Yay! The government shutdown is over. So what was gained by the political games over the past five weeks?
Well, nothing if you’re a fan of the President. Even less if you’re a small government conservative. To wit: the President shut down the government for better than a month in order to secure funding for a wall on the southern border. Then he changed that to steel slats. Then he changed it again to a down payment on steel slats. Finally, he agreed to a continuing resolution in exchange for revisiting the entire thing on February 15. However, the Democrat’s leader has already made clear she will not allow any funding for a wall, or steel slats, or any other sort of border barrier.
In other words, Donald Trump got rolled like a drunk in Hell’s Kitchen.
Now he can try to go around Congress come February 15 and declare an emergency on the border in order to build his wall (or steel slats, or… you get the idea). By midnight on the 16th, the courts will enjoin him from carrying out that order. It will make its way through the court system, eventually winding up before SCOTUS. The likely result? SCOTUS will affirm the lower court order, as there is nothing in the Constitution that allows the President to bypass Congress.
The shame of all this is, the shutdown could have been much more instructive if handled better. The President could have moved to privatize both the ATC and TSA. He could have pushed for funding the IRS and Border Patrol separately. (To their credit, some House Republicans did offer bills to do just those things). He could have activated the Coast Guard into the Navy, thereby funding them. The shutdown could have been used to showcase how little the federal government does that positively affects the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.
But since Trump is, at heart, a big government guy, such a tactic never even occurred to him. Think about it: a Republican president shut down the government because a Democrat-controlled House wouldn’t give him more money. I can’t recall any other time in our history such a thing has happened. He can’t be said to have abandoned the most fundamental policy of conservatism since he never embraced it. But it was that lack of understanding that ultimately led to his defeat.
The question is what Trump does next. The main thing those die-hard Trump supporters believe in is his infallibility in negotiations and his ability to turn losses into wins. However, unlike his failures in the private sector, there is no Deutsche Bank ready to ride in with loans to save his businesses. There is no Carl Icahn showing up with a bailout. There is no Jeffrey Zucker willing to be complicit in an identity makeover. He is on his own, against a foe who’s implacable in her opposition and much better versed at holding a political party together.
This isn’t to say some sort of compromise isn’t available. They can fudge on the wording allowing everyone to declare a victory. The President has already demonstrated that he’s willing to call a bunch of steel slats shoved into the desert sand “a big, powerful wall”, even though nobody with a functioning brain cell thinks it is. But in order to get that, he’ll need to be gracious enough to allow the Democrats to say they aren’t funding a border wall. It’s a trait that is not part of Donald Trump’s character.
There seems to be much confusion these days over political labels. What do these terms even mean any more? What is a centrist? A liberal? A libertarian? A conservatarian? A classical liberal? A neo-liberal? A neocon?
What is a conservative, in today’s world?
To begin answering that question, it is helpful to understand where modern conservative thought in America comes from, and how it evolved.
There were two dominant themes of conservative thought in the middle of the 20th century. One was what we refer to as Buckley Conservatism. This strain of conservatism emphasized the role of traditions and established hierarchical organizations in promoting social order; preferred limited government, recognized the roles of religion and shared culture in social cohesiveness, distrusted rationalizations and promoted the view that people are, at our core, emotional beings. Buckley conservatives accept that private ownership of property, capitalism and free trade economics are the surest path to economic prosperity for everyone.
The other predominant view of conservatism was Coolidge Conservatism, which traced its roots back to the mid-19th century. This version of conservatism differed from Bucklian conservatism in that it viewed the corporation as the principle driver of both economic and social policy. It eventually merged with Objectivist theory to form the modern Libertarian party.
During the 1970s, a third strain of conservatism arose. We came to call this version of conservative thought neoconservatism, although it might also be called Bush or Kristol Conservatism after the men who exemplified its ideas. This version arose from disaffected liberals, although it hews close to the pre-existing Northeastern Republican thought of the day. Neocons espouse that military adventurism in replacing totalitarian regimes with democratic ones is a laudable use of military power, that government intervention in society to promote social change is not only acceptable but necessary, and a general belief in capitalism, but not free markets (Irving Kristol referred to this as “bourgeois capitalism”). While they agree with their forebears that people are not rational beings, they accept the idea that rationally developed plans, implemented by people who were educated and trained to ignore their emotional impulses, could improve the lives of everyone. This includes a belief that a strong welfare state is a requirement for a modern society.
Buckley conservatives were represented by Barry Goldwater’s quixotic presidential run in 1964 and reached its zenith with the Reagan presidency of the 1980s. But the GOP soon shifted from Buckleyism to Neoconservatism under the leadership of George HW Bush. Interventionist foreign policy and regime change became the order of the day, along with increased taxes and government intrusion into some of the social ramparts, such as local schools and civic organizations.
