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Emperor Trump Now Stands Partially Naked

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

Not these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Trudeau

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

In Canada, they’re talking about 21 seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

James Mattis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10, 2020, Foreign Policy In Focus

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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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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess

The next presidential election will not likely hinge on foreign policy.

Americans will go to the polls in November to express their fervent support, or disgust, for Donald Trump. The candidates’ positions on the issues — on any issues — matter only to a dwindling number of voters who have somehow managed, over the last three years, to remain undecided about the current president’s fitness for higher office.

Of course, people are still responding to the pollsters when asked what they care about going into the election. Health care ranks number one in recent Gallup and Harris polls. The economy remains at the top of the Pew surveys, with the environment climbing to the number two position. National security, particularly terrorism, hovers somewhere near the top of the rankings.

But how many Americans will actually make up their minds in November based on these issues?  According to The New York Times, only about 9 percent of the electorate is “truly persuadable.” Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight arrives at a similar number — somewhere between 7 and 9 percent.

Even this number overstates the size of this sliver of the electorate. The last election was decided in the Electoral College by a relatively small number of voters in three swing states. So, the “truly persuadables” of California or Oklahoma will be indistinguishable in the blue or red wave. Only the undecided voters in places like Florida and Wisconsin will matter.

These undecided swing-state supervoters, who hold the fate of the nation in their hands, might not care about anything except, ultimately, the personality of the candidates. The issues that matter to them will likely be domestic: health care or the state of the economy. Unless Trump starts a war between now and November — which is not impossible, given his impulsiveness — foreign policy will not decide this election.

Still, it’s important to look at how the candidates consider the U.S. role in the world to understand what will happen after November. I’ve spent the last three years evaluating Trump’s erratic foreign policy: his militarism, his irrational trade policy, his war on migrants. If he gets reelected, expect four more years of nonstop aggression. It’s a terrifying prospect.

If Trump gets booted in November, he will leave behind considerable wreckage. How do the Dems propose to clean up this mess?

Status Quo Ante?

amy-klobuchar-pete-buttiegeg

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The Democrats offer such a wide range of options when it comes to foreign policy that they really represent three distinct parties. Dismayed by how far to the right the party of Trump has gone, you can back a moderate Republican in the person of Mike Bloomberg. With Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, you can opt for a Democratic version of “the Blob,” Washington’s foreign policy consensus. Or you could veer to the left and embrace Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Of course, with Trump as the reference point, all the Democrats share a family resemblance when it comes to foreign policy. They all acknowledge the threat of climate change, want to revive U.S. diplomacy, and promise to smooth over relations with allies. Any one of them would repair some of the damage of the Trump years.

But the damage goes deeper than what Trump has wrought. So, a return to the “good old days” of the Obama years — with its expanded drone attacks, failed negotiations with North Korea, and corporate-friendly trade deals — won’t be sufficient. With that in mind, let’s look at the Democratic line-up, beginning with the man who is closest to Trump in temperament and views: Mike Bloomberg.

As a billionaire, a former Republican, and a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg is the textbook middle-of-the-road option. In some ways, President Bloomberg would not alter Trump’s foreign policy. He’s a fierce defender of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and continues to believe that its leader Mohammad bin Salman is the face of reform. Bloomberg is also a big booster of Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. Like Trump, the media mogul has a fondness for Xi Jinping and doesn’t consider him a dictator.

Despite his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg wouldn’t cut the military budget, which reflects his innate hawkishness. And he has no problem increasing surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike.

On the other hand, Bloomberg supports rejoining the Iran nuclear deal without preconditions. He has poured a tremendous amount of his own money into battling the fossil fuel industry and promoting clean energy alternatives. He also wants to boost, not cut, immigration rates. He wouldn’t wage costly trade wars with China or America’s allies.

In other words, Bloomberg represents what the Republican Party might have looked like if it had evolved from the Yankee conservatism of George H.W. Bush instead of going off on the ruthless trajectory of the neoconservatives in the 2000s and the neopopulists under Trump. Bloomberg offers a version of Nixonian realpolitik with a green coating. He’s the kind of telegenic authoritarian that the chattering classes criticize but ultimately tolerate.

Pete Buttigieg has positioned himself as the most cosmopolitan of the candidates, the one who has studied abroad, served in the military overseas, and speaks a smattering of languages. Like Bill Clinton, he can code-switch between small-town American boyishness and Oxbridge sophistication.

In his first major foreign policy speech in July, Buttigieg offered five pretty good proposals: rejoin the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, repeal and replace the Authorization for Use of Military Force, block assistance to Israel if it annexes the West Bank, and invest in renewable energy. In general, Buttigieg is firmly pro-Israel, but he at least is willing to break with the AIPAC line when it comes to saying yes to everything Benjamin Netanyahu wants.

Ultimately, however, Buttigieg is a younger, hipper version of the Blob. As Michael Brenes explains in The New Republic:

On close examination, Buttigieg’s foreign policy departs very little from the suburban-friendly centrism of his domestic plans. His ideas are of a piece with those of previous Democratic presidential candidates who have sought to project military strength and entrusted U.S. strategy to an inherently hawkish establishment of national security experts. Despite the salutary rhetoric, plenty of evidence suggests a Buttigieg presidency would likely extend the forever war rather than terminate it. 

