicine. The transactions that sustain the global trade of goods and services require an implicit assurance that merchants and financiers are not infecting one another when they meet to conduct business. Economic globalization requires that the nodes of international distribution—ports, airline terminals, railway stations, intermodal hubs—do not function as distribution points for pathogens. Otherwise, the transaction costs in disrupted operations, emergency health care, and labor turnover would outweigh overseas investment, and resources would stay closer to home.

Before the modern era, global transactions in the marketplace or around the field of battle carried a significant risk of infection. The global circulation of pathogens, hitching a ride on explorers, soldiers, and traders, has periodically devastated civilizations. Plagues played a role in undermining the Roman Empire. Disease carried by the conquistadors devastated indigenous communities throughout the Americas. The influenza outbreak at the end of World War I was the final factor in suppressing the first wave of modern economic globalization, which had gathered force at the beginning of the twentieth century thanks to the telegraph, railroads, and modern shipping.

Since then, advances in sanitation and epidemiology, and the development of effective vaccines, have engendered the confident sentiment that global commerce would not again be disrupted by pathogens. Control of diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever brought more and more parts of the world effectively into the international economy. Flu vaccines, in ever more purified form, effectively shielded populations from serious outbreaks. Even more lethal pandemics, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014, have been controlled and contained. Neither influenza, with its high morbidity rate, nor Ebola, with its high mortality rate, caused any significant disruption of the global economy—or, more precisely, any more of a significant disruption than traffic accidents, oil spills, and natural disasters.

COVID-19 appears to represent not only a novel virus but a novel threat to the global economy. The lack of immunity in the population and the large number of asymptomatic carriers make it a very difficult pathogen to control. Epidemiologists are concerned that this particular coronavirus will likely enter the family of diseases, like the common cold and the flu, that precipitate periodic outbreaks throughout the world.1

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has already compromised the circulatory system of the global economy. Port traffic has declined significantly. Airline travel has come to a standstill. The stock market has gone from bull to bear in record time. Quarantines have ground business to a halt, and unemployment rates are rising rapidly. A stark divide has opened up between those who work in the physical world and those who are able to work virtually.

Although the coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms in the vast majority of those infected, it can be fatal for people with underlying conditions and compromised immune systems. Similarly, for the global economy to have suffered such a sudden reversal in fortune, it must have had some serious underlying conditions. The looming questions are whether this particular patient will survive and, if so, how its functioning will be altered by the disease.

Even before the latest coronavirus outbreak, economic globalization was facing some very significant challenges. On January 24, 2019, the Economist reported on a gathering consensus that globalization was slowing down.2 As part of this trend, the percentage of trade in global GDP has fallen, foreign direct investment’s share of global GDP has declined, and multinational corporations are playing a less critical role in the global economy. The nature of the game has been changing:

The cost of moving goods has stopped falling. Multinational firms have found that global sprawl burns money and that local rivals often eat them alive. Activity is shifting towards services, which are harder to sell across borders: scissors can be exported in 20ft-containers, hair stylists cannot. And Chinese manufacturing has become more self-reliant, so needs to import fewer parts.

As economist Pankaj Ghemawat frequently points out, the global economy has never been all that globalized in the first place, with cross-border trade amounting to only 20% of global GDP and foreign direct investment representing only 10% of overall investment.3 As a consequence, the global economy was able to expand over the last decade even as the effects of a slowdown took hold.

Technological advances have been accelerating globalization’s retreat. Increased automation means that securing cheaper overseas labor no longer makes sense when parts can be printed out and the final product assembled by robots closer to home. As a result, the global assembly line—and the global logistics that sustain its profitability—is poised to become as outdated as the caravansaries of the Silk Road era or the telegraph stations of the Gilded Age.

Another pre-existing condition for globalization prior to the onset of COVID-19 was its contribution to climate change. Freight transport alone contributes 7–8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with air transport being the most carbon intensive.4 One obvious method of radically reducing carbon emissions to meet the recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would be to return production to local sources.