It is the neoconservative view that most Americans came to associate with being a conservative by the time of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign of 2012. While a great many conservative thinkers, politicians and writers paid lip service to the Bucklian concept of limited government and free markets, they only took that so far as limited taxation on businesses. Beyond that, they still practiced government regulation like a Rockefeller, practiced foreign interventionism like a Bush, and railed for government solutions to social problems like a liberal. Buckley Conservatism seemed an outdated anachronism by this point.
The funny thing about that is neoconservatism was actually the least conservative of the three dominant conservative philosophies that came to be in the 20th century. It owes its existence to liberals who were repulsed by the leftward lurch of mainstream liberal thought during the late 1960s. Neoconservatism shares many views with its liberal roots, although in attenuated form. As Irving Kristol once remarked, “A neoconservative is a liberal who got hit in the face by reality.”
That being said, neoconservatives also adopted Bucklian language in deference to the last truly successful Republican president, in Ronald Reagan. So, we have neoconservatives praising free markets when in reality they haven’t actually practiced free market economics. We have neoconservatives pledging fealty to fiscal responsibility, but refusing to actually do anything about it. We have neoconservatives decrying the welfare state, but refusing to do anything about the two biggest social welfare programs managed by the federal government.
Indeed, it is this aspect of the neoconservative takeover of the Republican party that has led many voters to think of it as nothing more than the flip side of the Democratic party coin. Is it any wonder the average person has no idea what a conservative is?
Into this vacuum stepped one Donald Trump. While almost nobody would consider Trump a died-in-the-wool conservative, he was able to capture the nomination of the Republican party by espousing many conservative views on issues, such as fealty to the letter of the Constitution, lower taxes, less regulation, an end to foreign adventurism, etc. At the same time, he promoted ideas that should have been anathema to any conservative: trade barriers, managed economies and a personal moral code that could be best described as immoral.
Some have described Trump, and his policy goals as a form of right-wing populism. It may well be, but I suspect that Trump has so completely rebranded the moniker of conservative (abetted by a very liberal press that wants nothing more than to permanently discredit conservatism, in all forms) that conservatives will need to re-examine their ideals to see which can be modified, and which of the new ideas can be absorbed, into a 21st century conservatism.
For instance, many conservatives are loathe to accept the idea of nationalism as being a conservative goal. At the same time, one of the core tenets of conservatism – irregardless of the particular flavor of 20th century conservative thought to which one might subscribe – is the notion of a cohesive society, built around a shared history and culture. That is the very essence of nationalism. To some, this smacks of the jingoism and xenophobia associated with the extreme nationalism that punctuated the 1930s. But it need not be. Acceptance of the United States as unique among nations extends back throughout our history, there’s no reason we should deviate from that today.
The best way to judge whether conservatism, as both a political and societal philosophy, is at all compatible with elements of Trumpism is to see if the general tenets of conservatism are compatible with them. Perhaps no finer mind than that of Russell Kirk laid out those general principles 25 years ago in a terrific essay (you can find it here). So, if we do that comparison, which are – and which are not?
- Human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. – NO
- Trumpism doesn’t address human nature at all, nor does it consider it as a guiding principle in any policy decision. Morality is paid lip service, but in practice ignored, both by Trump and most of those in his inner circle.
- The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. – MAYBE?
- Trumpism has a dichotic relationship with this idea. On one hand, Trump was elected precisely to upend conventional politics and institutions. On the other, many of his supporters want a return to the customs and conventions they recall from their youth.
- Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription. – NO
- This is one area in which Trump’s liberal roots come shining through. Rather than base his decisions on what worked in the past, he very much is out to completely remake the world order in his own image.
- Conservatives are guided by prudence. – NO
- Not unlike most other politicians of the current era, this principle does not apply to Trump. Every decision he makes is weighed against immediate impact, not the effect on the nation or world five or ten years hence.
- Conservatives pay attention to variety. – YES
- Kirk wrote, “The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law…” This is a principle that is upheld under Trumpism, much to the chagrin of liberals – who are determined to end the inequality of outcomes.
- Conservatives understand that humans are not perfect, and cannot be made to be perfect. – NO
- This is another area in which Trump demonstrates his liberal leanings. By action, he shows he believes himself to be perfected. He believes he can also bring perfection to any number of situations. Such self-confidence is a key part of his appeal, even if it is misguided.
- Freedom and property are closely linked. – NO
- The Trump administration has fought efforts to end the abysmal practice of civil forfeiture, and followed Trump’s long history of supporting using eminent domain to seize property. That speaks for how strongly this principle is detested by Trumpism.
- Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. – NO
- Trumpism is all about big, beautiful, federally driven solutions to problems that certainly would be better left to states and localities. Repealing Obamacare would be great, replacing it with another monster federal program not so much. A $1 trillion infrastructure program, with funds doled out by bureaucrats in Washington, will be as much a boondoggle as the “shovel ready jobs” Obama stimulus program.
