Which to Choose: Democracy or My Right-Wing Agenda?

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My advice to cartoonist Gerald Scarfe: don’t hold back, tell us what you really think.

In a review titled The Worst of the Worst, Michael Tomasky reviews Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and David Frum’s Trumpocracy.

Please read the review. Please read the books.

At the end of his article Tomasky arrives at the point where the rubber meets the road. The right-wing agenda is very unpopular. If permitted to vote, a majority of the people will not vote for it. So you have a choice: either moderate your agenda and compromise for whatever you can get, or prevent people from voting. Tomasky writes,

Frum’s criticisms are not limited to Trump. He devotes several pages to an attack on recent Republican efforts to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies, advancing the argument, which many conservatives are still loath to make, that Trump, far from being an aberration of modern Republicanism, is in fact its logical endpoint:

It was not out of the ether that Donald Trump confected his postelection claim that he lost the popular vote only because “millions” voted illegally. Such claims have been circulating in the Republican world for some time, based in some cases on purported statistical evidence. Beyond the evidence, however, was fear: fear that the time would soon come, and maybe already had come, when democracy would be turned against those who regarded themselves as its rightful winners and proper custodians.

Conservatives, he writes later, will never abandon conservatism. If the day comes when they conclude that their side can’t win elections democratically, “they will reject democracy.” Trumpocracy warns that the day of reckoning is upon us—that the liberal democracy that is our heritage “imposes limits and requires compromises,” and that Trumpism is its mortal enemy. As the lies mount, questions that once seemed overwrought can no longer be put to the side. We probably have three years of this—at least—to go.

The Faustian Bargain’s Effect on the Souls of Conscientious Conservatives: a Cri de Coeur

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David Frum, Conservatism Can’t Survive Donald Trump Intact

 In the spring of 2016, National Review published its “Against Trump” issue. Twenty-one prominent conservatives signed individual statements of opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Of those 21, only six continue to speak publicly against his actions. Almost as many have become passionate defenders of the Trump presidency …

As a survival strategy, this is viable enough in the short term. But let’s understand what is driving it.

The conservative intellectual world is whipsawed between distaste for President Trump and fear of its own audience. The conservative base has become ever more committed to Trump—and ever less tolerant of any deviation. Those conservative talkers most susceptible to market pressure—radio and TV hosts—have made the most-spectacular conversions and submissions: Mark Levin, Tucker Carlson. …

Researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center have quantified how dramatically far-right media sources such as Breitbart News have overtaken and displaced traditional conservative outlets such as National Review. By tallying links, citations, and other indicators of influence, they found:

The center-left and the far right are the principal poles of the media landscape. The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the left are integrated into this landscape and are of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum. …

It’s a paradox, but it’s true: Trump gains a huge measure of support within the conservative world precisely because of how guilty he looks. Trump supporters may insist, “There’s no there, there.” They sense—as we all sense—that in fact so many “there”s lurk beneath Trump’s White House that even the most maladroit digger is liable to find something terrible: If not collusion with Russia, then perhaps tax evasion. If not tax evasion, then maybe bank fraud. If not bank fraud, then sexual assault. Or all of them. …

The Trump presidency is a huge political fact. Donald Trump may not be the leader of American conservatism, but he is its most spectacular and vulnerable asset. The project of defending him against his coming political travails—or at least of assailing those who doubt and oppose him—is already changing what it means to be a conservative. The word conservative will of course continue in use. But its meaning is being rewritten each day by the actions of those who lay claim to the word. It is their commitment to Trump that etches Trumpism into them. And while Trump may indeed pass, that self-etching will not soon be effaced.

Aardvark’s Addendum

So let me get this. Most of the conservative intellectuals who aspire to respectability have gone Trumpian because they are scared shitless of the base: there’s not much of a market any more fore respectable conservative opinion.

Got it.

But what happens when more and more of the base walk away from Trump? Too much empty bullshit. Too much tax cutting for the wealthy. Too much destruction of the social safety net they depend on.

It’s already happening. It’s going to continue next year. Bigly.

A Manchurian Candidate—or Just an Idiot?