A final challenge has been political. In the 1990s and 2000s, the critique of economic globalization largely came from the left and was confined to the margins of mainstream politics. After the financial crisis of 2008–2009, a new populist right emerged that challenged globalists, as well as the main political parties of the center right and center left that have long supported globalization. That critique took the form of a sharpened skepticism concerning the institutions of European integration, culminating in the successful Brexit referendum in 2016. Skepticism also helped push the populist right into power in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy. Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil both took advantage of this sentiment to gain office. New right leaders erected trade barriers, targeted transnational corporations, or pursued other policies designed to retard globalization and strengthen local manufacture.

COVID-19 is attacking a system of globalization that has already been altered by economic, technological, environmental, and political factors. It is not the first time that economic globalization has faced challenges. In the past, there have been financial crises large and small, as well as expected (Y2K) and unexpected (9/11) events. But this time, some fundamental changes are afoot, and the global economy post-COVID-19 will necessarily look different.

First of all, the global economy will shrink. According to projections from Moody’s Investor Service at the end of March, global economic growth will be negative for 2020, with particularly severe contractions in the United States, Europe, Japan, and certain countries in the Global South including Mexico and Argentina.5 At the same time, Moody’s predicts a strong economic rebound in 2021, led by China and India. These projections assume, with little evidence but much wishful thinking, that COVID-19 will have minimal economic impact after 2020. Furthermore, to ensure a global rebound, the consensus among both G20 members and opinionmakers has favored more globalization, not less.6

While the more industrialized countries and the international financial institutions urge a quick turnaround in overall economic output, they pay little attention to the nature of that output or the underlying conditions that made the global economy so vulnerable to pandemics. Previous disruptions to supply chains, such as the 2011 earthquake in Japan, were one-time events. Because of its potential to become a new and chronic part of the risk environment, COVID-19 introduces a greater degree of unpredictability into the global supply chain, prompting manufacturers to hedge their bets by looking more seriously into reshoring production back home.7 National governments that engage in the same risk assessment will decrease reliance on imports for such critical medical supplies as masks.8 The global economy may well rebound quickly when the COVID-19 threat passes, but it might be even less globalized in terms of trade and investment.

Another unpredictable element involves borders. Globalization promoted a borderless world, most obviously in the European Union with its unimpeded internal movement of goods, capital, and workers. Free trade agreements such as NAFTA replicated this model for goods and capital. Because of COVID-19, borders have reappeared in Europe’s Schengen Area. To the extent that these borders remain or harden elsewhere in the world, it will effectively exact a tax on globalization and add yet more topography to the so-called flat world of the global economy.

On the opposite side of the cost-benefit ledger, automation will encourage the localization of manufacture. Economists who have examined how automation has spiked at times of recession expect a similar surge as a result of this economic downturn, with low-income workers, the young, and workers of color at greatest risk.9 Automation will also have a differential impact around the world, one that is difficult to quantify. But the World Bank estimates that a staggering 85% of jobs in Ethiopia, 77% of jobs in China, and 72% of jobs in Thailand could be replaced by robots.10 COVID-19 alone will not be responsible for causing an economic transformation analogous to the massive reduction of the agricultural workforce in the industrial era, but it could very well represent a moment of punctuated equilibrium in this technological evolution.

The pandemic could have a comparable effect on the global carbon footprint. The economic shutdowns have already cut carbon emissions worldwide, in some places quite dramatically, as in the 25% reduction in China in February.11 But economic rebounds in the past have produced commensurate rebounds in carbon emissions, such as the 5% global uptick after the 2008–2009 financial crisis.12 The bailout plans prepared in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have made few, if any, provisions to lock in carbon reductions through large-scale shifts to sustainable energy production, manufacturing, and agriculture.

Stimulus packages do little to address the economic inequality, between and within countries, that globalization aggravated and COVID-19 is worsening. Although the stock market correction certainly reduced the wealth of the very rich, growing unemployment is more negatively affecting those without a cushion of savings. Once the virus hits countries in the Global South as hard as it is now affecting Europe and the United States, the development gap will deepen. The provision of some crisis assistance from north to south will do little to address the more endemic problem of economic inequality.13

A final consideration is whether COVID-19 will shift the center of gravity of the world economy. The Chinese economy was hit hard early in the crisis, as it closed down manufacturing. But it is also the first country to bring the pandemic under some measure of control, and it has been reopening its economy even as other countries, like India, are just starting their shutdowns. This recovery has allowed China to provide pandemic assistance to countries now struggling with the disease.

