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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

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

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

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

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

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

Leader for Life

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

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

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

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

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

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Territory Grab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Trump Makes Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

In the US, the Second Wave Is Already Here

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

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

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

That is tragic enough. But now comes Act Two.

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

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

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

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

American Lunacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Out Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FPIF, July 1, 2020

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Articles Featured Korea

Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

The De-Trumpification of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regime Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confederacy of Dunces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detoxifying Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hauling Them into Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Popularity of Trumpism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TomDispatch, June 26, 2020

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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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Emperor Trump Now Stands Partially Naked

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

Not these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Trudeau

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

In Canada, they’re talking about 21 seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

James Mattis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10, 2020, Foreign Policy In Focus

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The Descent of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Racist Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

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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 Featured US Domestic Policy

Is Obama Running Again in 2020?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hankyoreh, May 24, 2020

 

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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