Amy Klobuchar falls into roughly the same category as Buttigieg, both of them trying to navigate a centrist position among the crowded field of candidates. She wants to get tough with China on economic relations and human rights, but also end the current trade war. She says she supports the Green New Deal, but also favors nuclear energy. She has supported an expansion of drone strikes but says she wants more transparency. She supports the Iran nuclear deal but calls Iran one of the two biggest threats to the United States.

In other words, she’s an ace triangulator. But she’s also perhaps the least experienced candidate on foreign policy, as her failure to name Mexico’s president in a recent interview reveals.

The Biden Alternative

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(Photo: Munich Security Conference / Flickr)

It’s instructive to examine Joe Biden’s current Foreign Affairs piece in light of what the more popular Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar are offering. Biden is an unexciting candidate in many ways, and he has suffered recent setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire. A poor showing in South Carolina — indeed, anything except an outright victory there — will probably put the nomination beyond his grasp.

Still, Biden has presented himself as the most experienced foreign policy candidate and remains a key party insider, so his views will be influential even if he falls far back in the pack.

His Foreign Affairs essay is entitled “Why America Must Lead Again,” which suggests the usual American exceptionalism. However, Biden leads not with military strength but with defense of democracy, rolling back Trump’s egregious immigration policies, and rooting out corruption.

“Democracies — paralyzed by hyperpartisanship, hobbled by corruption, weighed down by extreme inequality — are having a harder time delivering for their people,” he writes. He pledges to pull together a Summit for Democracy in his first year focused on “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” That’s a good idea that all the candidates should endorse.

Biden recasts trade policy as a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which translates into trade deals with labor and environmental provisions along with strong enforcement mechanisms. And he emphasizes diplomacy, not military force — ending the “forever wars,” ending U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, negotiating deals with adversaries, going back to the table on climate change.

In fact, with its emphases on democracy, fair trade, and military restraint, Biden’s article is virtually indistinguishable from Elizabeth Warren’s own Foreign Affairs essay from one year earlier.

This reflects two things: a progressive shift in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and an inherited frustration with the Blob. Biden’s essay would have made a fine Nobel Prize speech instead of what Obama actually delivered, which was a measured defense of just war.

However, Biden is largely interested in restoring U.S. foreign policy to what existed prior to Trump, but with a certain naivete about the influence of the Blob. As such, it’s what Biden doesn’t say that’s perhaps more telling than what he does. For instance, he has little to say about the use of military force beyond the usual bromides about maintaining U.S. military superiority and resorting to the Pentagon only as a final option.

And that brings us to the progressive alternatives.

Moving Forward, Not Backward

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Rewinding U.S. foreign policy to December 2016 would be an enormous step forward. Ending Trump’s racist immigration policies, putting the nuclear button (and all other military buttons) as far from his fingers as possible, restoring a modicum of predictability to U.S. relations with allies, and rejoining key international agreements: that’s all worth supporting.

But Trump’s 2016 victory is also a reminder that the status quo is much more fragile than anyone ever expected. In office, Trump has skewered several important foreign policy certainties: that you just can’t meet with someone like Kim Jong Un, that you can’t walk away from a multilateral trade agreement, that you can’t reassign Pentagon funds to some other mission.

Democrats would do well to remember that the Blob has a Wizard of Oz quality. It speaks with the deep voice of authority, but it has no real public legitimacy. The average American is much more willing to consider radical changes in U.S. global posture than the Blob would countenance.

So, when progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about significant reductions in military spending — something that Bloomberg rejects and Biden sidesteps — it’s not so unfeasible as many pundits claim.

Let’s start with Sanders. If you look at the key points of his foreign policy, they’re not that different from Biden’s. His commitment to democracy and human rights even leads a centrist commentator like Jackson Diehl to give Sanders a cautious thumb’s up on foreign policy (which is, in turn, a corrective to the Washington Post article claiming that Sanders would “upend America’s global role”).

Sanders is not an isolationist. He is simply (and rightly) skeptical of U.S. military interventions. He doesn’t just talk about the military as a last resort but wants to adjust U.S. spending priorities to ensure that the Pentagon no longer has a disproportionate effect on U.S. foreign policy. How much is he willing to cut? Perhaps wisely, he hasn’t talked about a specific figure, preferring to focus on misplaced budget priorities:

The time is long overdue for us to take a hard look at military spending, including the “war on terror,” and whether it makes sense to spend trillions more on endless wars, wars that often cause more problems than they solve. Call me a radical, but maybe before funding a new space force, we should make sure no American goes bankrupt because of a medical bill or dies because they can’t afford to go to a doctor on time.

Elizabeth Warren has been more specific about Pentagon budget cuts, and that has made her a more convenient target. In her detailed health care plan, she proposed cutting $800 billion from the military budget over 10 years. That might sound like a lot, and as a result, Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen called her a more terrifying choice than Trump.

But a reduction of $80 billion a year wouldn’t even restore the Pentagon to Obama-era levels. In 2015, military spending was $586 billion. By 2019, it had grown to $716 billion, and Trump now wants to push it to $740 billion. So, just returning to Obama-level spending, not taking into consideration the rate of inflation, would require something much closer to a $150 billion cut, nearly twice what Warren proposes.

