Sunday, July 16, 2017

Nevada's Dean Heller, Healthcare, and Liberalism

Nevada Senator Dean Heller spoke a real truth when asked about his party’s assault on Americans’ healthcare earlier this year: “This bill would mean a loss of coverage for millions of Americans, and many Nevadans. I’m telling you right now, I cannot support a piece of legislation that takes insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans.”  Now, it seems, the Republican senator is having second thoughts, and is considering toeing his party’s line in support of a measure that would have devastating consequences for Nevadans and Americans.
Republicans’ efforts are driven by economic fundamentalism (a fundamentalism which yields substantial gains to their wealthy backers and the class represented by Donald Trump and his cabinet of one percent-ers), and hatred for President Obama’s healthcare reforms which, though tentative, inadequate, and piecemeal, represented a real effort to improve the lives of Americans.
In attacking the principles underpinning healthcare reform, and pushing back at efforts to create more universal access to healthcare (each version of their ‘reform’ pushes huge numbers of Americans out of the system), Republicans are setting out their stall--dishonestly--as good liberals, concerned about the fate of individuals in the face of overweening state power.  If the state makes decisions about healthcare, who knows what grisly fate awaits individual men, women, and families?
Several things go unsaid here.  Firstly, in the absence of state intervention, individuals still have precious little control over their fortunes in a vast healthcare market, where most of the power resides with the insurance and healthcare industries, who have made stupendous donations to Republicans and sceptical Democrats over the years.  In a state of hundreds of millions, any given individual will always have limited control over the vast structure of healthcare, and therefore over their immediate experience of the same.  They must choose between which set of interests they believe can best structure the terms on which this service is delivered and this right is realized: massive industries, the primary concern of which is profit, which often means marginalizing “customers” who for one reason or another do not look profitable to them; or the public sector, which however damaged has as its primary charge looking after the general public interest.
Finally, the status of Republicans as liberals needs reevaluating.  Here I mean liberal in the earlier sense of the word, a sense which persists virtually everywhere in the world outside of the U.S., where the term can mean anything ranging from Communist to neoliberal.  Liberalism is a set of ideas which suggests there is a relationship between freedom in markets and freedom in society.  On the one hand, its proponents possess an almost evangelical faith in the work of “free” markets to set people free and yield good outcomes (“good outcomes for whom?”).  On the other, they defends the civil and political rights--equality before the law, the right to vote--of individuals.  
People have long, and rightly, been sceptical of the narrative about the virtues of the free market.  Free from what, and for whom?  Without the state intervening, markets, and the power that goes along with them are most frequently captured by and made to serve the ends of those who already possess great wealth.  A laissez-faire attitude toward political economy, in which the state refrains from trying to intervene in people’s lives, means that middle and working class people instead have their lives structured by the interests and wealth and bottom lines of those who are wealthy.
The absence of the state does not mean the absence of power and “meddling.  It just means that power is exercised by people with no mandate, no need to be transparent, no obligation to serve the public interest, and no legitimacy. It means economic and therefore political power being exercised for private rather than public interest.
This then is the liberal pose adopted by the modern day Republican Party.  I say pose because in their turn to neo-liberalism they have dropped one of the distinguishing features of liberalism: a belief in individual political and civil rights.  Today’s Republican Party seeks to enshrine the rights of corporations at the direct expense of the rights of citizens.  They seek to use redistricting, ID laws, and a host of other measures to disenfranchise significant numbers of Americans directly, while limiting the power of others by limiting our ability to use democratic mechanisms to hold large agglomerations of corporate economic and political power to account.
This explains the Republican approach to healthcare, which cuts away at public components of the system like Medicare while liberating the private healthcare industry from the responsibilities imposed upon it by American citizens through their voting and advocacy.  The “savings” in their plan are disproportionately passed on to the wealthy, and businesses are absolved of their social obligations to employees, while Americans with pre-existing conditions, the elderly, women, and new families find support for their needs weakened.
This also explains their mockery of those of us who suggest that access to healthcare should be a right.  They celebrate the freedom of individuals to make decisions for themselves, and embrace what they see as the justice of crippling burdens on those who make “bad decisions,” ignoring how centuries of inequality in terms of race, class, and gender mean that what they portray as “personal” failings are failings of a larger set of structures.  They ignore the relationship between their beloved Declaration of Independence’s “right to life” and the work that healthcare does in literally keeping people alive.
One alternative to the existing messy, expensive, and profoundly unequal healthcare system in the U.S. (it’s really absurd to call it a system) is some version of universal healthcare, which comes in different forms.  In some cases, it is an actual healthcare system run by the state.  In others it consists of payments or subsidies from the state to a heavily and rigorously regulated private healthcare industry.  In every case, citizens pay their taxes and receive virtually all of their healthcare without additional charge.  While some of these systems in Europe, Australasia, Canada, and Asia have been weakened over time, they have a number of benefits.
Firstly, the access they provide is universal in a way that does not exist in the U.S.  Secondly, they are cheaper, because in either case there are strong regulations imposed on the healthcare industry or sector.  Thirdly, they are predictable, because citizens know that having paid their taxes, they do not need to fear life-altering medical bills in their moment of need.  Fourthly, for the same reason, they are fairer.  And finally, they tend to be connected to a larger, robust welfare state which attempts to ensure greater degrees of stability, safety, prosperity, and equality in society, and which can do so with greater ease because of their universal character and their interconnected character.
Liberals--Republicans in the U.S. who claim to stand for both free markets and free people--claim that these kinds of healthcare systems would crush the souls of Americans, and turn them into Soviet-style automatons, incapable of living meaningful lives, held under the government’s authoritarian boot, and powerless to change their politics.
But here’s a thought to put the minds of supposedly moderate Republicans like Nevada’s Dean Heller at ease.  The welfare systems in Europe--take those in Britain and Scandinavia, for example--were built largely by social democratic parties.  But the idea at their core is a very liberal one, and therefore one with which Republican citizens and politicians alike should feel comfortable.  Even many of the individuals behind the construction of welfare states were liberals, individuals who were sceptical of the evangelical claims of their party’s dogma in the face of evidence from daily life.
Much of European social democracy was a fundamentally liberal project, with the ambitious and emancipatory goal of creating individuals who could lead meaningful, unconstrained lives.  But it departed from the premise that this required life organized around the public interest, having recognized that unconstrained “freedom” of markets often worked counter to the welfare of the middle and working classes that constituted overwhelming majorities of citizens.  
In order for people to live these unconstrained lives, social democrats believed they should be liberated from the fear, uncertainty, instability, and powerlessness imposed upon them by the fantasy of a free market which worked best for the wealthy.  Their logic was that while paying slightly higher taxes into a regulated healthcare or education sector might represent some form of constraint, it paled compared to the straitjackets imposed upon people by having their life chances, their health, and their day-to-day lives governed by massive businesses and industries.
The fact that few if any parties even on the right in places where they exist openly challenge the existence of these social democratic welfare states and their logic, suggests that citizens are happy with this compromise.  Many people view “freedom” in a very different way from Americans, and look at our healthcare system and the burdens--economic and psychological--that it imposes on people as fundamentally restrictive and harmful.  The same is true of a range of features of welfare states.
The Republican healthcare bills in the House and the Senate have threatened to roll back the inadequate and clunky reforms of the Obama administration, and increase the fear, uncertainty, instability, and powerlessness that Americans outside of the top few percent experience as they seek to care for themselves and their families. Dean Heller and his colleagues should reject the Senate bill and get to work on serious healthcare reform.
Good, sensible, and social democratic reform to America’s healthcare system could yield benefits that would satisfy both those on the left and those on the right.  A universal system of healthcare would simultaneously remove the corrosive influence of private interest, and free businesses from the obligation to flounder in search of insurance for their employees in a lopsided market.  It would require greater contributions in terms of taxation from the wealthy, but would also liberate individuals from the uncertainty about the costs of meeting illnesses and misfortunes which have consistently dogged and inhibited the ingenuity, life trajectories, and aspirations of generations of our citizens.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Like Trump, May Offers Security in Lieu of Democracy