- Government and government officials need restraints on power and human passions. – NO
- One glance at the headlines or Twitter on any given day tells you all you need to know how Trump (and due to their slavish devotion, most of his supporters) feel about this principle. That Trump came into the Oval Office thinking he had near kingly powers is pretty obvious, and the fact he doesn’t chafes at him probably more than anything else about the job.
- Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. – NO
- Kirk meant this in terms of the tension between a normal society’s natural desire towards social progress versus its foundational aspects. As noted previously, Trump is in many ways out to obliterate many of those foundations, without regard to what may replace them. Yet at the same time, his supporters look to return many established norms of prior eras while removing some of the progressive aspects of modern society.
So based on Kirk’s criteria, Trumpism is not particularly conservative, although there are parts of his agenda that will certainly appeal to conservatives – particularly conservatives who have been able to divorce their societal impulses from their views of governance and morality. Still, we can safely say that most who subscribe to Trumpism are NOT conservatives.
Likewise, we can safely say that those who subscribe to neoconservatism are not conservative, either. The entire philosophy of neoconservatism disagrees with Kirk on points 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. Think of the headlong rush to impose a Pax Americana by force of arms, to alter the nature of education and force federal intrusion into the same, and so forth. None of those policies nor the reasoning behind them were conservative in nature.
Thus, the confusion for us in determining what conservatism is and who in our country actually is a conservative. Our media, for 30 years – two generations – has conflated “conservative” with Republican. In no small measure, Buckley is responsible for this. He once wrote, “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.” This led the publication that Buckley founded, over the years, to support all four Bush candidacies, along with the McCain candidacy in 2008 and Romney candidacy in 2012. That sort of cover is precisely what the media (which has been unabashedly liberal for at least 40 years) has needed to paint the neoconservative movement as actually conservative. Likewise, the principle espoused (despite NR’s vociferous objections to Trump during the 2016 election) by Buckley has allowed them to paint Trump as a conservative.
So the answer to the question “what is a conservative” is the same as it has always been. If the question is, “who is a conservative,” though, and you refer to national leaders and politicians, then there is no obvious answer these days.
This morning, news broke that President Trump intends to end “birthright citizenship” for illegal aliens by executive order. It is certainly a bold stroke, and undeniably a blatant political move coming right before the midterm elections next week. But before everyone gets themselves into a lather over the announcement, we need to stop and realize that this is a dance in multiple parts. Specifically, there are questions it raises and we don’t even have the text of the proposed order to begin working with yet. However, we can break the announcement into three distinct parts, just based on the interview the President gave to Axios. The first is, does the President have the authority to make this change to citizenship requirements? Secondly, if the President does have the authority, would such a change to citizenship standards pass Constitutional review? Finally, assuming questions 1 and 2 can be affirmed, how would such a change be implemented?
As to the first question, it is extremely doubtful the President can unilaterally change citizenship standards. There are steps he could include in a concurrent executive order that would have the same effect as changing citizenship standards without actually touching on any of the relevant Constitutional issues a Presidential end run would create (I’ll touch on those when I discuss the third question).
The reason I doubt a President can ignore the wishes of Congress when setting citizenship standards is found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 of the Constitution:
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
I have little doubt the President will attempt some weird workaround. The most likely method will be by declaring that since Congress has failed to act on the question of citizenship in any meaningful way since the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 (or as it is commonly referred to, the McCarron-Walter Act, 8 USC Chapter 12), nor has it even attempted to amend the law in 17 years, then he can by means of his powers in the Opinion Clause amend the law on his own. This is a serious misreading of the powers enumerated in Article 2, Section 2, and I cannot see any possible way any court in the country would let this stand.
So, what is to be gained by a move any pre-law student can see is futile? Well, this was one of the President’s campaign planks. What’s more, while I am certain the media will hyperventilate while mentioning “the President’s base” when talking about this, what they won’t tell you is that ending birthright citizenship for illegal aliens has consistently polled around 65% approval. It is a winning issue for him, and this Kafkaesque method of getting people talking about it again will prove that, even if the “Morning Joe” panel begs to disagree.
So, as to the second question, should Congress move on the President’s request to limit birthright citizenship, would it pass Constitutional muster? This is the biggest question that needs to be answered, and you can bet the legal challenges will be flying should such a bill ever get passed. I posted the relevant portion of the Constitution at the top of this post. This is referred to as the Citizenship Clause, or Section 1, of the 14th Amendment, and on first blush, it reads as simply being born in the United States immediately confers citizenship to you. This is actually the furthest thing from the truth, and the key part is the part that states “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” In other words, the authors of the 14th Amendment understood from the outset that not everyone born on US territory should automatically be granted citizenship.
That’s because their principle concern in authoring the 14th Amendment was redressing some of the more pernicious aspects of readmitting former Confederate states into the Union. Among these were citizenship, the right of representation, due process protections, and debts incurred by the former Confederate states to foreign powers (yes, all those questions are addressed in the 14th Amendment). They understood the amendment would cover the issues in broad brush strokes, but that further tweaks over time would be needed. So they included section 5, which states
“The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
In fact, it was by this clause that Congress finally granted citizenship to Native Americans in 1924, under the Snyder Act, as well as to residents of most American territories (Puerto Rico by 8 USC 1402, the US Virgin Islands by 8 USC 1406 and Guam by 8 USC 1407). Those last three acts were passed in the 1950’s. Even though those territories had been part of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, persons born there were not considered US citizens prior to that. We’ll be revisiting this shortly.