Neither Sanders nor Warren has offered anything truly transformational akin to a Global Green New Deal (as opposed to the domestic GND that Sanders touts), a new set of institutions to govern the global economy (a New Bretton Woods), or some fundamentally different way of engaging China and Russia. Although Warren’s catchphrase has been “I have a plan for that,” it hasn’t applied to foreign policy. As for Sanders, his Eurocentrism has prevented him from offering anything truly global in scope.

Looking Elsewhere

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Fortunately, other progressives are making bold proposals that the eventual Democratic presidential candidate can raise up. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently laid out a package of seven bills that would truly restore the United States to a leadership position in the world — through ethical action rather than stirring rhetoric or (worse) military/economic hegemony.

Two of Omar’s proposals are simple, imperative, and yet impossible without the Democrats winning a commanding margin in the Senate: ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the United States is the only country that hasn’t signed it) and re-signing and ratifying participation in the International Criminal Court.

A third bill, which would prohibit any security assistance to human-rights-abusing countries, is well worth considering. But it would encounter considerable resistance since the top recipients, Israel and Egypt, would face immediate scrutiny and their U.S. supporters would balk.

Three other proposals could attract bipartisan support. One would provide congressional oversight of any economic sanctions the executive branch wants to impose. A second would push the United States to take leadership on a global migration pact at the UN. A third would internationalize the YouthBuild program, which helps disadvantaged youth get the education and job training they need.

The final bill in the series, the Global Peacebuilding Act, is particularly visionary. Instead of diverting $5 billion from the Pentagon to build the Wall, this legislation would transfer $5 billion from the Pentagon’s fund for fighting overseas wars into a multilateral Global Peacebuilding Fund. Such an elegant use of Trump’s own stratagem could attract support from many Democrats and even some Republicans.

Will any of this make a difference in November?

It’s likely that anyone who would spend the time and energy to parse the foreign policy differences among all the candidates has already made up their mind about Trump. Moreover, what will win the presidential election is power, not policy: power of rhetoric, but more importantly power on the ground.

And there’s one more element. Particularly with his foreign policy, Trump has gradually whittled his base of support down to the nativists, those who despise “shithole” countries, who want nothing but larger walls, who want to quarantine the United States from foreign influences of all sorts. Trump’s rivals, by offering a more inclusive global vision, could motivate a larger turnout among the foreign born and the larger diaspora communities.

Perhaps in this way, at least, foreign policy can play a pivotal role in the election where it counts: getting out the vote.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 19, 2020

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America’s Coronavirus: Containing the Outbreak of Trumpism

The epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak is widely thought to be a wet market in Wuhan. At such markets, seafood, chicken, and other conventional foodstuffs are on sale alongside live animals. You can buy more than just dogs and cats there. Local epicures also shop for more exotic fare like foxes, badgers, civets, and snakes.

The coronavirus is a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans. The wet market is the perfect environment for the disease to incubate, mutate, and eventually infect the unwary.

Think of Washington, D.C. as America’s political wet market.

Washington is a place where ordinary politics takes place. But sometimes exotic species are introduced into the nation’s capital. And that’s when a new disease can incubate and mutate and spread throughout the system.

Donald Trump is Patient Zero for America’s “king’s disease,” which is the metonymic translation of coronavirus. His delusions of grandeur were always dangerously infectious, but they only became lethal when he took up residence in the White House.

As Trump came into contact with the ordinary Republican members of Congress, the disease leaped into the American body politic. Virtually the entire Republican Party began to treat the president not as the head of state or the head of the party but as a king — and thus above politics and not subject to the same congressional constraints as previous presidents.

Political scientists are frankly incapable of explaining the current impeachment saga in Washington. It takes an epidemiologist to figure out how a set of politicians, with a wide range of intellectual capabilities from grandmaster to moron, can all deny over and over again the clear evidence in front of their eyes that the president committed impeachable offenses.

Sure, they are marching in lockstep with the party leadership. But it really seems as if they’re suffering from a more serious infection when so many of them have refused to accept the admission of more evidence even as they insist that the existing evidence is insufficient.

Trumpism is not, of course, restricted to the political wet market of Washington, D.C. Plenty of Americans scattered across the country are willing to kneel down before the putative king.

It’s unclear how to address this larger outbreak or even if it’s possible. After all, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, two-thirds of Trump supporters back in 2016 still believed Obama to be a Muslim. They’ve since added more Trump-inspired conspiracy theories to the list, such as Ukraine’s supposed involvement in hacking the 2016 presidential election. As with mad cow disease, there simply might not be a cure for this political dementia.

But the continuing outbreak of Trumpism goes beyond the headlines about Republican derangement syndrome in Washington or the fever dreams of the president’s so-called base. An equally concerning problem is how Trumpism has infected the entire American system. This is where the political coronavirus actually threatens lives.

Indeed, this systemic infection has put American democracy on life support.

But This Is Evil

Omar Ameen risked his life to bring his family to America. He didn’t have a choice.