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Remember The Manchurian Candidate, a 1959 political thriller with a plot so improbable as to diminish its entertainment value? Bet you never thought you would be living in this plot.

David Frum, speech writer for George Bush the Younger, writes,

“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that.”—Donald Trump on Vladimir Putin, en route to Hanoi, November 11, 2017.

So, to put it bluntly: At this point in the proceedings, there can be no innocent explanation for Donald Trump’s rejection of the truth about Russian meddling in last year’s elections. Earlier, it may have been suggested, sympathetically, that the case had not yet been proven. That Trump’s vanity blocked him from acknowledging embarrassing facts. Or—more hopefully—that he was inspired by some Kissingerian grand design for a diplomatic breakthrough. Or that he was lazy. Or stubborn. Or uninformed. Or something, anything, other than … complicit. Not anymore.

As yet, it remains unproven whether Trump himself was personally complicit in Putin’s attack on U.S. democracy as it happened during last year’s presidential campaign. What is becoming ever-more undeniable is Trump’s complicity in the attack after the fact—and his willingness to smash the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies in order to protect Putin, Russia, and evidently himself. …

At any time, this situation would be dire and ominous. It’s graver still at a time when this president seems determined to lead the United States into a preventive war in the Korean peninsula. President Trump may soon demand that this country incur terrible risks and accept heavy sacrifices—even as he leaves Americans in darkening doubt over whose interests he is serving, and why.

Yes, indeed. But, all that said, I don’t believe that, in the book, the Manchurian candidate actually admitted that he was the Manchurian candidate—which is what Trump has essentially done.

A Russian agent who said, “Yup, I’m a Russian agent all right,” would be a piss poor Russian agent. This leads Jennifer Rubin to conclude that Trump is not a conscious agent of Russia, just highly gullible:

President Trump’s authoritarianism, narcissism and racism threaten our democracy, but his gullibility threatens our national security. A man so uneducated and incurious about the world is willing, like his followers, to buy any crackpot conspiracy theory that makes its way to him via the Infowars-“Fox & Friends” pipeline. On the world stage, that makes him a sitting duck for slick manipulators and experienced flatterers. …

Trump is very much like the devoted Fox viewer who sits mesmerized in front of the screen, searching for evidence to support his prejudices, baseless suspicions and grievances against elites. See, there’s another crime by an immigrant. See, they’re all murderers. See, Sean Hannity found someone to say the Democrats hacked themselves! See, the Russia investigation is a hoax. Soaking up the brew of innuendo, hoaxes, lies and paranoia, Trump and his followers come to believe it all — and disbelieve the facts under their noses.

David Atkins marshals the evidence in support of the view that Trump’s pro-Russian views arise from stupidity. As Sherlock Holmes put it so well, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Atkins writes,

The most obvious answer is simply that Trump likes Vladimir Putin and doesn’t want to upset him, or that the Russian president has blackmail goods on Trump. But that would only explain soft-pedaling on Russia issues behind the scenes. Trump doesn’t need to publicly look like a credulous fool in front of world reporters to keep Putin happy.

The other frequent response to Trump’s bizarre behavior is that he is trying to please his base for domestic political reasons. But that doesn’t fly here, either. Trump has been shedding public approval over the Russia fiasco, and while his hardcore base may not care about the Russia story, they also (outside of a radical contingent) aren’t deeply invested in Putin.

The real answer seems to be that Donald Trump really is as naive as he appears to be. If Putin tells him he didn’t meddle, he believes him. If reporters ask him about it, he says what’s on his mind.

That shouldn’t make us feel any better about it. The President of the United States isn’t just a complicit tool of Russian plutocratic white supremacist influence. He’s an unwitting one as well.

Conclusion: we are all passengers in a jumbo jet being flown by someone who does not know how to fly a plane.

Who Leaked the Transcripts?

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And Does the End Justify the Means?

It’s axiomatic that if foreign heads of government cannot have private conversations with the President and others in our government—if they reasonably anticipate that their exact words will be printed in the press—then they will cease to have candid conversations. Either they will stop talking at all, or, if they do talk, they will only mouth the same bullshit they would serve up in a campaign rally.