Now back to the Citizenship Clause. The authors understood that not everyone born on US soil should automatically be entitled to US citizenship. The phrase “subject to the jurisdiction of” has been hotly debated in Constitutional circles for better than a century. There are plenty of articles arguing the exact meaning “jurisdiction” as it applies to the 14th Amendment, and you’re certainly welcome to do the research for them. However, they break down into two general categories. The first holds that “jurisdiction” refers to allegiance to the United States, and requires the person does not hold allegiance to a foreign power or be in a state of rebellion against the United States. This is backed by the intent of the Citizenship Clause: it was intended to ensure that prior to re-obtaining their citizenship, the former Confederates had renounced their rebellion. The secondary purpose was to override the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that former slaves were not citizens of the United States and therefore not entitled to due process protections (also addressed in the Due Process Clause of the amendment).
The second interpretation is the one most commonly held by the media types, that “jurisdiction” refers to being liable to the laws of the United States. Under this explanation, anyone born on US soil is a citizen, unless recognized as a citizen of a foreign power (for instance, the child of an ambassador), since everyone is subject to US law.
You might think this is already settled law, based on the common narrative. Actually, it is anything but. The question has only partly come before the Supreme Court once, in 1898. In US v Wong Kim Ark, the court held that the children of legal immigrants are entitled to birthright citizenship. The precedent of jus soli (or by soil) was affirmed for this purpose, but the principle of jus sanguinis (or by parental right) was not disavowed, either. Further, the idea that sanguinis takes precedence over soli is further affirmed by those acts I mentioned above: the ones that granted citizenship to residents of certain territories. And if you’re ready for your head to explode, there are still two US territories where birthright citizenship is not granted: those born on American Samoa or the Swains Islands are considered US nationals, but not citizens.
What all of this means is there is enough ambiguity to ensure that should Congress act under their Section 5 powers of the 14th Amendment to restrict the establishment of the Citizenship Clause to legally admitted residents, then a Supreme Court case is certain. The outcome isn’t, but given the current court’s alignment, an affirmative decision in the President’s favor is most likely.
Finally, I mentioned that the third question – what can the President do in the meantime – is rather substantial. I’ve already demonstrated the President does not have the authority to rewrite the laws around citizenship on his own. However, he does have the authority to affect how those laws are enforced. There is a multitude of actions he can order that, while not ending birthright citizenship for illegal aliens, would severely curtail their ability to exercise it. This could begin at birth, by requiring the Social Security Administration to have all parents complete a paper form that would include proof of parentage and parental citizenship, with documentation, prior to issuing a social security number to any newborn. It would inconvenience everyone, but you have to imagine the change to the process (it currently takes about ten minutes to get a social security number for a newborn) and document requirements would scare off most illegal parents. He could order that all birth documents be submitted to the National Archives. He could require all parents be fingerprinted and run through the FBI NICS, similar to how we require background checks for purchasing a firearm, prior to a birth certificate being issued.
These are all hypothetical possibilities, of course. But they serve the same purpose. They telegraph in clear terms that the children of illegal aliens are not welcome, and the “anchor baby” concept is effectively over – regardless of what the Supreme Court eventually decides.
You could be excused for thinking it’s 2016 again.
After all, we’re litigating the President’s character and moral compass again. That was the central theme of the 2016 general election. I argued against his selection as the Republican nominee on those very grounds, often and vociferously. And you know what? The problem with those arguments was always that the people he ran against are hardly paragons of moral certitude.
Thus it was during the general election. Those arguments that Hillary Clinton tried, casting aspersions on Donald Trump’s character, might have held water – except they were being made by Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t that anyone thought Trump is a man of virtue. His 40+ years in the public spotlight have proven to all but the most blinded that he is anything but virtuous. But if there is one politician alive who is even more corrupt and morally bereft than the Donald, it is the former First Lady.
So, Americans went to the polls, held their noses, and elected Mr. Trump to be the 45th President. Contrary to what professional punditry claims, it wasn’t personality that landed him in the White House. It was the difference in what each party, and candidate, proffered as policy prescriptions for the United States. They chose the more conservative of those two visions. They chose Trump.
As expected, the Democrats have continued to hammer away at character, because they really have no other tools with which to engage in political debate. While there are policies President Trump has pursued that are anathema to doctrinaire conservatives, and he’s been a little squishy on some others, for the most part he has stuck to the conservative script. The adoption of those policies has resulted in an economic boom unlike anything this nation has seen in a generation. Moreover, his judicial appointments (considerable in that they are mostly Constitutionalists and in number) promise to begin stemming the tide of judicial activists that have largely torn the social fabric of the nation.