British Prime Minister Theresa May, grasping for an electoral victory on Thursday, believes she has hit on a winning proposition.  Capitalizing on two recent terrorist attacks in Britain, she is asking the electorate to vote for her in the full knowledge that she will eviscerate their civil liberties in the fight against global terrorism.
Rather than combine robust law enforcement with a re-thinking of British foreign policy and an alliance with a community determined to remove the incentives for domestic terror, Theresa May is waging a war on civil liberties.
The Guardian reported that May wants to “restrict the freedom and the movements of terrorist suspects when we have enough evidence to know they present a threat, but not enough evidence to prosecute them full in court.”  The chilling part came next: “If human rights laws stop us from doing it,” May declared, “we will change those laws so we can do it.”
The purpose of human rights laws, constitutional amendments, and other fundamentals in democracies, is that you don’t uproot and annihilate them without a second thought because it’s convenient and helps you to win an election.
May’s threat of war against what most Britons would identify as core national values also raises the question of what exactly she and her grotesque security state will be protecting Britons against.  The terrorists she wants to combat using these means are people who work outside of the law, promote forms of violence that law finds abhorrent, and detest as supine and indolent civil and political rights.
May’s authoritarian state would be little better.  Suspending laws, promoting greater state violence and penetration into daily life, and exhibiting contempt for the defining features of liberal democracy mean that ISIS and its enthusiasts have successfully initiated the transformation of an old democracy into an intellectual vassal state.   
The Conservatives’ panicky, authoritarian, ill-considered response to terrorist attacks in Britain is positively Trump-ian, the kind of thing cooked up in the fevered brain of a beleaguered politician who is plagued by sleeplessness at 3 a.m. by the fear of losing an election and with it their credibility.
Rather than acting in the tradition of democratic states who recognize that guarding against authoritarianism needs constant self-scrutiny as well as the deployment of intelligence and law enforcement, May is joining a growing number of global leaders—in the U.S., Russia, Turkey, and beyond—in offering people physical security with one hand while gutting civil, political, social, and economic rights with the other.
I hope that British voters will reject what is a truly toxic deal.   

