Tuesday, September 24, 2019

THE MEAN STREAK


Growing up as a child in the Netherlands, right after the Second World War, a deep admiration and respect for anything American was instilled in me. It did not matter that, in the process of liberating our country from the Nazi’s, a lot of damage was done to our infrastructure (homes, buildings, roads, bridges and railways), for us the America lead Allies were good guys, heroes. They gave us back our freedom that had so brutally and completely been taken from us for 5 years.

As it happened, it was in fact Canadian, not American, troops who drove the German occupiers from our village. They shot our house to pieces in the process (we survived in the cellar). It did not matter to my parents, did not diminish the gratitude they felt towards their liberators.

That gratitude was widened and deepened by the implementation of the Marshall Plan (the subject of an impressive 2018 book of the same title by Benn Steil). The war had left all of Western Europe destitute, bereft of infrastructure and resources. The economies of Germany, Italy and the European Allies were in shambles and the Truman administration quickly recognized that, without American support, its peoples were vulnerably exposed to the communist propaganda coming from the Soviet Union.

I grew up in an austere, scarcity, economy, where essential food, like meat, butter, sugar, and clothing was rationed, but the Marshall Plan saved us from starvation and the threat of communism. All the more reason to think highly of America.

In the austerity climate, we were allowed very few indulgences, but as conditions and family income improved somewhat, I was allowed to subscribe to the weekly, Dutch language, comics magazine “Donald Duck” a Disney creation. In fact, I believe that it was a free bonus item for subscribers to a popular ladies’ magazine my mother subscribed to. Regardless, it shaped my view of America and the American people.

The main character, Donald Duck, was a smart, irreverent free spirit, always looking for adventure, love and opportunity to do good. A model American citizen and a spin off from the American GI’s that had come to our rescue. His alter ego was ‘uncle Dagobert’ in the Dutch edition (Scrooge McDuck in its original American version).                                                                             

By naming him ‘uncle Dagobert’ it was not so obvious at first that we were dealing with a real scrooge, but story after story he was unmasked as a greedy, self centered son-of-a-bitch, devoid of empathy with the less fortunate and dismissive of the lovable Donald Duck.

Disney was no fool. With Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck he depicted two sides of a split personality that are perpetually and inseparably linked. What I’m saying is that there have always been (and probably always will be) two opposing elements to the American psyche: one benevolent and compassionate and one with a mean streak. These elements are always there, link yin and yang, good and bad, black and white. But they show up with different intensity, with different band width, in different people or groupings and at different times. Sometimes the benevolent, compassionate sentiment prevails, at other times it is overwhelmed by the mean streak.

The mean streak is of all ages and shows strong correlation with populism. It shows up most vehemently and violently when Americans get riled up behind populist causes, as was the case with the witch hunts in colonial New England, the persecution and displacement of native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow sentiment of the Reconstruction, the internment of Americans of Japanese origin, McCarthyism andone could argueslavery.

The mean streak rears its ugly head again, this time under the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, subtitled ‘and may everyone else be damned’. The Donald we have to deal with these days is the embodiment of the American mean streak in his callous refusal to wall off the Presidency from his personal and business interest represented by the Trump brand; in his bending of the truth, if not cheating and lying; in his dismissal of science and facts; in his contempt for the less fortunate, refugees and immigrants in particular; in his ridicule and retribution for anyone who dares to oppose him; in his incendiary language used to rile up his populist supporters; in his devotion to other bad characters on the world stage and his disdain for the American Allies who fought alongside our GI’s against absolutism.

The Donald may be the embodiment of the American mean streak, but in that he is far from alone. This is the most distressing reality of today. Give the mean streak a political platform and it will inevitably attract a crowd. There are always more followers than leaders. That is the essence, the hallmark of populism. How much of a crowd, how many followers? That is something we will have to find out in the 2020 election.

Which side of the American split personality will win out in 2020? Which Donald will prevail? The duck who endeared America to the world or the Donald who knows no business but his own business? The long arc of history shows that, also in America, good wins out over evil. But we may be in for a few more years for the mean streak to burn itself out.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

INTERNECINE STRIFE


“The most disturbing thing I've learned from the Trump presidency isn't anything about @realDonaldTrump. It's what Trumpism has revealed about friends, neighbors and family that hurts deeply and makes me sad.”
Nate Bell @NateBell4AR

This tweet from Nate Bell, an ex-GOP politician, expresses succinctly what has been gnawing on me without finding the right articulation to bring it out in the open.

