Tag Archives: Donald Trump

K.T. McFarland could learn a lot in Singapore – or not

So, it appears that Singapore is being considered as the next stop for K.T. McFarland. She could take over the job of ambassador here. McFarland is currently a deputy national security adviser within the Trump administration, but her continuing in that role has been in doubt since Michael Flynn was fired as national security adviser.

From what I know of her public statements, she could face some challenges here. Or alternatively, she might have an enlightening time. Let me explain.

One of her public themes appears to be that “radical Islamic terrorism” represents an existential threat to Western civilization. I assume this played a prominent role in her getting a job in Trump administration security circles because of Pres. Trump’s frequent criticism that Pres. Obama failed to recognize such a threat and do enough about it.

For my part, I don’t have a problem with labeling radical Islamic terrorism as *a* threat. Obviously, it is. And it could be quite horrible in its most extreme scenarios, like a dirty bomb. But I think it’s ridiculous to label it as an *existential* threat to the West. I really don’t see Islamic armies conquering and taking over the U.S. or any European countries any time soon. (No, that’s what we do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.) And despite fear-mongering on the right, I really don’t see a wholesale conversion to Shariah law, either.

However, countries with significant or majority Muslim populations do face challenges of this sort. In addition to terrorist attacks, if radical ideologies gain wide support, they can fundamentally change the character of the nation and threaten the existing less religious – or even secular – governments.

That’s why – and this might come as a shock to some American conservatives – you routinely see governments in southeast Asia taking steps to contain Islamic extremism. In Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country on the planet, you see arrests and prosecutions of extremists and the president calling on citizens to resist radicalization. In Malaysia, which is a majority Muslim country, you see arrests of suspected ISIS supporters and convictions of others, as well as other steps. And in Singapore, which is almost 15% percent Muslim, an imam that made what was considered radical statements was forced to apologize and to pay a fine, while at the same time the country’s leaders express their firm commitment to a multi-religious society.

So, should Mrs. McFarland come to Singapore, I’ll be curious to find out what she’ll learn as she lives here. Maybe she’ll stick to her strong condemnations of Islamic radicalism (which has the possibility of backfiring and breeding anti-Western sentiments). Or maybe she’ll start to see that some Islamic countries are often just as committed to stopping radicalism as the West. (It is, after all, largely a recent import from the Middle East.) If she learns a little and moderates her views, she might become an effective representative of the U.S. in Singapore and beyond.

The Republican Difficulty with Reality

Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer has, rightfully, been criticized for a briefing he provided on Saturday in which he made a number of false claims regarding the attendance at Pres. Trump’s inauguration. On Monday, at a regular press conference, he tried to spin some of these claims – for example, arguing that he was really talking about total viewing audience. But what has ultimately gotten the most attention was not Spicer’s performance, but how it was later defended. On Sunday on Meet the Press, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s argued that Spicer was simply laying “alternative facts” than what were being reported by the press.

Alternative facts. Let me be charitable for just a moment. Sometimes there genuinely is a different set of facts that make better sense of a situation than others. That’s just part of debate. In that context, various facts should be heard.

But that’s not what was going on here. Spicer made some demonstrably false claims (and possibly lied, depending on whether he knew they were false) which were easily disproven by photographic and other evidence, and rather than accept that evidence, there was an attempt instead to create an alternate reality. All of this was done apparently at the direct order of Pres. Trump (perhaps as a test of his loyalty).

For Pres. Trump himself, falsehoods and lies are nothing new. He only gained traction as a politician by pushing birther conspiracies regarding Pres. Obama’s qualifications to be president, even after compelling evidence had been released proving him wrong. Over the course of the campaign, he lied routinely. He continues to push self-serving claims with no evidence. For example, he told congressional leaders that illegal immigrants are the reason he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes.

But for as bad as Pres. Trump was on the campaign trail, this latest episode is significant because, one, it happened during his actual administration, and two, it’s the latest example of how the Republican Party has come to have a difficult relationship with truth and reality – of Republicans simply believing and saying whatever they want, regardless of the evidence.