Born in Iraq, Ameen worried that he and his whole family would be killed by someone taking revenge for the crimes of his cousin, who belonged to al-Qaeda. He left for Turkey in 2012 and, after an exhaustive set of interviews with U.S. screeners, made it into the United States in 2014.

For four years, as Ben Taub relates in a fascinating story in The New Yorker, Ameen worked hard in America to provide for his family. In July 2018, however, U.S. authorities arrested him on the grounds that he had acted on behalf of the Islamic State by killing a police officer in Iraq. The Trump administration had determined that Ameen was a terrorist, one of those bad skittles that Donald Trump Jr. once tweeted about. A network of federal agencies worked overtime to compile an airtight case against Ameen.

The only problem was: Ameen was not in Iraq when the guard was killed. And he could prove it.

This proof, however, didn’t seem to matter. The government pursued its case against Ameen regardless, arguing that any evidence gathered after Ameen’s arrest was only admissible in an Iraqi court, which meant that Ameen would have to be deported. In Iraq, meanwhile, a fair trial is unlikely. Suspected terrorists are routinely tortured into making confessions and then either executed or detained indefinitely.

It’s bad enough when Donald Trump lies about, for instance, the big terrorist threat coming from refugees when, in fact, there are virtually no refugee terrorists (aside from several anti-Castro Cubans who arrived before 1980).

It’s even worse when the entire federal government is restructured around this lie, when the federal agencies perpetuate this lie on a daily basis, and when innocent people like Omar Ameen get caught up in the web of these lies.

Ameen’s lawyer, Ben Galloway has been losing sleep over the case.

It’s not the stress of going into the hearing — it’s the trauma of coming out of it, the trauma of realizing what they’re doing. It’s unconscionable. Seeing the level of infection, this willingness to go along, it makes me realize that we are not safe… I hope we can recover from it. I hope we can regain institutional integrity in some of these agencies. None of them is perfect — they all have problematic histories — but this is evil.

Mark those words: “level of infection.” As I said, it takes an epidemiologist to understand the impact of Trumpism on American institutions.

At the Border

It used to be difficult but not impossible to seek asylum at the border. Now, thanks to the Trump administration, it’s simply impossible.

If the desperate manage to get an interview, which itself is a major challenge, they meet with asylum officers. The Trump administration, arguing that people from south of the border in particular are lying about their cases, has tightened the eligibility requirements by adopting what it calls the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP).

Tightened the eligibility requirements — that’s actually a euphemism. The Trump administration has violated international law by refusing asylum to those who face a risk of harm if they’re sent back to the country they left. Some asylum officers, according to This American Life, protested the new rules. They didn’t get anywhere.

As reporter Molly O’Toole explains:

So the standard today is upside down from what it used to be under credible fear. Instead of, let’s err on the side of letting people in because we don’t want anyone to be tortured or die, under MPP the standard is almost impossibly high, so almost nobody gets in. 

In numerical terms, it works out to about one in a thousand (11 out of 10,000, according to Syracuse University). In human terms, it means that every day, U.S. asylum officers are sending people directly into harm’s way. The use of the phrase “concentration camp” to describe detention facilities begins to sound grimly appropriate.

Trump’s Willing Executioners

Such is the banality of evil. The problem lies not just in the upper echelons of the Trump administration setting the rules. It’s everyone down the chain of command who is executing those policies.

True, some people are quitting. Others are blowing the whistle, as we’ve seen in the cases of the courageous few who testified in the House impeachment hearings. But they are the exceptions. The system continues to function.

It’s not just ICE or Homeland Security. A cadre of federal employees at the Department of the Interior is currently opening up public lands to drilling. The Pentagon is expediting millions of dollars of weapons sales to one of the most despicable regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Officials at USAID are enforcing the global gag rule by cutting off funding to organizations that provide access to reproductive health and family planning.

All across the country, tens of thousands of people are implementing the Trump administration’s egregious policies. Of course, not everyone working for the federal government is involved in such crimes. Thousands and thousands of civil servants are maintaining programs that the Trump administration has yet to alter or close down that offer essential services or direct critical resources to individuals and communities in need.

But in a post-Trump future, whenever that day comes, how will we deal with the myriad “willing executioners” — to quote Daniel Goldhagen’s book on the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? The contagion spreads far beyond Trump, his cabinet, the Republicans on the Hill, and a few familiar faces in the media.

Compromised Immune System

Trumpism is an acute outbreak of a chronic disease. America’s body politic has been seriously compromised for years.

In Democracy in Chains, Nancy McLean chronicles the efforts by economist James M. Buchanan, the Koch brothers, and a raft of conservative foundations to systematically reduce the influence of the majority of citizens in politics. They have done so through a variety of mechanisms: privatizing federal programs that hitherto had majority support, challenging the power of unions, empowering states at the expense of the federal center.

She asks:

Is what we are dealing with merely a social movement of the right whose radical ideas must eventually face public scrutiny and rise or fall on their merits? Or is this the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history? Could it be — and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully — a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?

The forces that have engineered this hostile take-over of Washington, D.C. never imagined that Donald Trump would lead their movement. Neither did conservative evangelicals or the NRA. They all expected someone more sober-minded, more calculating, more consistently ideological. Still, a useful idiot is a useful idiot.