So long as he continues to deliver a robust economy and solid appointments, Republicans will continue to support him, character be damned. After all, that issue was litigated and determined to be of little importance to the general public.
Now we’ve reached another inflection point. We can be reasonably certain that not only is the President a cad, his choice in women remains…juvenile. We know this because his fixer has all but admitted he directed payments to a pornographic actress and a nude model at then candidate Trump’s instruction.
Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans have seized on this latest revelation as if it proves the President is a mass murderer. Even their attempts at at saying he violated campaign finance laws and therefore deserves immediate impeachment have proven more hyperbole than fact, as even the FEC admits Mr. Trump didn’t endanger our republic any more than candidates Obama, Clinton, McCain, Bush, Kerry, et al. So now, they’re back to pressing the character question, as if it were a question at all.
What all of this hew and cry fails to do is respect the judgement of the voting public. The typical American hears all about yet another President who can keep his pants on around the fairer sex and thinks, “How does this affect me?”. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t. We’ve suffered (if that’s the right word) through philandering presidents more often than we care to remember, and provided they delivered results all was forgiven.
Would I prefer the President were the virtuous sort? Of course I would. But I look at our current crop of politicians and quite frankly, the only one who matches that description is the current Vice President. So, I’ll stick with the current President, thank you very much.
This weekend has brought forth another wave of editorials, essays and TV commentaries lamenting that the Republican Party is now the party of Trump. In the wake of his primary loss, Mark Sanford wrote a piece lamenting the fact that he “wasn’t Trump enough” and that voters wanted someone who is obsequious to the current Commander-in-Chief. George Will, in his usual excessive verbiage, urged Republicans to *gasp* vote for Democrats in this years mid-terms. Why the apostasy? In his eyes, Congressional Republicans have abandoned their principles to get a tax cut.
What these gentlemen, and the other old-guard types seem incapable of fathoming, is that it isn’t allegiance to Trump is not the defining ethos of the modern GOP. What they haven’t come to terms with is for the vast majority of Republicans, their views on issues, and which issues should take precedence, do not match the Bush (read: neocon) value structure at all. Elected Republicans who fail to recognize this and represent their constituents values are being removed from office at the ballot box. The intelligentsia that refuses to accept this change is being asked, often impolitely, to leave.
President Trump is the embodiment of those values, same as Barack Obama or George Bush were the embodiments of their party’s values during their terms of office. Yes, there are aspects of his personality that are grating – but it is those same aspects that are particularly appealing to the Republicans who gave their allegiance for last quarter century to the Bush wing of the party and got very little in return for it. Those erstwhile pundits place the locus of their attention on the President’s personality while ignoring, misunderstanding or worse, belittling the values President Trump epitomizes.
During the nearly 30 years that the Bush family and their values were ascendant within the GOP, they emphasized the “neoconservative” value structure: multinational cooperation in military and economic affairs, acquiescence to multinational corporate interests, loose immigration controls, compromise on societal issues. They thought the Tea Party movement was either a validation of that value structure, a personal repudiation of Barack Obama, or perhaps both. In reality, it was a repudiation of both Barack Obama (and the post-modern liberalism he represented) and the existing GOP power structure. The 2016 election, in which the last champions of neocon ideology were electorally trounced, should have told them their days were over.
There are aspects of this new, much more conservative ideology I am uncomfortable with. I do not support trade tariffs, nor am in agreement with increasing the power of the federal government. The spending increases and failure to address – indeed, ignore – the fiscal crisis is particularly galling to me. But I’m adult enough to admit that certain aspects of Republicanism that I supported in the past – in particular, multinational trade agreements – have turned out to be abject failures for most Americans. It would behoove the most ardent neocons to look around and recognize where they failed, and to start working out the reasons.
Much of the current GOP platform is things to which the Bush wing paid lip service. They never quite understood that for the rank-and-file, the parts of the platform the elites held in disdain are the important parts. The rank-and-file was willing to back the elites play on the idealistic parts of their agenda in return for their work on those things the elites found, to borrow a phrase, “deplorable.”
The professional politicians forgot that politics is less about ideals than results. Something I constantly hear is that politics has become “too transactional.” What they forgot is that our Founding Father’s devised a system of transactional politics. Politicians who fail to deliver the results their constituents want are not reelected. For 30 years, Republicans were waiting for the GOP candidates to deliver. They didn’t. They got fired. As for the rest, they can get with the program. Failing that, they can find a new political home. They stole the GOP in the late 1980’s. Trump’s voters reasserted their control in 2016, and are continuing that purge today.
A recurring theme among our media betters is a disbelief that President Trump would treat the other members of the G-7 with so much more disdain than he treats Russia, China and North Korea. Their difficulty is because for all of their expertise and hubris, they can’t get past their navel gazing. If they simply opened their eyes and thought about it, the reason for this would be so obvious it would jump up and slap them in the face.