Essentially, we’re revisiting through the bad old days of the George W. Bush administration. In 2004, Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times what was to become a famous article about how the administration led the nation into the Iraq War. One passage stood out:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“Reality-based community”. This phrase struck a nerve among many people, some of whom made it a point of pride to call themselves a member. And why not? Seriously, who in their right mind would not want to be reality-based?

Apparently some in the Bush administration did not. Instead, they were obsessed with action, impact, acts of will – even if these had to be realized by ignoring facts, denying reality, and stifling debate. In that sort of world, the Enlightenment is dead; principle is thrown out the window; and only raw power remains.

This sort of mindset still seems to have a home in the Republican Party almost 15 years later.

One obvious example is the continuing denial of the seriousness of climate change, including by the soon to be head of the EPA. Other examples are more subtle. For example, there is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pressing Democrats to allow the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to go forward after blocking Pres. Obama from doing so many months before the election. Another is expecting respect for Pres. Trump – it can be so demoralizing – even though disrespect for Pres. Obama was fierce during his tenure – even disturbing (to say the least). It can even be absurd, with Pres. Trump even claiming that it wasn’t raining during his speech, which objectively, it was. (Rain truthers?)

Look, all of us are subject to fudging the truth to fit our preconceived ideas. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s just part of human nature. Partisan politics is especially subject to this. Positions seem to be changing faster than ever, given the needs of the party line. For example, thanks to this election, some Democrats and some on the left now think intelligence agencies are great and to be trusted. But again, I think most of the action is among the Republicans and on the right: Julian Assange and Wikileaks are now great; it appears infrastructure spending – which is a form of stimulus – is great; Russia is just fine, even if there is some evidence of interfering with our election; and bullying private companies to keep jobs in the United States is okay. The Affordable Care Act has been demonized, of course, even though it started life as a conservative idea and was first enacted by a Republican governor. Even fake news producers, who have money on the line, banked more on Republicans than Democrats. Love of party makes everybody stupid. But it makes some stupider than others.

Even though this tradition of reality denial by Republicans has been with us for a while, there is a new twist – and it’s a dangerous one. It could be argued that all of the deeply cynical positions and behaviors I describe above were all for the greater causes Republicans and conservatives say they support, like freedom and markets and so forth. I don’t believe that’s true, but I’ll grant it for a moment. This is not what appears to be happening in the Trump era. Instead, truth will be twisted simply in the service of his unrelenting egomania. In the end, we won’t even have the pretense of reality-denying having some larger national purpose. Instead, it will all be to protect and aggrandize our supreme leader. And that is a very dangerous development for the republic.

On a more hopeful note, there is a way out. It involves getting out of your own head. It requires listening to people who disagree with you. It implies that you cultivate the virtue of compromise. You have to be willing to admit your are wrong and change your mind. But all of this simultaneously implies vulnerability and that you practice the virtue of humility – something that I surely don’t see in Pres. Trump, and see less and less in his party.

Notes on the Trump inauguration

Well, starting tomorrow, America and the world are going to get modern Republicanism full-bore. Like many, I’m fairly certain the Trump administration – combined with the Tea-Party-style Congress – will be a disaster. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of American pre-eminence. Here’s my rundown of the domestic and foreign train wrecks to come.

Domestic

On the domestic side, I predict the greatest direct danger of a Trump presidency will be that an insecure, vindictive egomaniac has control of the vast investigatory and police powers of the presidency – police powers, by the way, that have been granted and blessed by members of both parties. He’s already proven he won’t be bound by norms or a sense of decency. I think anyone who opposes him – and that means any Republicans, too – will be a target. Based on the way the campaign was run, I think minorities are especially vulnerable. Our main hope lies in either principled, whistle-blowing law enforcement agents or principled congressional Republicans. Last time I checked, those congressional Republicans claimed to fear the power of the state and believe in strong oversight – well, at least when it came to Democrats. Given that these are our two primary lines of defense, I think we’re in deep trouble.