Nate Bell is hundred percent right. Donald Trump is just one person, entitled to his opinions like all of us are. The fact that he has been elected President does not change that. While it is curious, to say the least, that he feels comfortable – in fact is hell bent – to voice his personal opinions, misconceptions and fabrications by tweet, knowing that all of this will ultimately become part of the public record of his presidency, it remains only one person’s contribution to the public discourse. It is the response, that his unprecedented (for a President of the USA), reckless, and vicious torrent of bias and agitation has spawned, that saddens me. I still have difficulty accepting that America has offered such fertile soil for his brand of bullying, populism and demagoguery.

No one can say that Donald Trump deceived the voting public by campaigning as something else (more) than he is, a bigoted, narcissistic, misogynistic, unscrupulous manipulator of the minds of people who want to believe that only their ilk represents the real America. So, we got what we voted for. And we should not be surprised to see that this man now behaves exactly like he did in his sordid campaign even though voters (how many of them?) may have thought that, once in office, he would conform to traditional decorum and prudence under the spell of the majesty of the office he was elected to.

I just finished reading Rick Atkinson’s first book of what is promised to be a trilogy on the Revolutionary War, titled “The British Are Coming”. It is a monumental account of the epic struggle that was required to give birth to a nation determined to no longer be governed by an autocratic distant power but by the people and for the people. Atkinson’s book makes it painfully clear that American independence was not universally embraced by the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies and that communities and families were split between loyalists (to the Crown) and rebels (dedicated to independence and republicanism). The uprising against the British control of the thirteen colonies was setting up the first American internecine strife, pitching neighbor against neighbor, children against parents and siblings against siblings.

This scene of internecine strife would be repeated, with no less devastating effect, during the Civil War and – to a lesser extent – during the Vietnam War. And now it rears its ugly head again and this time it is my first direct encounter with it. I witnessed the Vietnam War from Europe, where people were less personally involved, but similarly divided.

Like Nate Bell, I am set back by what Trumpism has revealed about (some of) my friends, peers, neighbors and extended family. The rift that clearly exists between Trumpists and Never-Trumpists is not about policy but mostly about style and character. I cringe every time I see, which is often more than once a day, how the leader of the free world drapes himself in the American flag while -in the words of David Rothkopf – embracing nearly constant jingoism and denying people who disagree with him the mantle of patriotism. I have never been one to believe that the ends justify the means. I do not dispute that a more assertive American policy in the relationship with our allies and trade partners was probably overdue, but it matters a great deal how one plays in the sandbox. This President has no respect for continuity of purpose in America’s relationship with its allies and adversaries and is all about personal glorification, adding to the Trump brand, never mind that his successor will have to clean up the mess.

My uneasiness stems from the fact that many of my friends, peers, neighbors, and extended family members don’t see it that way. Would they put up with Trump-like behavior from their bosses, their direct reports, or members of their network? Not a chance! But for this President of the USA the normal rules of personal conduct are suspended, because the economy is booming and the stock market is at an all time high. Do they really believe that under a true Republican conservative President this would not have happened? And is it worth paying the price of near universal ridicule and contempt from the rest of the free world?

I admit to being part of the problem. Finding myself no longer on speaking terms when it comes to domestic politics with those who will defend this charlatan of a President à tort et à travers. At my age, I can ill afford to lose friends, when natural attrition is already taking a steep toll. It hurts, but for me it is a matter of human decency and civilized norms that I cannot disavow.

To the victor go the spoils. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now unequivocally say who was on the wrong side of history in the three previous episodes of serious national discord rising to the level of internecine strife. The loyalists, the confederates and the Vietnam hawks got the short end of the stick and were condemned to live with the ignominy of having been found to have been supporting the wrong (lost) cause. It gives me good reason to believe that 50 years from now (but hopefully sooner) it will become indisputably clear that Trumpism was an aberration, an episode of a large part of the public, misled by a seriously flawed character with appeals to people's basic instincts of fear, aggression and contempt, finding themselves on the wrong side of the arc of history.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

CHECKS AND BALANCES


Is it wishful thinking or recognition of the inevitable when I convince myself that the day of reckoning for this President is imminent and that the only question is if it will be Congress, the Judiciary or the voters who will push him into ignominy?