The reason is not that Trump is a bombastic crybaby, nor that he lacks empathy, nor that he misunderstands history. It isn’t that he disregards what are regarded as diplomatic and foreign policy norms. It has nothing to do with his narcissism or love of McDonald’s burgers.
Indeed, he gave us the biggest clue to the one driving theme of his foreign policy in the impromptu news conference prior to the start of the G-7 confab this past weekend. Mr. Trump said, “We have a world to run.” Was he talking about the assembled “world leaders” of the G-7? Or was he alluding to something else?
One of the most interesting things I constantly hear is that President Trump has no grasp of history, no concept of the United States role in shaping world affairs, or the post-WWII international order. I don’t think that’s the case whatsoever. If anything, he has demonstrated a more focused understanding of those things than the talking heads on TV, or the failed diplomats who clutter the airwaves with their talking points. They prattle incessantly about a world order that has never existed anywhere except in their minds. It was the relentless pursuit of this fiction that led to many of the disastrous American foreign policy actions over the last 25 years.
Trump regards the lesser members of the western alliance (what we usually refer to as “first world nations”) as nothing more than vassal states. For those of you who don’t understand the concept (Hi, cast members of Morning Joe!), a vassal state is one that has pledged loyalty to a larger state. It receives a promise of security from external threats and financial assistance, along with a pledge of limiting interference in internal politics. In exchange, the vassal provides some military forces and pays tribute to the dominant partner.
Vassal states have existed for as long as human civilization. The Egyptians and Hittites both had clients in the Middle East even before anyone invented writing. (We know this because the earliest written tablets known to us, from both Egypt and Anatolia, describe those civilizations relationships with everyone from the Ammorites to the Sumerians). And contrary to popular myth, they did not disappear with the end of the First World War.
If you stop to think about the post-WWII order, this is exactly the scenario the world found itself in. There were two dominant states (the USA & USSR), and each had a collection of vassals. For the US, those vassals were the members of NATO, Japan, Australia, and other various small countries. The Soviets had vassal clients in the Warsaw Pact, China, Cuba and most of the Arab world. The occasional squabbles between vassals on opposing sides led to conflagrations that would involve the sponsors (the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950’s and 60’s, or Vietnam, or the Korean War). Presidents from Truman through Bush 41 might have smiled at their allies, but they never treated them as equals. If they had, Jimmy Carter never would have been able to strong-arm Menachem Begin into the concessions needed for the Camp David Accords. Bush never would have rounded up the international force to launch Desert Storm. And so on, and so forth.
Like it or not, this is the world view that the President has. He sees Russia reasserting its control over her vassals (Ukraine, most prominently). He sees China moving to gain an equal footing as the United States, without any actual vassals (but not for lack of effort). He sees North Korea as a vassal of China, but one that is recalcitrant and one that China refuses to hold tight enough rein on.
Within this framework, he sees the other members of the western post-war coalition as forgetting their rightful place. He won’t treat them as equals because in his world view, they are NOT equals. They are vassals, subservient and reliant on the United States for their very existence. Additionally, he sees the fecklessness of the three administrations immediately prior to his as largely responsible for the sad state of affairs between the US and our “clients.”
In the same vein, he treats Russia and China as equals because in his world view, they are our equals. Each is a dominant nation, like the United States. While the vassals, like bratty children kicking at our shins, complain about unfair treatment, Trump is staying focused on where he believes the real international political struggle begins and ends: the battle between the three superpowers for world supremacy. He sees an opportunity to, at worst, turn North Korea into an independent player (much like Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia was) or at best, reunify the Korean Peninsula as a client state of the USA.
He may be right in his view of a modern realpolitik. The problem he runs into as that while the client/sponsor relationship was an unacknowledged fact for the late 20th century, the 21st is somewhat different. Yes, the client states are still dependent on the US for their international security. But whereas once their economies were independently reliant on the US, that is no longer the case. The last 25 years has seen the global economy changed from one of many clients subservient to one dominant economy, to a symbiotic economic relationship between nations. What’s more, the tangle of trade agreements and international corporations is such that any disruption anywhere in the flow of goods threatens the economic order of the planet., threatening a conflagration that would make the last two world wars pale by comparison.
This is the conundrum facing the American President. During the height of the Cold War, the US economy accounted for nearly half of all global economic activity. As of last year, we accounted for less than 18%. While we may hold all the cards militarily, we are now trying to draw to an inside straight economically. The notion of returning international trade to one where most economic activities is controlled by US companies is less an economic decision than a militarily strategic one. Heck, the President said as much when he imposed the latest tariffs. In the face of this situation, our nation is faced with two choices. We can attempt to rebuild the original postwar order, or we can remove ourselves from a position of global dominance, recalling and reducing our military strength.
When you look through the prism of vassal state relationships, you can see which option the President has opted for. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it has been his stated world view for the better part of 40 years now. That nobody in the media seems capable of grasping this is the only surprising thing about it.