Foreign

Internationally, the greatest direct danger will be Trump’s terrible handling of the rise of China as an economic and military power. The world is inevitably realigning (especially in Asia, where I live). Little can be done about the coming of a world with multiple powers. Even so, I believe the Trump administration will make a complete hash of it – either by fomenting a trade war or by blundering into some hot skirmishes. Also, recall that this is the guy who doesn’t think much of our treaties with our fellow democracies and doesn’t mind the spread of nuclear weapons. I don’t have much confidence in his judgment of American interests abroad. And if Trump and the Republican party end up taking a thoroughly authoritarian turn – partly as I’ve outlined above, but also by limiting rights like voting and freedom of the press – the US will have little credibility to challenge illiberal regimes.

Some things never seem to change

There are other issues, both domestic and foreign, that I don’t label as a top threat – not because they aren’t horrible – but because I don’t see them as an enormous break from the recent past.

First off, I believe his administration will prove itself corrupt and incompetent – just look at his cabinet picks – but we’ve been through that before with the George W. Bush administration and survived. It could hardly get worse than having an administration dedicated to launching a war of choice in Iraq by any means necessary. Maybe American voters will again reject the Republican party as this plays out. But given the rise of Trump, I’m less confident in that.

The march toward plutocracy and a society that fails to provide for all will continue. This will get worse, certainly, with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but after that, it will simply be back on the trendline from before. Trump bullying a few companies into saving a few manufacturing jobs at the expense of others will not alter the long-term trend. An effective political movement to combat inequality has yet to gel. Maybe its time will come in the next eight years, but that would be too hopeful for this post.

Both domestically and internationally, the danger of a significant Islamic terrorist attack remains. This has been the norm for more than a decade now. Let’s hope that police agencies worldwide are able to head off any major plots.

Finally, as they have so many times before, the Democrats will likely prove themselves incapable at facing the challenge of the surging Republican party and capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. I believe the Republican party is a deeply cynical, ruthless political operation. But the Democrats are largely incompetent.

Worst of all

All of what I’ve said so far is pretty bad. But none of them are the worst. No, the worst threat is the complete breakdown of any sense of shared truth. We seem, as a body politic, to have lost the ability to reason together and to compromise, both key values for any republic to function. Instead, truth is defined first by party affiliation, then by religious or ethnic membership, and then by class interests. People will believe whatever their tribe believes, even if the tribe believed the complete opposite just days, weeks, or months before. This is, by the way, far, far worse on the right than it is on the left. But to try to tell them that is to be called a liar. On it goes.

So, there it is. Your happiness report. And it all starts tomorrow, Saturday, by Asian reckoning. See you on the other side.

Shutting down Trump rallies and justifying our freedoms

I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in freedom of assembly. It’s an important part of liberalism that unpopular, obnoxious, and noxious views are allowed to be expressed and heard and that people who share them are allowed to gather together. Among the classic reasons given for this position are that it promotes individual liberty; it allows citizens to consider and dismiss failed and unjust viewpoints; and, in turn, it reinforces successful and just viewpoints. That’s the political theory.

However, I also applaud the protestors who are risking their safety by going to Donald Trump rallies and, yes, even causing some of them to be shut down.

How do I square that?

While it might be tempting for a liberal such as myself to simply see action against Trump as self-justifying, I think it’s important to articulate how rights should be exercised, and while die-hard Trump supporters might be unpersuaded, there are many other people who might have similar concerns and be open to justifications.

The answer is basically this: Because freedom of speech does not mean that you are completely free from the consequences of your speech.

The U.S. and its people allow an incredible amount and range of free speech. Take a look around the world, and you’ll quickly get a sense of how tolerant, lenient, and forgiving of a people we are.