Because of the substantial economic blow it is now enduring, which will be larger and more sustained than China’s, the United States is poised to lose whatever remains of its global leadership.14 It is having difficulty meeting the resource needs of domestic hospitals and cannot hope to compete with China by assisting other countries. Even before the pandemic, the United States faced a serious debt problem at all levels—federal, household, corporate—which the economic shutdown and subsequent federal bailout will aggravate.15 The debt that Britain accumulated during World War II precipitated its eclipse as a global power and replacement by the United States. COVID-19 may play that same role by transferring the fulcrum of the global economy from the United States to China, a trend already underway.

The current pandemic will not by itself transform the global economy. It will, however, reveal existing vulnerabilities and encourage certain trends. But much depends on how individual governments and the international community respond to what COVID-19 has revealed about the way the world works—and doesn’t work.

  1. James Hamblin, “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus,” The Atlantic, February 24, 2020. 
  2. The Steam Has Gone Out of Globalization,” The Economist, January 24, 2019. 
  3. Pankaj Ghemawat, “Globalization: Myth and Reality,” Harvard Business Review, February 24, 2017. 
  4. Alan McKinnon, “Freight Transport in a Low-Carbon World,” TR News 306 (November–December 2016). 
  5. Puneet Wadhwa, “Moody’s Cuts India 2020 GDP Forecast to 2.5%; Global Growth to Dip to –0.5%,” Business Standard, March 27, 2020. 
  6. UK Prime Minister’s Office, “G20 Leaders’ Summit—Statement on COVID-19: 26 March 2020,” gov.uk, March 26, 2020. Kori Schake, “Globalization Is the Best Medicine for a Sick Planet,” Bloomberg, March 27, 2020. 
  7. Kemal Derviş and Sebastián Strauss, “Amid Rise of Nationalism, Coronavirus and Climate Change May Spur a New Wave of International Cooperation,” MarketWatch, March 8, 2020. 
  8. Keith Bradsher and Liz Alderman, “The World Needs Masks. China Makes Them—But Has Been Hoarding Them,” New York Times, March 13, 2020. 
  9. Mark Muro, Robert Maxim, and Jacob Whiton, “The Robots Are Ready as the COVID-19 Recession Spreads,” Brookings, March 24, 2020. 
  10. World Bank Group, World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends (Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2016). 
  11. Meegan Crist, “What the Coronavirus Means for Climate Change,” New York Times, March 27, 2020. 
  12. Matt McGrath, “Coronavirus: Air Pollution and CO2 Fall Rapidly as Virus Spreads,” BBC News, March 19, 2020. 
  13. Global Humanitarian Response Plan: COVID-19, United Nations Coordinated Appeal, April–December 2020 (Geneva: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, 2020). 
  14. Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, “The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order,” Foreign Affairs, March 18, 2020. 
  15. John Feffer, “There’s a New Crash Coming,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 19, 2018. 

Inference, April 3, 2020

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The Politics of the Coronavirus

The far right thrives on fear. It’s no surprise, then, that it would use the latest pandemic, which has generated widespread panic, to bolster its own agenda.

All of the hallmarks of the far right are in play during the current crisis. It has pushed to close borders. It has demonized foreigners and particularly border-crossers. It has spread a variety of conspiracy theories. And where it is in power — Hungary, Israel — it has moved to increase that power through emergency measures.

On the other hand, the incompetent response of some right-wing leaders — Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — may well set back the far right in certain countries. Moreover, the scale of the threat has put on the table the kind of large-scale transformative policies that hitherto circulated only on the margins.

So, which way will COVID-19 ultimately push the political pendulum?

From Denial to Weaponization

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

The far right, led by the head of the anti-Hillary forces, Donald Trump, would have immediately used the “China virus” to demand that the Clinton administration close all borders and ban all immigrants and refugees. Under ordinary conditions, in other words, the far right would have had a field day in the United States using the coronavirus threat to advance its xenophobic agenda in the face of a liberal, cautious Washington consensus.

But with Trump in the Oval Office rather than sitting on the sidelines lobbing the pundit’s equivalent of Molotov cocktails, the far right started out in denial. When the pandemic began in China at the end of December, after all, it was far away and it was not infecting Americans. Even when the pathogen was detected for the first time in the United States on January 21 — in a young man returning to Washington state from China — right-wing pundits continued to downplay the risk for weeks on end.