Trumpism is what happens when a compromised immune system meets an unusual pathogen. America might be lucky enough to remove the proximate cause of infection through a victory at the polls. The top tier of Trump appointees can then be removed from office.

Unless we address the underlying susceptibility of the body politic to diseases of this nature, however, such outbreaks will continue flaring up for years to come. America faces a political pandemic unlike any in the last 200-plus years. To eradicate this “king’s disease” the last time around, didn’t we have to fight a revolution?

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 29, 2020

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Trump, Brexit: Where’s the Backlash?

I dutifully got a shot this winter to inoculate myself against four different flu viruses. By exposing myself to weakened strains of these diseases, and preemptively suffering some mild flu symptoms, I can ward off the more serious consequences of a full-on infection and do my part to help stop the further spread of these pathogens.

Both the United States and United Kingdom came down with chills and high fever in 2016.

In the most optimistic scenario, the passage of the Brexit referendum and then Donald Trump’s electoral victory some months would inoculate the general population against an even more serious illness. Surely, once Britons got a foretaste of exiting the European Union they would come to their senses and run back into the embrace of Brussels. Likewise, Americans would experience the horror of a Trump presidency and kick him out of office after his first term (or even before).

So far, so bad.

In the British election last week, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a decisive victory over both the wavering Labor Party and the more EU-friendly Liberal Democrats. With his commanding parliamentary majority, Johnson will be able to usher the UK out of the EU, and there’s little that anyone can do to stop him.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Congress is impeaching an American president for only the third time in history. That, on the face of it, would seem to be a resolute response to the disease that is Donald Trump. But Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. According to a number of indications this week, his chances of reelection have even been improved by impeachment — or, at the very least, not adversely affected by it.

Democracy is supposed to be the political system that allows citizens to learn from their mistakes. But what happens when those mistakes are so momentous that they threaten to overwhelm the system and its vaunted self-correction mechanisms?

We’ve been suffering from flu symptoms only to learn that just around the corner is the political equivalent of Ebola.

Johnson’s Folly

In the run up to the recent UK election, Boris Johnson couldn’t seem to stop making mistakes. He threatened to pull the UK out of the EU even without a deal, a move so disruptive that members of his own party bolted into opposition. He invoked emergency powers over parliament to force a vote on his Brexit proposal. He lost vote after vote in the House of Commons.

Through it all, Johnson was his usual buffoonish self, a true English eccentric who has lied and cheated his way to the top. He should have been tossed out of office simply for being an insufferable poser.

But Johnson survived because he knew three things. The Labor Party was a house divided between those who favored staying in the EU and those who wanted out. The leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, was deeply unpopular, even in some Labor strongholds. And the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, was eager for new elections, over the objections of her senior associates, because she thought she could climb over two unpopular parties to reach the top of the political heap.

Johnson was thus able to fall back on his only option: call an election and hope to repopulate parliament with his own people. True to form, Johnson has pulled off yet another improbable win.

Labor, meanwhile, suffered an epic fail, losing some seats it had continuously occupied for a century. Corbyn, having presided over this disaster, will be out on his ear. The Liberal Democrats lost ground in parliament — and Swinson herself couldn’t even hold onto her seat.

Up north, the pro-Remain Scottish National Party has consolidated its control in Scotland and will be pushing as hard as possible for another referendum on independence. Johnson has a large enough parliamentary majority to prevent that from happening for the time being. But the United Kingdom may well be the first casualty of Brexit.

The EU leadership, meanwhile, is relieved that Britain will finally follow through on its plan. The UK has always been a pain in the EU’s butt — demanding innumerable exemptions from EU rules, refusing to join the common currency, serving as a European foothold for American-style laissez-faire capitalism. Finally, there’s an end in sight for the seemingly endless Brexit negotiations, which represented yet another example of British intransigence.

Even though the British population didn’t experience a Brexit backlash in this election, there has been a cautionary backlash within the EU itself. No other country is seriously considering exit at this point. But that’s not necessarily good news. The Euroskeptics who were so excited by Brexit have begun to embrace a different strategy: take over the EU. If you were lukewarm about European integration before — because of its neoliberalism, its retreat on immigration, its bureaucratic excesses — you’re going to be even less enthusiastic if the likes of Brexiteer Nigel Farage takes over.

The Brits might have second thoughts about Brexit when their economy tanks, the Conservative Party eviscerates what’s left of the British welfare state, and the removal of EU benefits (like retiring on a British pension to a sunny Mediterranean country) hits home. A future backlash is certainly possible. But crawling back into the EU will not be so easy — and that’s if the EU will have them.

Nevertheless He Persisted

Jeff Van Drew was a Democratic congressman from New Jersey. He entered Congress in 2018 by flipping a district that Trump won two years earlier by five points. The New Jersey legislator positioned himself as a moderate Democrat. He was one of only two congressional Democrats to vote against moving forward with the impeachment hearings.

He hasn’t switched his position on impeachment. But he is switching parties.