It is hard to miss the irony: The man who whipped his followers into a frenzy with chants of ‘lock her up’ when talking about his challenger for the Presidency is now, according to hundreds of US prosecutors, only saved from being indicted by the office he holds and only for the time that he can hold on to that office. The Mueller report strongly suggests that the President obstructed justice multiple times in an effort to derail the investigations into the Russian interference with our 2016 Presidential election.

Irony upon irony is that his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, had to retire in February as a federal appellate judge to end an investigation into whether she violated judicial conduct rules by participating in fraudulent tax schemes with her siblings. One sibling had to give up her job in order to stay out of trouble, the other has to hold on to his job in order to escape indictment.

This nation has had bad actors in the White House before and the voters cannot always be blamed: some of them, like John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, were never elected to be President but inherited the White House because of the untimely death of their predecessors, William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln. And we narrowly escaped another unelected misfit in the White House when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in 1973 shortly before the downfall of Richard Nixon. But sometimes the voters just get it wrong, like when they elevated people like Martin van Buren, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Warren Harding to the highest office in the land. Incompetency, egomania and corruption appear to be the common thread between the reasons why these men failed the nation that entrusted them with the Presidency. Thankfully, we can take solace in the fact that none of these ‘bottom feeders’ served more than one term. Warren Harding died of a heart attack before he could finish his first term.

Remarkably, until now only two Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have had to endure impeachment proceedings. Both were impeached, but not convicted by the Senate (conviction requires a 2/3rd majority vote in the Senate). Richard Nixon avoided a certain impeachment by resigning his office.

While the Judiciary has no authority to remove a sitting President from office, it has the authority and power to convict him/her once he/she has left office for crimes committed before, during, or after his/her term in office (but not for acts which can credibly be asserted to be within the President’s judgment or discretion in the execution of duties as established by the constitution or law). In other words, our current President could be convicted, after leaving office, if for instance he were to be found guilty of using his office to obtain favors for his business, but not for giving orders to use military force against people who are illegally crossing our borders even when such use of military force results in the death of people who are crossing the border to seek asylum in the US.

The constitution is mute on the issue of a criminal indictment against a sitting President. The rule that a sitting President is immune from criminal prosecution is based merely on a Justice Department policy established in a memo from the Watergate era and confirmed in a 2000 policy memorandum stating that “The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions”. Note that this position was taken under a Republican administration (Nixon) and confirmed under a Democrat administration (Clinton). It is hard to imagine a future Attorney General (who is a Presidential appointee) ever waiving or scratching this rule.

This Justice Department rule has for an (unintended?) consequence that a President can escape criminal prosecution for offenses committed during his tenure (or before then, e.g. during his election campaign) by serving out two terms, since most federal offenses, including obstruction of justice, are subject to a 5-year statute of limitation. This is why House Democrats have introduced, on May 10 of 2019, the “No President is above the Law Act”, which would defer the start of the statute of limitations period until after the targeted President has left office. Never mind that this proposal has no chance of becoming law since it could not survive a Presidential veto, even if it could pass the Republican controlled Senate.

From all of this, it is crystal clear that the designers and guardians of our constitutional system of government have always assumed that the voters would have the savvy to separate the chaff from the kernels and not elect a President who would be willing to break the law to protect his/her own personal interests. It appears that this confidence in the wisdom of the voters may be naïve or misplaced. Too often in our history voters have overlooked character flaws in their choice of President or fallen victim to treachery and deceit by their chosen candidate once in office. The defense against this error in judgment by the voters is in the impeachment provision of Article 2, section 4 of the constitution.

In 2020, the voters will be called to task again. Given the fact that the Judiciary’s hands are tied, the checks and balances on an errant Presidency will have to come from the voting public. That public would be greatly served by the House of Representatives initiating impeachment hearings for the sole purpose of bringing to light the pattern of self-serving transgressions committed by the 45th President, so that no voter in 2020 can say that they did not know how badly they were served during the first term of the President they voted in office in 2016.

