Monthly Archives: May 2017

Where Donald Trump is right

Riding in a taxi today in Singapore, the cabbie brought up Pres. Trump and asked me what I thought. Before I could answer he told me that he liked him, and I got the sense he didn’t know what to think of all he was hearing about the Trump administration lately. He wasn’t unusual. In previous conversations with cabbies (there’s always time to talk in taxis), they compared him favorably relatively new, and controversial (at least internationally), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Mostly they seem to like Trump’s self-confidence and previous business experience (which happened to involve four bankruptcies, of course, even if he was a successful game show host).

So, prompted by a taxi driver, let me say express an opinion about Trump that I’ve had for awhile, but haven’t emphasized:

He’s not actually wrong about everything.

And furthermore, now that his presidency seems to be failing (due to incompetence, inexperience, or unfitness or likely a mix of all three), I’m concerned that a couple of the issues he brought up will get discredited on the American political scene.

DISCLAIMER

Before we go on, let me make something clear: I didn’t vote for Trump and never would have. The case against him was pretty obvious. First, he’s a horrible person, with his record of admitting to repeated sexual assaults (bonus here, though: Evangelicals, through their support of him, have forever lost the right to claim that personal morality matters in politicians – ever), stiffing contractors, and constant lying. Second, he used bigoted appeals in his campaign and built his political profile on conspiracy theories. And third, he was clearly unfit for the role of the presidency, with his lack of respect for our institutions by threatening to lock up his political opponent and an astonishing lack of policy knowledge, which has only become more apparent during his presidency since he is constantly amazed at how hard things are.

GETTING BACK TO THE POINT

So, having made my low opinion of Trump clear, let me focus again on where he was right, at least during the campaign:

1. He tapped into the perfectly valid sense that many Americans share that the economic system is rigged against them.

2. He focused on defending our borders.

THE ECONOMY IS RIGGED

Trump was right to point out that the modern U.S. economy is rigged. For example, in the trade deals of the last few decades (bi-partisan trade deals, by the way) lower-income workers were thrown into direct competition with foreign laborers earning a fraction of what they did. Under that approach, of course, their jobs would disappear. For my part, I’m fine with trade. I think it’s good in theory and practice for the most part. But while trade might benefit the world overall, there are always losers, and I do not think enough was done in the U.S. to offset their losses.

Now, many of these trade deals have been defended by saying workers are getting cheaper products. Call it the Wal-Mart defense. But that is of cold comfort if you are not making any economic progress. The defining feature of the U.S. economy in the last 40 years has been the disconnect between increased productivity and wages. Workers are producing more, but still earning, in real terms, what they did back in the 1970s. Wages are supposed to increase with productivity, in theory, but for the most part, they have not. Instead, virtually all income gains have gone to the very top of the income distribution.

Americans were asked many years ago to accept a system that they were told would be disruptive, yes, but would have clear benefits for everyone. That has not happened. What’s the point of being part of a society – of a system – if it’s just going to throw you under the bus? Trump, through his rigged economy comments, challenged the system itself, and that was right to do so. This is something Bernie Sanders did, as well, on the Democratic side, but we all know how that turned out.

BORDERS STILL MATTER

The other issue that I believe Trump was right about – and Republicans by extension, I suppose – is that mass illegal immigration is not a good thing.

Obviously, Trump and many of his supporters put a racist spin on it. That was disgusting and wrong (even deplorable, I could say). For my part, I am no modern ethno-nationalist. In fact, I’m very much one of those horrible liberal internationalists that people like Steve Bannon and the folks at Breitbart hate so much. I believe in universal liberal values, think all people are fundamentally equal, and enjoy diversity of culture and language. And I think people should be allowed to move to new countries as much as reasonably possible.

For me, reasonable means two things: one, we need to have some controls and standards – laws – on immigration, and two, we must uphold those laws. While I’m very much open to the aspiration of a borderless world some day, that is not practical at this time. Borders controls have two main, important functions: security and ensuring the long-term viability of our public systems. Security probably seems obvious. We don’t want to let in dangerous people. As for our public systems, I mean our social insurance, education, public health, and retirement programs. These all depend on carefully balanced estimates of the population and its trajectory. We need to make sure that our immigration policies keep those public systems sustainable. Sustainable does not mean closed. We can absolutely benefit by letting in workers on temporary licenses. But those licenses need to be designed in such a way that they strengthen our public systems, and once established, they should be enforced, either by targeting the workers or the employers. (In fact, just target the employers; there are fewer of them).