This is terrible. The reasons are obvious, but David Frum’s analysis is still worth a read.

And, in addition to major injury to American interests, leaking the transcripts was a crime.

Who Done It? And Why?

We know they are the real transcripts because the White House did not claim otherwise, or ask the Washington Post not to publish. (That, per the WaPo’s reporter, on Morning Joe.)

So who leaked the transcripts? To begin with the obvious: you can’t leak the real transcripts unless you have the real transcripts. There are, then, essentially three possibilities.

Scenario Number One: It Was the “National Security Establishment”

One possibility—perhaps the most obvious one—is that someone in the State Department or the military was the leaker. David Frum lays out the case:

Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset. The fear that a Russian mole has burrowed into the Oval Office may justify, to some, the most extreme actions against that suspected mole.

The nature of this particular leak suggests just such a national-security establishment origin. It is a very elegantly designed leak. The two transcripts belong to calls whose substance was already widely reported in the media; they give away nothing new.

Better still from a national-security establishment point of view: both calls make the foreign leader look good at home. Enrique Peña Nieto will be helped, not hurt, by his dignified defense of Mexican national interests; Malcolm Turnbull is shown being simultaneously compassionate to deserving refugees but stern in his defense of Australian law and preexisting agreements with the United States.

Best of all, from that same national-security point of view, the transcripts reveal Trump as an arrant fool without actually compromising any important U.S. national interest. Speaking to the president of Mexico, Trump claims he won the state of New Hampshire because it is a “drug-infested den.” Trump won the state’s Republican primary, but lost New Hampshire in 2016, and that quote will not help him do better in 2020. The Turnbull transcript confirms the accuracy of early reports that Trump erupted in temper—and exposes Trump’s claims about the call as untrue. …

Scenario Number Two: It Was Trump’s Posse

We have it on good authority that pretty much everybody in the White House is leaking like a sieve. And some of those leaks—especially of late—seem to have come from members of Trump’s coterie who want to reveal just how bad things are getting, as a step toward protecting Trump from himself. For example, this afternoon Jonathan Chait—speaking in general terms, not specifically about the transcript leaks—had this to say:

During his very brief tenure as communications director, Anthony Scaramucci blurted out something very telling: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.” The conviction that Trump is dangerously unfit to hold office is indeed shared widely within his own administration. Leaked accounts consistently depict the president as unable to read briefing materials written at an adult level, easily angered, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to change his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with the superficiality of cable television.

Scenario number two seems like a definite possibility.

Scenario Number Three: Trump

Today Morning Joe advanced another highly plausible theory: that the leak was engineered by Trump himself. And who on God’s green earth might he do such a thing, given that the transcripts make him look like an idiot?

Because

  • he’s so oblivious that he doesn’t know the transcripts make him look like an idiot, and because
  • he thinks, correctly, that his base will be pleased to see him being nasty to foreign leaders—and will not grasp that the transcripts make him look like an idiot, and because
  • the obvious damage to national security will allow him to claim, once again, that the press is the enemy of the people.

Now, this is truly a harebrained idea. But it’s the very sort of harebrained idea that an improvisational narcissist would come up with, in the misguided view that he’s cuter than Bambi.

And, By the Way, Does the End Justify the Means?

Under scenario three, obviously not.

Under scenarios one or two, well, as my philosophy professor used to say, if the end does not justify the means, then what does justify them?

 

Severe Snowstorm Reported in Hell: George Will Makes Sense

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Will writes,

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence. …

What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.

Be Afraid, Pyongyang, Be Very Afraid

Will continues.

The United States is rightly worried that a strange and callow leader controls North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea should reciprocate this worry. Yes, a 70-year-old can be callow if he speaks as sophomorically as Trump did when explaining his solution to Middle Eastern terrorism: “I would bomb the s— out of them. . . . I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.” …

Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances. So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict.

And David Frum asks, Who’s Really in Charge of the United States Government?