On February 24, for instance, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

He would say on another occasion that the greater threat to the country was Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party more generally. Just as becoming president didn’t make Trump more presidential in conduct, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom clearly didn’t make Limbaugh any more professional in conduct.

The breakdown of concern among Americans has followed the political contours of the country. Writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic this week:

A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.

As the Trump administration finally switched into its own incompetent version of engagement, some sections of the far right zoomed well past the denial phase. Those of a survivalist and apocalyptic bent are already halfway to their bunkers, with Alex Jones of Infowars infamy trying to profit off the panic by raising the prices on his prepper products. It’s part of a more general wave of profiteering that encompasses Amazon price-gougers and traffickers of inside information like Richard Burr (R-NC) in the Senate.

Neo-Nazis and sovereignists, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the failures of the federal state to handle the crisis. They are anticipating the realization of their cherished dream: the collapse of the liberal order. Still other extremists in the QAnon camp believe that Trump will use the virus as a pretext to arrest members of a global liberal pedophile ring (like Trump, they simply double down when their assertions are proven wrong, as in the Comet Pizza debacle).

Then there’s the blame game. Jerry Falwell Jr. fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the coronavirus. California Republican Joanne Wright, like many of her tribe, has asserted that China manufactured the disease but added the twist that Bill Gates financed the plot. And it wouldn’t be a wacky right-wing conspiracy if George Soros somehow weren’t implicated as well.

Chinese and Asians more generally have faced a terrifying uptick in attacks and discrimination. With the appearance of each new hotspot — IranItaly — targeted xenophobia has been sure to follow. Soon, thanks to Trump, it will be Americans in the crosshairs.

As far as the American far right’s anti-immigrant agenda, the Trump administration is already carrying that water. Trump closed the border with Mexico. He announced that all undocumented trying to get into this country will be summarily turned back.

Even the migrant workers who are seasonally granted H2-A visas to work on American farms are finding it difficult to cross the border. Farm owners pushed back against a ban, forcing the administration to accept workers previously granted such visas. But the absence of new workers will still leave U.S. agriculture dangerously understaffed.

Borderline Issue

For decades, Europe has been at war with itself over borders — both its internal borders and its borders with the rest of the world. The coronavirus has taken that war to a new level.

The overwhelming obsession of the far right in Europe has been to reduce or eliminate immigration from points east and south. Some political parties, like Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, even support “remigration”: namely, forcing established immigrants to leave the country.

The coronavirus offers the far right yet another arrow in its quiver. “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. “There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has used the pandemic to push his “closed ports” policy. In February, even as the outbreak was gathering steam in his country, Salvini declared that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one reported case on the whole continent, in Egypt.

In Germany, the identitarian movement hung banners proclaiming “Defend Our Borders” on the Brandenburg Gate, once a potent symbol of the erased border between east and west Germany. Throughout Europe, far-right parties were retooling their “great replacement” narrative — that immigrants are poised to overwhelm majority populations — to incorporate the coronavirus. The threat that outsiders supposedly pose to the health of nations has long been a singular obsession of fascists.

It wasn’t just the threat from outside Europe.

In 1995, seven European nations created the Schengen Area, which abolished their internal border controls and visa requirements. Eventually becoming subject to European Union law, the area expanded to include 26 states. Practically from the beginning, the far right has taken aim at Schengen as an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty. It has argued that Schengen makes control of immigrants more difficult (as with the influx of Tunisians into Italy in 2011) and compromised anti-terrorist policing (in the wake of a terrorism suspect’s flight from Germany to Italy in 2016). Still, Schengen survived.

What the far right wasn’t able to do, the coronavirus managed in a matter of weeks. Some members reestablished internal border controls without notifying the EU Commission, as required by the Schengen Border Code. These moves prompted the EU to declare last week that all internal borders will be closed for 30 days. The next step for the far right, and its more mainstream conservative allies, is to try to make this temporary change permanent.

Separating the Competent…

For some illiberal leaders, the coronavirus is like a golden ticket. It allows them to sweep away what remains of the rule of law in their countries.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary moves to hang onto power. Up until recently, things weren’t looking so good for Bibi. He was supposed to go on trial this week for corruption. The last election provided a narrow victory to his opposition, and the head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, was given first shot at forming a government.