I find myself, once again, having to cut through the bullcrap like a light saber through Ben Kenobi.
Look, here’s the deal folks: when Donald J. Trump, current President of these United States, was nothing more than an old lech (ok, a rich old lech), he paid to get laid by a porn star. He did this while his third wife, a former high-class skin model, was knocked up with his kid and while simultaneously having an affair with a Playboy playmate. Now, if I had more money than God (or at least, more than 90% of other Manhattan residents), I would waste my money on other things, but it’s his money. Besides, it’s part of his life-long pattern of keeping STD clinics in business.
The thing is, none of this should surprise anyone. After all, Trump has been a braggart about his sexploits since he first started appearing on Page Six. (What did you think was going on at Studio 54?) This is a guy who cheated on his first wife with his second wife, who he then dumped when she had the temerity to get pregnant. Long before achieving a career rebirth as a sort of lovable reality show host, he was famous for being the cad who turned Atlantic City into a hedonistic pleasure dome (albeit a badly managed, over-the-top version).
Indeed, this is the last scandal I ever expected to besiege the Trump White House. After all, only the wilfully ignorant would have thought Donald J. Trump hasn’t spent the last 50 years trying to hump every female human that crossed his path. For Pete’s sake, he’s bragged about. Loudly.
So, why wouldn’t he just fess up this time around? Surely he remembers 20 years ago. Yes, we were all skeeved by the middle aged dude boffing a barely legal intern in the Oval Office – but only the wilfully ignorant were surprised by the behavior. But what got that president into a heap of trouble was lying about it, even though nobody believed him. It cost him his legacy. 50 years from now, the only thing he’ll be remembered for is being the second President to be impeached.
The only thing I can think of is, he’s afraid of losing his base of support. But those of you who are rabid Trump fans wouldn’t abandon him over this. I mean, 5 minutes on Twitter proves that, right? So, it’s up to y’all. Already, the lawsuits are in motion. It’s Monica all over again. Shortly, the President will be forced to submit to being deposed and any missteps or misstatements in those, and he’ll have fallen into the same self-imposed trap that ensnared Bill Clinton. So, Trumpkins, save us all the spectacle. Urge him to fess up to doing the horizontal bop with a porn star named Stormy (and yes, having quite ordinary sized hands) and pay the settlements so we can all move on. There are real problems. We don’t need a lecherous old fool’s hubris to create new ones.
There are days when I feel like I fell asleep and woke up in an alternate dimension. You know, kind of like Rod Serling kidnapped me and threw me into an episode of “The Twilight Zone” without asking first. There’s been more of them over the past 26 months than in the previous 50 years of life, but I’m beginning to think all of that was just a warm-up for the past month.
You see, that’s when people suddenly became aware that men will, given the opportunity, think of women as sexual objects (and vice versa).
I know, that’s a shocking concept. Prior to a month ago, every woman in every nightclub around the world was dressed in a potato sack. Those jokes you heard about men thinking about sex every ten seconds (personally, I think those overestimate the time between thinking about sex by around 8 seconds) were invented somewhere around October 15. Marilyn Monroe was the most talented actress of all time, which is why she’s so well remembered.
Of course, all of that is bunco, but judging from the hew and cry over the past month you would never know it. This isn’t to excuse the behavior of a Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer. I’m going to be honest, before either of those guys hit the news I hadn’t even heard of the mating ritual that involved jerking off to a potted plant while your intended watched. But the sudden shock that anything of this sort was going on is, well, disingenuous, to say the least. Look, I’m not one who reads Page Six or watches TMZ. But even I recall hearing stories about the infamous Hollywood “casting couch” as a kid. You know, how wannabe starlets would trade sexual favors in exchange for roles in movies and television. To pretend that any of this is new, or that every woman who participated, was somehow abused is laughable on its face.
Now, we’ve moved on to the next target: politicians. Somehow, in all this recent fervor, we’ve discovered that not every politician is a great guy (or gal). Their effectiveness as a legislator, jurist or executive is of no matter when judging their fitness for office. Nope, the only thing that counts now is if they ever grabbed somebody’s ass in a hotel room (or, in Al Franken’s case, a dressing room). This is about as ridiculous an idea as has ever been thrown into public discourse.
The simple fact is history is replete with examples of horrible, terrible people who excelled in public service. Think where the civil rights movement would be today if Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson (or John Conyers, for that matter) were held to these absurd standards. The world might well be a cinder if JFK had been subjected to them. We might all be speaking German if FDR’s peccadilloes had forced him from office. The US might not even exist if Thomas Jefferson (or if John Hancock or Samuel Adams) were held to this sudden contempt we have for men who act like boors. And just imagine where the #MeToo movement would be if the sexual predations of Eleanor Roosevelt had been splashed across the front pages of her day.