Friday, April 5, 2019

BECAUSE I SAY SO


I have brought up a few children – although most of that job was superbly done by my wife of 50 years – and I can vividly recall the times that I told them, in answer to their question why they had to do something, or do something a certain way, or not to do something, ‘because I say so’. I knew then, as I do now, that that was a cop out. An abuse of parental authority. Cutting off further discussion by using those words meant that I was either too lazy to give them a real answer or that I was deliberately hiding the truth from them.

I think about this often, as and when I hear our President making blatantly untrue statements of which we are being served daily examples. The Washington Post reported that as of February 17, 2019 President Trump had made 8,718 false or misleading claims in his first 759 days in office. That is an average of 11 per day!

PolitiFact, owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, keeps a scorecard on Trump statements and reports that only an astonishingly low percentage (15%) of his statements are judged to be ‘true’ or ‘mostly true’. That means that 85% of the statements coming from our President are judged to be either ‘half true’, ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’.

I have never known anybody in the public domain to be willing to make verifiably untrue statements so easily, repeatedly and emphatically as our President. It does not seem to faze him that the press jumps all over these statements the moment he makes them; in fact, he seems to relish that as an opportunity to accuse the media of disseminating fake news and being biased against him. We have just seen that spectacle when he, completely unprovoked and in a White House appearance with the NATO Secretary General, made up that his father was born in Germany (in his book ‘the Art of the Deal’ he claimed his Swedish ancestry). It falls in the category of trying to rewrite history to conform to his own world view, aspirations or vanity. The most egregious examples of this flaunting or bending of the truth are in his pronouncements about his ‘landslide election victory’, the size of the crowd attending his inauguration, the ‘massive election fraud’, trade wars being easy to win, a ‘crisis’ at our Southern border, Obama’s religion and birthplace, his support from among women,  wind turbines causing cancer, US Steel building six new plants in the US, his denial of original positions he took on entering the Iraq war and women’s right to choose, his ownership in the Trump Winery, falsely claiming it to be the largest winery on the East Coast. And the beat goes on…….

It is a common feature of authoritarian rule that, over time, a narrative gets created that bears no resemblance to the objective truth, but only serves to establish and perpetuate the myth of good judgment, foresight and statesmanship of the ruler. The next step then is to have a good part of the population jump on board and subscribe to the alternate reality. This is what happened with Mao Zedong in China, with Stalin in the Soviet Union, With Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and the Kim dynasty in North Korea. It does not succeed without an almost religious, fanatical, belief in the word of the ruler.

And that is where the threat to our democracy is embedded. The US nation has become so divided, fed information by media that conform to one or the other side of a polarized world view, that it has become way too gullible in accepting the gospel spread by the TV and Cable evangelists of the new political dogma. On the right side and the left side. It is disturbing that in my lifetime the political center has seemingly evaporated. You remember talk of the ‘silent majority’ in the seventies and eighties? If there still is such a thing, it has not shown up at the polls or even in the media.

In the 2016 Presidential elections, many of us saw the Hillary – Donald contest as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Although it is still early in the run up to the 2020 election, chances are that the voters will be confronted with a similar choice again in the next race to the White House. In the GOP only Bill Weld has emerged as a primary contender for Trump. Not a credible contest. And Independents seem to be reluctant to put their substantial clout behind Howard Schultz. The likely scenario is a choice between Trump or a far left of center Democrat like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. I simply refuse to believe that the American voting public will go the (democratic) socialist left-wing route and rate the chance high that the Democrats will hand Trump a second term by nominating an unelectable contender from among their ranks.

If that scenario plays out, and the GOP does not get repudiated at the Congressional and State House elections, Katy bar the door: Trump and a slavishly submissive GOP will have four years to rule by executive power, stack the judiciary further with originalist conservatives and have a free hand to feed the American public its warped version of the truth, misrepresenting what is truly happening (or should happen) in America and the world at large. Then, if we have the audacity to ask why we should go along with misguided and dangerous tactics and policies, we will be told: ‘because I say so’. How many of us will then step in line, or fall silent, shrug our shoulders and go along?

So far, our institutions are holding. The judiciary, prompted by interest groups and civic organizations like ProPublica and the ACLU, scrutinizes every step of the Trump administration and pushes back everywhere it finds unconstitutionality or abuse of executive power. And, since the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in 2018, Congress is taking its oversight responsibility seriously. But that is a tenuous, momentary, condition that hangs in the balance because of an opposition in one of the halls of power in Washington that can be erased in the next election.