Despite declaring last month that he was a lifelong Democrat, Van Drew decided to become a Republican this month. It wasn’t so much the pull factor from Trump’s party as much as the push factor from the Dems. The New York Times reported on a poll of Democratic primary voters in his New Jersey district that showed 71 percent of them less likely to vote for Van Drew if he continued to oppose impeachment.

Jeff Van Drew is not leading a rush to the exits. The Democrats, with enough votes to impeach in the House, are not cracking down on dissenters. And public opinion continues to favor impeachment, at least among Democratic voters (about 83 percent).

The problem is that a lot of politicians are calculating that impeachment is not a winning issue in heavily Republican areas or potential swing districts.

If you’re a Republican, you face a revolt among your constituents if you consider voting for impeachment. Fewer than 10 percent of Republican voters support impeaching the president. Plus, you risk a fatwa from the president.

Consider the transformation of Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a moderate congresswoman who was never gung ho about Trump’s presidential aspirations. When the impeachment hearings began, she became Trump’s attack dog on the House Intelligence Committee. In so doing, she has solidified her Republican Party voter base and gotten a big lift from the president himself.

Is it disgusting? Yes, absolutely. Is it politically astute. Yes, unfortunately.

Or what about Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for president in 2016 whose looks Trump insulted on his way to the nomination? She says that Trump should be impeached. But she still might vote for him in 2020!

She’s not alone. A majority of Americans favor impeachment, but recent polling puts Trump ahead of all Democratic rivals on a head-to-head basis. According to a USAToday poll, Trump leads Joe Biden by 3 percent, Bernie Sanders by 5 percent, Elizabeth Warren by 8 percent, and Pete Buttigieg by 10 percent.

Back in September, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the top five Democratic hopefuls were beating Trump, with Biden up by an astounding 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Warren 11 percent, Kamala Harris 10 percent, and Buttigieg 6 percent. That was only a few months ago!

So, yes, there’s a backlash. But it seems to be against the Democrats, not Trump. As I wrote back in September:

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

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

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

It helps, of course, that the president can point to soaring economic indicators, recently announced trade deals with China and our North American neighbors, and a new space command included in the recent budget bill.

It’s galling that a scofflaw can remain sufficiently popular to win elections. No doubt Trump is eyeing the example of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines who has presided over the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people and yet maintains nearly an 80 percent approval rating.

Trump invited Duterte to the White House and praised his deadly war on drugs. Duterte, after all, is the living proof that you can shoot people indiscriminately and still maintain your popularity. Trump, unleashed in a second term, might just try to test the applicability of that model to the United States.

A Dangerous Acclimatization

There’s been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year: 396 as of December 16, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Despite all the political handwringing and the gradual shift in public opinion over the last few years in favor of stricter gun control laws, federal policy has barely shifted. No assault rifle ban. No “red flag” law. No universal background check

What has happened instead? After the mass shootings this summer, companies with names TuffyPacks reported a 300 percent increase in sales of bullet-proof backpacks. Parents are taking prophylactic measures that are pathetically insufficient. Mass shootings are the new normal. Suck it up and move on.

Americans have similarly adjusted to the criminal actions of the president, his violent policies at the border, his verbal abuse of virtually everyone. We haven’t bought TuffyPacks to protect ourselves from the White House. Our skins have just grown tougher.

And that’s the saddest part of all. It’s just a lot harder to generate a backlash when our backs have become accustomed to the lash.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 18, 2019

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Articles Featured Korea

Will Impeachment Affect Trump’s Reelection Chances?

One of the hallmarks of a democratic political system is that voters change their minds. In North Korea, 100 percent of voters support the ruling party coalition in election after election. In South Korea since 1998, voters backed 10 years of progressive candidates followed by 10 years of conservative candidates. Then, after a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, South Koreans rallied to impeach the previous president, Park Geun-hye.

In the United States, meanwhile, voters elected Barack Obama to two terms and then opted for someone completely different in 2016. In fact, somewhere between six and nine million people who voted for Obama in 2012 switched to Donald Trump in 2016.

It’s difficult to know what will happen in the 2020 elections. But despite a number of scandals involving the Trump administration – officials resigning in disgrace like Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke or charged with wrongdoing like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, allegations of corruption and violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and foreign policy fiascos like the trade war with China and the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria – public opinion about the president has remained rather steady.

Donald Trump’s approval rating has gone up and down since he was elected, but not by very much. Except for when he first took office, when he managed to score a 45 percent approval rating – versus 41 percent disapproval – a majority of Americans have given his job performance a thumb’s down. His approval rating has hovered around 40 percent.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the current impeachment hearings in the United States are having so little impact on public opinion. Support for impeachment has held steady around 46 percent. If anything, despite additional damaging evidence that the U.S. president indeed attempted to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping Trump’s reelection prospects, support for impeachment has dipped slightly.

Americans have made up their minds about Donald Trump. For those who oppose the president, the evidence of wrongdoing coming out of the impeachment hearings is reinforcing their worst fears about the administration. Trump supporters, meanwhile, are following the lead of the Republican Party by dismissing the hearings as boring, trivial, or irrelevant.