But the coronavirus, a death sentence for so many people, has been a lifeline for Netanyahu.

As part of a more general lockdown, the prime minister froze the judiciary. And that just happened to put his own trial on hold. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned this week and closed down parliament rather than allow a vote to elect his successor, who would likely have been from the Blue and White alliance.

Because of new rules that limit public gathering, it’s impossible for people to come out on the streets to protest any of this. It goes further, as Gershon Gorenberg explains in The Washington Post. Even as the government was freezing the justice system…

Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.

Think of it as a stealth coup. Plus the transformation of Israel into a police state. Or, put another way, Israelis are now going to understand a little more of what Palestinians have known for a long time.

Viktor Orban has done something similar in Hungary. He has put a new law in front of parliament that would give his government extraordinary power to detain pretty much anyone, as Kim Lane Scheppele points out in Hungarian Spectrum.

Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public — or that alarm or agitate that public — could be punished by up to five years in prison. And anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

The first set of controls is aimed at what remains of an independent press in Hungary. The second could incarcerate anyone who objects to anything the Orban government does.

As if that’s not enough, the prime minister could, according to the proposal, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” These would be permanent changes in Hungarian law.

Many sectors of Hungarian civil society have vehemently opposed this proposed “enabling act.” And parliament failed to pass the bill on the first attempt this week. But it’s likely that Orban will try again next week, relying on his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to get it through.

…From the Incompetent

Donald Trump’s dangerously ill-informed response to the coronavirus — including such basic failures as providing test kits and other basic resources to hospitals — has incredibly not spelled his political demise.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, 50 percent of Americans think he’s done a good job versus only 45 percent who give him poor marks. His approval rating has even increased a couple points. That might change as the casualties rise, particularly if the president attempts to end the policies of social isolation early, as he has threatened to do. Or it might not, if the virus disproportionately affects blue urban areas.

For all his incompetence, Trump hasn’t been so stupid as to miss the political opportunity to push through parts of his cherished economic agenda, like further tax cuts. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. The Trump administration is clearly looking to Israel and Hungary as examples.

Other incompetent leaders, however, may not survive politically.

Jair Bolsonaro has largely followed the same script as Trump by downplaying the risk of the pandemic. On March 15, despite having been in close contact with several members of his administration who’d already contracted the disease, Bolsanaro joined a demonstration of his supporters where he touched a reported 272 people. The president has claimed that his tests have come back negative. He also continues to argue that the crisis is little more than a media conspiracy.

Millions of people appeared last week at their windows in the big cities to bang pots and pans in a demand for Bolsonaro to step down. Even some of his conservative backers are outraged and have turned against him. After declaring in a December column in the conservative Estado de São Paulo that Bolsonaro is “unbeatable” in the next election, political commentator Eliane Cantanhêde argued more recently, “I think he’s fatally wounded for the election [in 2022] … If the election was held today there is a big chance Bolsonaro would be defeated.”

COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their underlying conditions. The same holds true for politicians. The most fit will survive while the politically weak will be weeded out.

Time for Transformation

Nuclear apocalypse is hypothetical. The worst effects of climate change are in the future. Neither nuclear disarmament nor radical cuts in carbon emissions have been on table because of the unfortunate tendency of politicians to minimize the risks and ignore the already considerable short-term impacts.

The coronavirus crisis is not abstract. It’s happening right now. Country after country has imposed quarantines, dramatically changing how people live, work, and interact. Governments are considering massive bailouts to save the economy and bolster medical systems. But those are just quick fixes.

“We changed the way we live, work and travel to counter this pandemic, why can we not do the same to counter the climate emergency?” asks Lorenzo Marsili in Al Jazeera. “Why should we go back to a deadly status quo now that we know it is within our power to transform the way we live and organise our economy and society?”

When the quarantines end, as they inevitably will, the world will experience the same kind of rebound in carbon emissions that happened after the end of the 2009 financial crisis. So, the economic response to this pandemic must incorporate features of the Green New Deal or we will be jumping out of a frying pan and into a literal fire.

COVID-19 is a near-death experience for the human race. Just as individuals often react to such experiences by transforming their lives, the current crisis should force a reevaluation of the status quo.

Anything less will be just a temporary stay of execution.

Foreign Policy in Focis, March 25, 2020