The last person we should accept the words ‘because I say so’ from is Donald Trump, who is proven to be a pathological creator of his own, alternate, truth to suit his personal interests, views and ambitions.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

READ MY LIPS


While all participants in the political circus have their eyes focused on the government shut down and whether or not to give Trump his wall or steel slats, tossing in a loose $5-6 billion, the national debt is inexorably crossing yet another threshold @ $22 trillion. And the question is anew: “What did we buy ourselves with all that money?"

The painful answer to that question is: “Not much, and certainly nothing of lasting value.”

Our infrastructure is in desperate need of repair and upgrade, our pension and entitlement programs are heading into an unfunded future, our healthcare and our education systems have fallen below world class standards and have become unaffordably expensive, except for the privileged few andin the processinequality has risen to dangerous levels.

It is a disgrace that, at a time of near record low unemployment and a humming, if not booming, economy, our government is still running a trillion-dollar deficit. Under current conditions, you would expect to see the government coffers filling up with surplus revenues like we did at one time under the second Clinton administration from 1998 to 2001. It is mind boggling that, while Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything when it comes to national policy and strategy, they all know how to spend money. Money, we don’t have and thus have to borrow from our competitors and our children.

Read my lips: There is no higher national interest urgency than putting our fiscal house in order. That means properly and securely funding the things we absolutely have to do to maintain our national security (including border security) and propel our nation into the modern era. If that means higher taxes on those who can best afford it, so be it. We have to get rid of the false dogma that taxes can only go down.

If we had a functional government between the White House and Capitol Hill, we would be budgeting the expenses we need to make in order to deal with the nation’s challenges over a reasonable period of say 10-15 years, while eliminating annual budget deficits and slowly reducing the national debt. And then reform the tax code to secure the funding of these national priorities. This will likely require introduction of new taxes on any of the following: Consumption (like a Value Add Tax), income from sources other than labor, assets, inheritance or, most likely, a combination of all of these. It is unlikely that tinkering with tax rates for Federal income tax and corporate income taxes can generate enough revenue to fund the unmet needs of the nation. The harsh reality of the mess we have made of our national checkbook and the fact that we have nothing to show for our excessive spending, signals clearly that a broadening of the tax base is an inescapable necessity.

Of course, we will have to be smart enough and disciplined enough to not waste additional revenues on doing more of the same. We need a small but smart government that is laser focused on paying only for the things, programs, and policies that propel the nation forward enabling global leadership, while maintaining America’s national security.

America has, for too long now, tried and failed to do it the other way: Starve the government of tax revenues and it will have no choice to live within its means. The result is a $22 trillion debt and a long litany of unaddressed societal problems. Trump is right, America is facing a national emergency. It just is not one that is cropping up at our Southern border, it is threatening the entire American landscape and the very fabric of our society. It is a pipedream to believe that we can buy prosperity, global competitiveness and social justice and stability on the cheap. Thank goodness, America can afford to pay the price.

But now for the hard part: One has to be blind not to see that what is needed is politically unattainable in America’s current constellation and with the existing political leadership personnel in place. The 2020 elections will be all about granting or denying Trump a second term. There is no conceivable way for any serious contender to openly advocate for the agenda I here suggest and get through the primaries, much less be elected the 46th President. And yet, will we just throw the towel in and concede that we cannot solve our problems in an adult way? If America does not find a way to put its fiscal house in order and begin to make up for lost time in propelling the nation ahead in the race for global competitiveness and leadership, it will be doomed to go the way of the Roman or British empire. That certainly does not offer a winning platform for a future President.

It looks like America is waiting for the next George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt to emerge and snatch victory from defeat. A person with the personal authority, the vision and integrity, necessary to convince the public that it will have to swallow the unpalatable medicine of broader taxes to pay for past sins and future prosperity and stability.

Read my lips: Broader taxes are coming and it is about time.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A BETTER AMERICA


Reading Benn Steil’s magnificent book ‘The Marshall Plan’ makes me feel nostalgic for a time that America was playing a hero’s role in global affairs. The book shines the spotlight on the creation of the Western Alliance in the aftermath of the second world war and in a deliberate effort to contain Stalin’s expansionist ambitions.