This lack of variation in public opinion stands in marked contrast to the South Korean example. In September 2015, more than a year after the Sewol disaster, Park Geun-hye’s approval rating stood at 54 percent. Half a year later, it had fallen to a low of 31. 5 percent. By November 2016, as scandal engulfed the administration, her approval rate had dropped to 4 percent. Park Geun-hye, in other words, was not scandal-proof.

Yet no matter the number of offensive comments he makes or scandals that tarnish the reputation of his administration, Donald Trump can count on a secure base of support. These are the people who will stand by him even if, as Trump famously said, he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Of course, a base of support of 40 percent is not enough to win a head-to-head election. But Donald Trump doesn’t need to win the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 but lost in the Electoral College. Her close loss by a combined total of 77,000 votes in three key states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – meant that those states’ electoral votes represented Trump’s margin of victory.

In 2020, Trump could lose by 5 million votes and still carry the Electoral College. In other words, he just needs to maintain his base of support in the key battleground states. He could even lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still be reelected as long as he wins all the states he won in 2016. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the two coasts rejects him as long as he maintains an edge in the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest and Rust Belt.

Much depends on the U.S. economy. The unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent, which is very low. The stock market is booming.

True, economic growth is low, debt levels are skyrocketing, and trade disputes continue to hit certain sectors very hard.

But Trump is trying to do everything possible to prevent an inevitable recession from hitting before the 2020 election. The president has even called on the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates to below zero. The last time interest rates were zero was during the Great Depression. A negative interest rate would mean that the bank would essentially pay people to take out loans.

Trump knows that he only needs to get his numbers up by a couple percentage points in a couple key states – Wisconsin, Florida – in order to win in 2020. A strong economy is an essential part of his game plan.

His other strategy is to encourage political polarization. Trump knows that his incendiary comments about immigrants, his racially coded denunciations of African American and Latino members of Congress, and his all-out war on the Washington bureaucracy play very well with his base. The president continues to portray himself as an outsider willing to take extreme measures to battle a political status quo. American voters consistently want “change” – that’s why so many millions of people voted for Obama and then for Trump. At least 40 percent of the electorate believe that Trump is battling corrupt, entrenched interests.

The impeachment hearings, unfortunately for the Democrats, reinforce Trump’s narrative that he is David taking on the Goliath of the state. According to the president, he was just trying to root out corruption by enlisting the help of the Ukrainian president to investigate the alleged wrongdoing of Joe Biden’s son and the alleged interference of Ukraine in the U.S. elections in 2016. Trump’s base doesn’t believe that these allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

So, don’t expect Trump’s approval ratings to drop like Park Geun-hye’s during these impeachment hearings. The president will continue to argue that the Democrats are out to get him now through impeachment because they don’t think they can vote him out in the 2020 elections. However misleading that argument may be, Trump might be right about his chances in the next election.

Still, his strategy is risky. A polarizing platform and rhetoric can energize a political base. But it can also make just enough enemies to kill a political future.

Hankyoreh, November 25, 2019

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Will AI Swing the 2020 Elections?

Imagine, on the day before the 2020 presidential election, that someone posts a video of the Democratic candidate talking before a group of donors. The candidate admits to being ashamed to be an American, confesses that the United States is a malevolent force in the world, and promises to open borders, subordinate the country to the UN, and adopt a socialist economic system.

The video goes viral. It doesn’t matter that it sounds a bit suspicious, a candidate saying such things just before the election. A very careful observer might note some discrepancies with the shadows in the background of the video or that the candidate makes some oddly uncharacteristic facial expressions.

For the average credulous viewer, however, the video reinforces some latent prejudices about Democratic Party candidates, that they never thought America was all that great to begin with and are not ultimately interested in making the country great again. And hey, didn’t Mitt Romney make a similar mistake by dissing the 47 percent just before the 2012 elections?

The video spreads across social media even as the platforms try to take it down. The mainstream media publish careful proofs that the video is fabricated. It doesn’t matter. Enough people in enough swing states believe the video and either switch their votes or stay home. It’s not even clear where the video came from, whether it’s a domestic dirty trick or a foreign agent following the Russian game plan from 2016.

Forget about October surprises. In this age of rapid dissemination of information, the most effective surprises happen in November, just before Election Day. In 2020, the election will take place on November 3. The video drops on November 2. The damage is done before damage control can even begin.

This particular surprise comes courtesy of artificial intelligence (AI). Sophisticated computer programs are now able to create “deepfake” videos that are becoming increasingly difficult to identify. In fact, as The Washington Post reports, the AI systems designed to root out such deepfake videos can’t keep up with the evil geniuses that are employing other AI programs to produce them.

It’s an arms race. And the bad guys are winning.

It’s Already Happened Here (and There)

You’ve probably heard by now about the fake video of Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur her words during a speech.

On one particularly popular website, Politics Watchdog, the video received 2 million views and 45,000 shares. This video didn’t require an AI program. The creator just altered the speed of Pelosi’s speech and raised the pitch of her voice to disguise the manipulation. It wasn’t much different from all those drunk Trump videos (also fake) that Jimmy Kimmel has broadcast on late night TV.

Or maybe you’ve seen the video of gun control activist Emma Gonzalez tearing up the Constitution (in reality, she was tearing up a target). Or Jordan Peele’s PSA of Barack Obama saying all sorts of odd things, concluding with “stay woke, bitches.” The video was meant to warn people to be skeptical of what they see on the Internet.