Why do I stress enforcement? Because behind these immigration problems is a deeper issue: rule of law. When mass illegal immigration takes place, we have a massive breakdown of the rule of law. It is nonsensical to me to get up in arms over Trump’s clear threats to the rule of law and give others a pass.

Not that the rule of law needs to be harsh. For example, the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were very young are Americans for all practical and cultural purposes. To throw them out, as many conservatives seem to want, is inhumane. I also think we can find ways for illegal immigrants who came here as adults and have been productive citizens to stay. However, I think it is also unreasonable, as many liberals suggest, that we make those illegal immigrants who came as adults full citizens with federal voting rights. (Whether they get state or local voting rights could be addressed on a state-by-state basis, I suppose.)

To finish on immigration, let me say that I speak from personal experience. I live in Singapore. We came here for my wife’s job. We are, in a sense, economic migrants. But we followed the rules. And I understand full well that Singapore can kick me out anytime it chooses. It would be ridiculous of me to overstay my visa, evade authorities, then ask to be allowed to continue living here and, oh, I’d like voting rights, too. The government of Singapore is, quite rightly, under no obligation to take that request seriously.

#MAGA

During the taxi ride I mentioned earlier, the cabbie also mentioned how he liked Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”. As this post makes clear, I think U.S. policies could use some improvements, but as I told the cabbie, I never bought into #MAGA. I’m enough of a patriot to believe that America was pretty damn good before Trump ever ran for the presidency. We have our flaws, for sure – some of them very serious. I didn’t take any time in this post to reflect on our seeming bottomless desire for war and dominance. And we have ugly bigotry (although I can tell you that that is a widespread human condition that every society struggles with). Since living abroad, I’ve studied other political-economic systems more closely. Some have a lot to learn from the U.S. approach, especially on the issues of individual rights and rule of law, while others get a lot of things right. (I’m looking at you, Denmark.) But overall, I’d say we have a pretty good track record. Let’s just stay on the right path.

Savvy or incompetence?

Here’s an excellent analysis of the story about Pres. Trump revealing sensitive intelligence information to Russian representatives, at least as it’s currently reported. This story is coming from an anonymous source (though at least three outlets have confirmed it), and we might learn more as we go along. I think the fourth point is especially relevant. Assuming he did reveal the information, it matters why he did so. He is within his legal authority as president to reveal whatever he wants. Maybe he did so for genuine strategic reasons. Unfortunately, my guess is that he didn’t even know that what he was saying would have bad consequences. All presidents have to climb the learning curve while in office, but some people are better prepared than others when they arrive.

Bombshell: Initial Thoughts on the Washington Post’s Game-Changing Story

Our political traditions – and global leadership – are at stake

I find this interview with Pres. Trump to be absolutely shocking:

Especially this part:

(R)egardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time do it! And in fact when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, “You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

In this section, he seems to admit that he fired then-FBI Director James Comey because Comey refused to end investigations into whether the Russian government influenced the last presidential election and whether people associated with the Trump campaign helped it to do so. This is in the context of the White House providing a variety of explanations for the firing.

So far, it seems that Trump supporters don’t see the big deal. They see the entire episode as nothing more than partisan maneuvering. Many Republican politicians seem to be giving Pres. Trump a pass, as well. To a certain degree, that’s not hard to understand. We live in especially partisan times, and Democrats had also been critical of Comey, giving him a large part of the blame for Hillary’s Clinton’s loss in the election.1

So, is this just another example of partisan bickering, with sides trying to win points at the other’s expense and with little reference to anything that matters?

No. It’s not.

Two of our fundamental political traditions are at stake – and quite possibly global American leadership.

Those two traditions are the separation of powers and the rule of law.

Under the separation of powers, different officials are charged with different duties so that no single official – presumed to be a flawed human being just like the rest of us – has unregulated power. Another way to put it is that we have a system of checks and balances. For example, in the case of alleged unlawful behavior, police investigate the suspected crimes. Prosecutors decide whether there’s a case to be made. Judges and juries decide guilt or innocence after lawyers face off in a court of law. Each group has a role to play, independently of the others, at least according to the ideal.