Named after George Marshall, the war time Chief of Staff who, under Truman, became Secretary of State, the plan saved Western Europe, particularly France, Italy and Germany, from a covert takeover by communist parties, which had sprung up everywhere under the aegis of an Allied and victorious Soviet Union, and were taking full advantage of the misery and deprivation, caused by the ravages of war and the destruction of the European economies.

The pattern, deployed by Stalin for Western Europe, was the same he had successfully used to establish communist control in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Russian sector of a divided Germany: Start with communist participation in a coalition government and then, through agitation, strikes and chaos, shift to complete communist take-over and control.

Initially, the Marshall Plan was designed with two main objectives in mind:
1)      By a one-time, temporary, multiyear aid program, revive the West European economies so that they could stand on their own and allow the USA to withdraw both economically and militarily from the European war fields;
2)      Block, by bringing the allied economies and infrastructure back to life, communist control of the West European democracies.

In the process of developing the plan, and shepherding it, against all odds, through a thoroughly reluctant Congress for approval and funding, it quickly became clear to Marshall and Truman that the enormous investment in Europe could and should not be made without, at the same time, setting up a military security system to protect the investment. This awareness led to the creation of NATO.

Seventy years later, it is hard to overstate how times have changed, in Europe as much as in the USA. In Europe, the generation that witnessed and benefited directly from the American largesse, in war and in the aftermath of war, has passed on and America has become so self-absorbed and, under Trump, so inimical to the concept of the Western Alliance, that it would be unthinkable to devise and implement such a generous, altruistic, plan to come to the aid of American allies in trouble again.

Altruistic the Marshall Plan was, although not entirely one sided. A big component of the political acceptance of the plan was the thought that it would save America from potentially much more expensive intervention and war against communism at a later date. In that sense, the plan did not entirely meet the expectations, as, all during the Cold War and into the present time, America has not found it prudent to withdraw its troops and weaponry, including its nuclear arsenal, entirely from European soil and, as President Trump points out at every opportunity he gets, America still pays a disproportionate share of the cost of NATO as a tool to protect Europe from enemy (read Russian) aggression.

At the critical juncture of the world war ending and the cold war starting, America was lucky to have an arsenal of great leaders in all the right places, notably Harry Truman at the White House, George Marshall at the State Department and Arthur Vandenberg as Senate minority leader. They were assisted by geopolitical thinkers like George Kennan, Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, who each played important roles in designing and articulating the plan. It is hard to imagine what FDR, had he lived, would have done in the aftermath of WW II, but we know that he, other than Truman, put all his faith in building internationalist institutions like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank (just like Woodrow Wilson had done after WW I) and that he had unshaken faith in being able to bring Stalin along in that effort.

It was Truman who decided that the Soviets were not going to cooperate and needed to be checked by both economic and military means. I think it prodigious that America had Harry Truman in place when it mattered most. Other than FDR, who had little use for the State Department and preferred to manage his own foreign policy on a personal basis with Stalin and Churchill, Truman restored the State Department to its rightful place, with an intellectual giant in charge in the person of George Marshall. Truman, the Democratic leader, also understood that he needed Republican support in Congress to get his plans funded and implemented and he reached out across the aisle to Arthur Vandenberg to provide such support. Without Truman, Marshall and Vandenberg, Europe would not have been getting the American bail-out and support it needed to fend off the communist threat emanating from the ravages of war. It was a close call. Popular sentiment and a majority in Congress was not in favor of an activist foreign policy. America had paid its dues in winning WWII and was ready to withdraw in splendid isolation. But America’s leadership team saw the threat to the free world and acted to repulse that threat by economic and military means.

Under our current President, America appears to have given up on both the Wilson/FDR internationalist approach to foreign policy and Truman’s Western Alliance, trading it for a nationalist, nativist, doctrine of America First. If this turns out to be more than a short-term aberration, that will quickly be reversed by the electoral process, one has to wonder how history will judge this further retreat from America’s responsibility in the world, when history about this day and age will be written.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

BULLIES NOT ALLOWED


While I vehemently and fundamentally disagree with President Trump on policy with respect to immigration, trade, America’s approach to international relations, environmental protection and fiscal responsibility, the one overriding reason why I appeal to all American voters to reject Trumpism in all of its aspects is DJT’s bullying behavior towards anyone who stands in his way, questions him and his motives, accuses him of inappropriate conduct or simply disagrees with him.