Elsewhere around the world, deepfakes are beginning to cause havoc.

In Gabon, the military launched an ultimately unsuccessful coup after the release of an apparently fake video of leader Ali Bongo suggested that the president was not in fact as healthy as his advisors claimed. In Malaysia, a video purported to show the economic affairs minister having sex has generated a considerable debate over whether the video was faked or not. “If it’s a deepfake, it’s a very good one,” a digital forensics expert has said.

So far, there’s been more concern than actual product. The technology is available, but it hasn’t been widely weaponized. At least when it comes to the United States, that might just be a matter of timing. Next year’s presidential primaries might prove to be a testing ground. Or a troll might be keeping such a weapon in reserve for an even more opportune moment, like November 2.

The Deeper Problem

Fakes have been around for ages, from the poems of Ossian to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In the age of photography, the Soviet Union notoriously airbrushed out politically purged individuals from snapshots (and that, of course, was before PhotoShop). In the video age, selective editing has fooled some of the people all of the time — as in the case of Live Action’s abortion clinic videos or the misleading way that Fox News edits its clips to emphasize its ideological points. “Reality” shows on TV dramatically alter the raw footage — not to mention staging the action to begin with.

You might think that this history would make people increasingly skeptical of what they see and hear. But Americans believe in all sorts of crazy things. One in three doesn’t think that climate change is happening (and about half of Republicans deny that climate change is real). About four in ten Americans are strict creationists. One in four believes that the truth of the Sandy Hook shooting has been suppressed. Nearly one in three believes that the Mueller report exonerated Donald Trump.

The ability of pollsters to find some significant percentage of Americans who believe in one crazy proposition or another prompted the following Onion headline: “Poll: One in Five Americans Believe Obama Is a Cactus.”

In ordinary times, the president doesn’t give an assist to fringe theories. But Donald Trump made a political name for himself with his false claims that Barack Obama was born outside the United States. As president, he has promoted the notion that the mainstream media — CNN, The New York Times — publishes “fake news.” He has claimed that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election, that Russia didn’t interfere in that election, that the National Park Service doctored photos of the inauguration crowd, that Vince Foster and Chief Justice Antonin Scalia were murdered, that Democrats inflated the number of people killed in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and so on.

These aren’t conspiracy theories, as Russel Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum write in The Atlantic. They are simply assertions. Trump doesn’t have the capability to develop an actual theory. He is not trying to explain a set of facts or data points. He is just throwing stuff out there. He is brainstorming without the benefit of a brain.

As a result of the relentless attacks on media, common sense, and reason more generally, Americans are losing the capacity to distinguish between the real and the fabricated. Case in point: nearly 63 million Americans voted for a presidential candidate in 2016 who lied repeatedly about himself, his record, and his opponent. In 2016, Americans elected a very artificial intelligence.

Adding AI

Computer scientists worry about the “singularity,” the moment when artificial intelligence acquires consciousness. They are concerned that a super-intelligent entity might decide to take over the planet, enslave humans, colonize the known universe, and so on. In other words, they worry that such a creation might behave exactly like its creators.

I’m not sure why computer scientists are so anxious about a hypothetical when they should instead get riled up about the very real applications that humans are using AI for right now.

The Pentagon, for instance, developed its first AI strategy this year, saying that “it will take care to deploy the technology in accordance with the nation’s values.” Presumably, the Pentagon is talking about its own interpretation of the nation’s values, which is far from reassuring.

Last year, the United States (and Russia) blocked a UN effort to ban “killer robots” — weapons that don’t need any human intervention, as drones do at the moment. Banning killer robots would seem to be a no-brainer. But the United States has said that it would be “premature” to regulate them. That’s because the Pentagon’s research arm and U.S. corporations are busy trying to establish technological hegemony by exploring ways to merge soldier and computer on the battlefield, fight the next generation of cyber-warfare, and ensure full-spectrum dominance.

Then there are the uses of AI to improve surveillance, create “predictive policing technologies,” and steal your job.

Considering all these malign impacts, deepfake videos might be the least worrisome trend involving AI. Yet, in the short term, these deceptions further undermine any hope of returning to a pre-Trump moment when national conversations could be conducted on the basis of observable reality. As Jamie Bartlett writes in The Guardian, “the age of deep fakes might even succeed in making today’s visceral and divided politics look like a golden age of reasonableness.”

To understand this point, let’s imagine a slightly different November surprise unveiled on the day before the 2020 elections.

On November 2, 2020, a video is released in which Donald Trump says that, regardless of the results of the election, he will declare himself president for life and throw anyone who disagrees into prison.

This, too, is a deepfake video created by an AI program. But Trump has said and done so many outrageous things that the public responds to this particular video with a collective shrug. #NeverTrumpers are confirmed in their assumptions about the president and vote as they intended. Trump’s base dismisses the video (or secretly supports the message) and votes as planned. The few people left in the middle, inundated with four years of Trump’s pronouncements, ignore the video. It’s just another day in Trump’s America.

AI can’t be blamed for this scenario. The fault lies not in our bytes but in ourselves.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 19, 2019