But some speech simply breaches the limit that Americans are willing to tolerate. They then exercise their right to free speech and assembly to rise up in opposition. The citizens who are protesting Trump’s racist, xenophobic, violence-inciting speech are doing precisely that. This is how our system wrestles with extremes. I abhor the violence that’s taken place in these events. I especially regret that police officers have gotten hurt. But in other countries, these issues would be settled through the barrel of a gun. I’d trade our chaos for open war any day.

By the way, Donald Trump seems to understand very well that there are consequences to speech. After all, he routinely threatens to sue people who criticize him. And he even wants to “open up” well-established law regarding the freedom of speech and the press. Sometimes the consequences of Trump’s speech come in forms that don’t work in his favor.

The U.S. Needs More Political Parties. Here’s How.

U.S. politics seems to be at pivotal moment in which the traditional political duopoly is being openly questioned. Over the objections of party leaders, Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination by using authoritarian appeals to attract new and old nativist, xenophobic supporters. Bernie Sanders is activating many new, young voters and others with a vision of making the U.S. more like the social democracies of the Nordic countries, over the objections of centrist Democrats.

In the end, only one candidate will win in each primary, of course, thanks to our use of so-called “winner-take-all”  or “first-past-the-post” voting systems. The metaphorical post in this case is the formula of 50% plus one. If any given party’s candidate gets half of the total plus one more vote, that candidate and her or his voters get everything – all of the voice, all of the privileges, all of the power. The other nearly half of the people? They get nothing.

This kind of voting system is often praised for creating a form of political stability. It forces voters with diverse and sometimes contradictory views to compromise and rally behind one party and candidate in hope of making the magic number. Now, I have no problem with compromise. In fact, no democracy can function without it. But this system also has the effect of driving us into having only two large, viable parties. By viable, I mean a party has enough of a reasonable, fair shot at winning elections that the other parties have to take its existence into account. Yes, I know, we have a variety of small parties and occasionally a third-party presidential run, but their chances of success are slim to none.

So why is the two-party system such a big problem? I believe it causes many people to give up on politics because they feel like their viewpoint, their values, their policies can never get a hearing in our representative institutions. Many voters are being energized because of the very real possibility of seeing their voice finally expressed through one of the major parties – for good and for ill. But, inevitably, because of winner-take-all systems, many of them will go home disappointed.

So, what’s the solution? There are three parts.

Ranked-Choice Voting

The first part goes by two names: either “ranked-choice” or “instant run-off” voting. Here’s a short (1:30) video from Minnesota Public Radio – via the electoral reform group FairVote – that will give you a quick outline:

To summarize, you get to vote for, say, your top three choices of candidate in ranked order. If no candidate gets a clear majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets tossed out. But that candidate’s voters still have influence! Their second-choice votes now flow to that candidate, who could then get the majority. If not, the process continues until you have a winner that most people saw as being one of their top choices. (Such a process, by the way, might have helped stop Donald Trump from taking over the Republican primary by allowing the “establishment” candidates to coalesce their fractured support in each primary.)

Proportional Representation

Even with ranked-choice voting, you don’t necessarily get more political parties. For that you need a form of proportional representation. Again, I turn to FairVote for one example of such a system:

As a quick summary, instead of single-winner, smaller districts, you would have multiple winners in bigger districts. If there is a sizable political minority within an area, their chances are pretty good that they would get at least one representative.

Easier Ballot Access

But even ranked-choice and proportional representation don’t get you more parties. You also need easier ballot access. Laws in many states make it very hard for a new party to win the right to get on the ballot. And, of course, who makes the laws? The already established parties. Let’s be honest. Practically no one really wants truly stiff competition – not in business, not in life, not in politics. And once they have power, fewer people still are readily willing to give it up. Both parties are content to hold on to what they have and keep the contest simple.

Dreaming Big

Are any of these reforms to our political system actually going to happen? Probably not. Entrenched interests are very powerful, so we’re likely stuck – for a long time, at least – with a system from which many, if not most, American citizens feel alienated. But this appears to be the year of big dreams – whether it’s Medicare for All or Mexican walls – so what’s the harm in adding one more to the mix? All that’s at stake is a true representative democracy that’s actually worthy of the name.