Frum tells a shaggy dog story of incompetence and incoherence about Korea policy, concluding,

McMaster’s Sunday statement continues a pattern whereby the president says something outrageous—and is then seemingly over-ruled by the general who heads the National Security Council, the ex-general who heads the Department of Homeland Security, or the ex-general who heads the Department of Defense.

Through the first two months of this administration, we saw this pattern play out with regard to NATO, Russia’s pro-Trump interference in the presidential election, immigration policy, and many other areas.

Under the traditional American system, the president is supposedly supreme over his appointees, especially his uniformed appointees. It’s ominous if this president’s policy ignorance and blurted provocations invite his generals to set themselves up as his keepers. Who’s really in charge of the government of the United States? That question resonates louder and louder every day.

In Aardvark’s own view, Frum has a valid point about the risks of the generals taking over the government, but right now I would be a lot more concerned if the generals don’t take over.

Poisonous Populism: How (and How Not) to Deal with It

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Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan economist, writes In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did. “The recipe for populism is universal,” he says:

Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple.

The problem is you.

His counsel?

  1.  “Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. … What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.”
  2. Show no contempt. Leave “the theater of injured decency behind.”
  3. “A hissy fit is not a strategy.” Don’t try to force him out.
  4. Adopt a counterstrategy of proving “that you belong in the same tribe as them—that you are American in exactly the same way they are.” He continues,

Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power. By all means, be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Trust me.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat reacts to David Frum’s dystopian vision—and to everything else we have seen in the last two weeks, by presenting at some length a theatrical pageant of decency in which poisonous populism dooms itself through its lack of political skill, unpopularity, and the opposition of of the “deep state.”

So who’s right, Rondón or Frum? Will Trumpism fall of its own weight, or will the problem persist as long as we can’t get inside the heads of the Trumpistas?

 

 

 

 

David Brooks and David Frum: A Time to Choose

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Essential reading today comes from David Brooks  (The Republican Fausts) and David Frum (How to Build an Autocracy).

To address your existential despair, Aardvark suggests a large bottle of Jack Daniels close by your side. Remember, no matter what time it is in your time zone, the sun is under the yardarm somewhere. My Hungarian readers should feel free to substitute palinka; Aardvark knows form experience that it will also get the job done.

Frum’s essay is an extended think piece for the March issue of the Atlantic (much of which was written, presumably, before the turmoil of the last few days). It is plausible, persuasive, and chilling. I can’t do it justice here, but, in summary, Frum sees a potential future in which many elements of society have gotten what they want from Trump, and are increasingly willing to tolerate a “repressive kleptocracy.” Take Hungary, for example, Frum writes,

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

The problem, as I see it, is that Frum’s  dystopian prognostication rests on the assumption that the constituencies to whom Trump has made his extravagant promises will actually receive the promised benefits—or can, at the end of the day, be deluded into thinking they have received them.

But that will not happen. The magical health care fix will not occur. The manufacturing jobs will not return. The middle class will not be rescued.

Two thngs to remember.

One. Trump never keeps his promises. If you’re doing the plumbing work for a new Trump hotel, the one thing of which, in an unpredictable world, you may be fairly confident is that you will not actually be paid.

Two. You can food some of the bubbas some of the time, but you can’t fool all the bubbas all the time.

Actually, I’m tempted to add a third: Donald, I served with Viktor Orbán, I knew Viktor Orbán, Viktor Orbán was a friend of mine, and you, Donald, are no Viktor Orbán.

But all seriousness aside, in his column today David Brooks offers four reasons why Republican officeholders will come to rue their Faustian bargain. Brooks’ second point relates to the present discussion:

Second, even if Trump’s ideology were not noxious, his incompetence is a threat to all around him. To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amateurs. The recent executive orders were drafted and signed without any normal agency review or even semicoherent legal advice, filled with elemental errors that any nursery school student would have caught.

It seems that the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done. Things will get really hairy when the world’s problems are incoming.

Finally, lest there be any doubt about where this will all end, there are reports today that John Dean—he of the missing moral compass; you younger folk can find him on Widipediapredicts that the “way the Trump presidency is beginning it is safe to say it will end in calamity.”

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