Under the rule of law, the legal system is supposed to treat everyone the same, regardless of who they are, what status they hold, etc. Everyone, including the most powerful, is subject to the law, which is enacted using the independent (yet checked) system outlined above.

So, what does this have to do with Pres. Trump and Comey’s dismissal? It sure appears, according to the reporting so far and now Trump’s own interview, that he used his authority to fire the federal government’s chief criminal and counterintelligence investigator when an investigation was getting too close to his associates – or perhaps just annoying. If further reporting and disclosures bear that out, he has abused his power by violating our traditions of the separation of powers and the rule of law.2

Partly because I live in Asia and partly because I pay attention to such things, I see examples every day of contrasts between our political traditions and others. We like to think that our traditions are worthy of emulation worldwide. I agree with that for the most part. But right now, by this president, those principles are being threatened. In turn, that is a threat to our republic, and it degrades our standing around the world. (I’m not the only American overseas that feels that way, apparently.)

The only solution I see now is for our system to uphold its traditions and restore a sense of integrity to the investigation. A fully independent and thorough inquiry is required.

P.S. Before any Democrats are tempted to get too haughty, Pres. Obama had his own similar abuses. He established a system whereby he could tag an American citizen living outside the U.S. as a threat – as a terrorist – and single-handedly order an execution using drones with no judicial oversight. Judge, jury, and executioner. Hardly a separation of powers or rule of law there.

1 As an aside, I think Democrats exaggerate Comey’s impact and underplay serious mistakes they made in the election.

2 Interestingly, Trump could have avoided this by firing Comey soon in his administration, but he chose not to. Of course, he might have chosen to just fire a different FBI director later, anyway, but that’s just speculation.

High time for an independent investigation

I obviously don’t think much of Pres. Trump and many of policy choices. (By the way, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong on everything, but more on that a different time.) But the possibility of Russian interference in the presidential election and collusion by Trump campaign staff is so dangerous and outrageous that it requires a thorough, independent investigation. I have no idea what will come of it. Even if nothing does, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of the policies the Republican majority is proposing. Still, we need that investigation. I have some hope for the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, but we can do better. Here’s a breakdown of the options, but there’s virtually no chance of an independent investigation happening because any of them would require bi-partisan cooperation. In the meantime, here’s a summary of what’s already happening.

 

Get out the vote

I have no problem with voter ID requirements, but if you’re going to have them, the government needs to go all out to make sure everyone that is eligible has one. You’d like to think that it would be a no-brainer that every eligible adult should vote. Other countries even mandate it, or the non-voting citizen gets penalized. But of course, in the U.S. – supposedly the world leader in democracy – ruthless political operators will use any means necessary to gain an unfair advantage. (Incidentally, if we look at gerrymandering, Illinois Democrats have done this for years.)

Wisconsin’s Voter-ID Law Suppressed 200,000 Votes in 2016 (Trump Won by 22,748)

Accountability

Meanwhile, this was happening while Comey was being fired. A reporter was arrested for asking questions of administration officials in a public setting.

It could be that he was yelling the questions, but that’s not at all unusual for reporters who are trying to get answers from public officials as the officials are desperately trying to get away without answering. And sorry, reporters – or any citizens, for that matter – don’t have to wait for press conferences to try to get answers.

Now, it could also be that he repeatedly ignored Secret Service agents as he tried to get closer. But let’s be clear about this: Public officials are supposed to be accountable. They should use protection services for just that, protection. But they shouldn’t use protection services to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Finally, if public officials have a patriotic bone in their bodies, they sure shouldn’t brush off reporters getting arrested for doing their jobs. But there doesn’t seem to be much stomach for defending our liberal republican tradition nowadays.

Price On Reporter’s Arrest: The Man ‘Was Not In A Press Conference’

Two things can be true

Two things can be true at once. It can be true that Comey made a series of unprecedented mistakes with the investigation into Clinton’s email server, and it can be true that Pres. Trump’s firing of an FBI director who was leading an investigation of his associates seems very suspicious. But here’s the thing: Clinton and now Comey are irrelevant now – gone, out of the picture. However, Pres. Trump remains in power. And that means we need a rigorous, independent investigation of possible ties between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government. Pres. Trump might have thought he was putting an end to this, but it’s only just beginning.