P.S.

By the way, it is possible to have perhaps too many parties. Like the U.S., other representative democracies, like India (the world’s largest, remember) and Norway (as a recent Norwegian acquaintance told me) also have political paralysis either because of the number of parties or enough parties won’t come together to create a viable coalition under their parliamentary systems. There is no magic solution to the design of political systems – only occasional tweaking when it’s clear that one system has run its course.

P.P.S.

Here are a couple of defenses of the two-party system.

How you, poor Republican, can have your cake and eat it, too.

So, you’re a self-identified Republican. You see membership in the Republican party as a deep part of who you are. Frankly, I have a hard time with that kind of party loyalty. While I tend to vote for Democrats, I don’t self-identify as one.  But, regardless, that’s not you. For you, being a Republican, matters.

Republicanlogo.svgThat’s too bad, because, man, this is a hard time to be a Republican. Your party has gone bat sh*t crazy over Donald Trump. The rest of your presidential contenders aren’t exactly inspiring. And a Clinton – a Clinton! – is the front-runner for the Democrats. Sad times.

But tell you what, here’s my plan for how you can avoid the crazy, but still get to be a loyal Republican. It starts with just writing off the presidential race. This is tough to swallow, I know, but unless something dramatic happens, Trump will be your nominee. Join with other Republicans who have already said they will not support a Trump candidacy, although you can prove you’re better than your cowardly other presidential contenders by actually meaning it. And let your friends know what you’re doing.

Now, I’m not saying you have to vote for a Democrat. No, I know you better than that. Just don’t vote in the presidential race. Instead, just keep the U.S. House. That should be easy because there’s very little chance the Democrats can win that back, and with the U.S. system of government, it only takes one branch of elected government to shut the whole thing down. You’ve proven that. Also, you can make yourself feel better by retaining your lock on state legislatures and governorships. Boy, if there’s something you know how to do, it’s prove the incompetence of the Democrats at the state level. And of course, with that, you get your lock on the U.S. House through gerrymandering.

See, you have so much to be proud of. Yes, it’s true that your party became the vehicle for a xenophobic, KKK-attracting, Constitution-shredding, authoritarian demagogue who likes to use presidential debates to brag about the size of his dick and is already degrading our reputation internationally. But that’s not your Republican party. You can do a service to your party, your country, and your world by just sitting this presidential race out. Take your lumps. And revel in the still considerable power you have.

Flee to Canada? Nope, I’m not going anywhere.

Look, I realize when people talk of moving to Canada should Donald Trump become president that it’s often meant all in good fun. But let me say, quite seriously, that I have no intention of going anywhere. I will remain an American citizen and, to co-opt the phrasing of the Tea Party buffoons, take my country back — back from the bigots, plutocrats, and warmongers who are a threat to my nation and the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly see a lot of room for improvement in the United States. But living overseas for my spouse’s work, as I do now, has only made me better appreciate America’s promise — a promise that includes a relatively free and stable society, economic opportunity, and a government that does a pretty good job of respecting individual liberties. (Believe me, if the armed militants in Oregon had tried something like that in many countries, they would have gotten a real sense of what “tyranny” feels like.) It’s not for nothing that roughly 138 million people want to move to the U.S.

And even for those that don’t want to move to the U.S., what it does matters tremendously. It remains, for now, the leading nation of the world. Again, living overseas, I have had many detailed, knowledgeable conversations about American politics with citizens of other countries. Frankly, it’s shocking how well informed they are. And they get no voice whatsoever in deciding who the leaders of the U.S. will be, even though they have to live with the consequences.

The fact is that being a citizen of the United States is a precious gift — a powerful gift— most likely bestowed upon you simply as an accident of your birth. Personally, I will not surrender that gift to reactionaries. And that’s no joke.