And please, let’s not even get started on the sexual career of William Jefferson Clinton. He may not have been a great President, but he did introduce all of us to other unique mating rituals. *ahem*
So, grow up people. Get past the junior high titillation and get back to the real issues at hand. Lord knows we have things facing our country, things that really matter, than to allow ourselves to be distracted by all this folderol.
Oh, and guys? If you feel the need to make love to a potted plant, seek professional help.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about President Trump being removed from office via the 25th Amendment (thanks, Steve Bannon). I thought all that had gone away months ago, but suddenly talking heads can’t get enough of the latest talking point. Since everyone seems to have forgotten what the 25th Amendment says, I thought I would share the following Roll Call video. It’s by far the most unbiased presentation on the topic I’ve come across.
After a year of what may go down as the dumbest protest in American history, it seems the National Football League is ready to listen to their fans and end the shenanigans, once and for all. The NFLPA should thank them, before any more of their members are made to look like communist sympathizers.
Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began this hairbrained scheme on September 11, 2016. At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a very idiotic marketing ploy by a former starter whose poor play had landed him on the bench of a bad, and dysfunctional, team. He may have claimed it was to protest police brutality, but his actions since (appearing at press conference in Miami wearing a Fidel Castro t-shirt & drawing little pigs on his socks among them) only bolstered my opinion: either he was a wannabe Che Guevara (but without the cajones), or he was desperately trying to force the league to keep him employed. When the season began with him not having a job and the outcry went up from certain segments of the sports commentariat that Kaepernick “deserved” a job, I felt vindicated. After all, his terrible play the previous three seasons certainly didn’t justify his being on an NFL roster. But that didn’t stop that rather vocal group of commentators from assuring us the only reason Kaepernick was watching the games from his couch was racism.
(As a side note: 22 of 87 NFL quarterback are black, as are 9 of the 32 starters. The NFL, as are all pro sports leagues these days, is the most egalitarian of employers. The only thing that matters is performance on the field, not race or religion.)
The NFL is a league that employs rapists, murderers, drug fiends and wife beaters, among other sundry malcontents. And until a week ago, approximately a quarter of those players were engaging in on-the-field behavior 90% of the country finds reprehensible. The outcry and backlash was the result of a few players who may have thought they were doing something principled, and a bunch of guys who get paid to have their brains routinely bounced around their skulls falling for what President Trump does best: troll.
And that was the insanity of this protest from the get-go: perceived police brutality in American cities is a topic worthy of discussion. But the moment you start using the National Anthem and the US flag as the center of your protest, the cause gets drowned out. It isn’t very positive imagery. Look, I get it: the First Amendment allows political speech involving the national symbols as props. But it doesn’t excuse you from widespread ridicule and scorn when you’re even perceived to be disrespecting them. The result in that case tends to be that your cause gets lost in the noise. Nobody cares, nobody wants to hear it – worse, your cause becomes anti-American. If you need a better example, the Supreme Court rulings that upheld disrespecting the flag as political speech were over the flag burning incidents in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Does anyone remember what those protests were about? No. All we remember is seeing the images of people burning a flag, and the outrage and anger it sparked.
Prior to the President’s calling out the players, only a handful were engaging in carrying on Kaepernick’s egregious demonstration. But, Trump Derangement Syndrome combined with the idea of team unity, and that Sunday nearly every team was protesting the flag and anthem. The blowback has been fierce, to say the least: attendance and viewership have cratered in the intervening two weeks. The league and networks have been scrambling, and the proposed rule change is a result of all that. Of course, the better option for the NFL might be to forgo the nearly $6 million they get annually from DoD for their contrived displays of patriotism prior to kickoff. But somehow, unless Congress expressly forbids it in the next budget, I don’t see that happening.
As for the players who feel strongly about police brutality and targeting, they have plenty of outlets to do something. After all, these are all multimillionaires with public megaphones in their adopted communities. They can arrange rallies and protest marches, and actually do more than simply stage ridiculous publicity stunts. They can endow scholarships. They can engage in outreach between their communities and the local police departments. Money and fame both talk, and neither is in short supply for a Cam Newton or Marshawn Lynch.
As for Mr. Kaepernick, he gave an interview on Saturday that amounted to him begging for a job. Of course, his girlfriend came out Sunday and tried to claim he was misquoted, but I suppose the cat is out of the proverbial bag now. As I thought from the beginning, he was trying to use the BLM activists to ensure his employment. Rather than celebrating him, they should be seething at this point. He used them, and in the process, turned their protest movement into a mockery of responsible public demonstration, making it a subject of abject ridicule.
As for me, I don’t watch football for political stunts and could care less about them. I tune in on Sundays to watch young men get their brains routinely bounced around their skulls, not unlike the Roman gladiators of old. Much the same as I don’t care a whit about the idiocy of the people who entertain me from Hollywood, the same goes for the ones on the gridiron. So I’ll keep watching, at least until they decide to switch from tackle to flag football.
Update: looks like the NFL isn’t going to force players to stand, only “encourage” them. Whatever, it’s their funeral. -10/11/17