I find it ironic (and symbolic at the same time) that the First Lady has picked the fight against bullying as her primary public mission, because she lives it every day, if not at her own expense then at the expense of anyone her husband otherwise contends with.

Over a lifetime, I have experienced and witnessed bullying enough to smell it from a distance when it rears its ugly head. I remember walking a different route to my grade school about every day in order to avoid the older boys out to give us youngsters a hard time. I remember from my fraternity pledging the hazing rituals in which the same sadistic upperclassmen resorted to physical and mental abuse to satisfy their superiority complex, take advantage of their dominance and get even for the humiliation they once experienced going through the same pledge process. I remember my military training days, when some of the commissioned subaltern officers took delight in using their command and control not for the purpose of making soldiers out of us but to exhaust and humiliate us while they could. And I remember the many business situations in which bosses or counterparts were trying to get their way by intimidation, threats and falsehoods. These memories are vivid and all of them come back when I hear DJT deal with anyone who is not immediately subservient to his views, his version of the truth and his majesty.

Bullying always finds its expression in profane language, in intimidation and denigration, and in unbridled use of lies and half-truths. We have to endure all of these expressions on a daily basis in the communications from our President, never more so than in his tweets and campaign appearances. I cringe every time DJT ad-libs in his cable news appearances and I wonder all the time: ‘Is this truly our President and world leader? Are you serious?’

Bullies often get their way by the sheer fact that they have the upper hand in the relationship with their targets, which is more often than not a function of power or authority. This bullying is, in fact, an abuse of power and it will, in the end, inevitably prove to be counterproductive.

DJT resorts to bullying in his foreign policy relations as much as in his domestic governance role, perpetuating a pattern of behavior that served him very well in his 2016 presidential election campaign when he had to contend with 17 GOP challengers. He denigrates and belittles members of his own staff and cabinet and any member of the judiciary or the legislative branch who openly stands in his way or disagrees with him. More disturbingly, and detrimental to the interest of the country that he is sworn to protect, is his bullying of foreign nations and their leaders, friend or foe. His preferred tactic appears to be to accuse foreign powers of threatening the security interests of the USA or taking advantage of the USA in their alliances and then, under the threat of sanctions, intervention or withdrawal, have his administration negotiate a new deal. As if a deal arranged under duress and based on false premises will ever hold!

Just like every journey starts with the first step, bullying by verbal abuse and threats (veiled or not) is the first step in attempts to dominate and control the relationship with targeted individuals. And if these individuals don’t back down and submit, the bully will inevitably consider more drastic measures to drive the target into submission. Extreme examples of this are provided by the torture and abuse of prisoners by their guards, like in the infamous Abu Ghraib incident, but they abound in autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar and the Philippines under Duterte; and frequently they end in murder, like we have sadly been forced to witness with the Jamal Khashoggi tragedy. Birds of a feather flock together. It is disturbing to find our President so often siding with these bullies or condoning their human rights abuses. The sense that he is quietly envious of the perpetrators of these abuses, bringing bullying to the ultimate expression that he is denied, is palpable.

If you give a bully a position of authority, you risk to implicitly create an abuse of power situation. We witness that every day in the treatment of refugees at our borders, undocumented immigrants at the mercy of overzealous ICE personnel, and with all the sex abuse cases now surfacing. A bully at the top of the pyramid will pull legions of covert bullies out from the shadows and so the bullying pervades and becomes par for the course.

Bill Kristol articulates, in a recent tweet, exactly what we get from putting a bully at the top of our pyramid: “The rhetorical extremism, the winking at violence, the reveling in vulgarity, and the embrace of amoralism are not bugs but features of Trumpism. Intellectual and moral coarsening is both a condition and a consequence of the demagogue’s success. Trumpism really does corrupt.”

We can legitimately argue about policy differences, but we should not have to argue about the need to preserve America’s moral authority and value-based governance. That is why, above all else, character should matter in elections. All eligible voters have a chance in November of this year, and again in 2020, to make clear to those seeking elected office that bullies are not allowed. Let’s hope that they come out in droves to validate that message.