Britain's General Election

The Britain to which I will fly at the end of June will be one scarred by recent acts of terrorism and the country’s impending departure from the European Union.  But it will also have been shaped by a general election which is taking place on Thursday, to determine who will govern Britain in the coming years.  
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May became Prime Minister last year following the British vote to exit the European Union.  She never faced a general election, which in itself is unremarkable in Britain: Winston Churchill served five years as prime minister before he submitted himself to the electorate; Gordon Brown and John Major in recent years ascended to the premiership without a general election.  
May called a general election after pledging otherwise in order to take what she saw as an easy opportunity to increase her party’s narrow majority in the House of Commons.  The Conservative’s operating assumption was that the Labour Party would go down to an historic defeat because of its current leader.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn won a shock election against the inclinations of a majority of the members of parliament whom he leads.  Corbyn has never held ministerial office, and comes from the left of a party that had its last 13 years in power defined by its right-wing.  A critic perhaps less prescient than dogged of the security state and British foreign and financial policy, someone like Corbyn was never supposed to be able to lead Labour.
The British public felt otherwise, and large numbers of new members flocked to the party to elect Corby and then later to see off a challenge from the party establishment.  Corbyn’s term as Labour leader has been damaged by the mismatch between his support from the grassroots and the dearth of the same from his parliamentary colleagues, something that can prove fatal in a parliamentary system.
Thus, the Conservatives believed there was a strong opening to exploit Labour’s divisions while campaigning around May’s almost autocratic command over her party.
The election has not gone as planned.  Many British commentators believe that Corbyn has outperformed May on the campaign trail and in the media, and even studiously neutral members of the country’s deeply paternalistic commentariat have remarked on the media’s unfair treatment of Corbyn, a theme articulated by his supporters and echoing claims by the left of the Democratic Party about Bernie Sanders.
Either the Conservatives or Labour will lead the next government, although it’s not inconceivable they will do so in a coalition with other parties.  The pro-European Liberal Democrats, nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Green Party are also actively contesting seats across the country, with the Scottish Nationalists and Lib-Dems vying for third place.
Both major British parties are committed to honoring the Brexit vote, but Labour have proved more committed to protecting the status of European nationals living in Britain, and are likely to be more friendly to migrants who seek to enter after the drawbridge has gone up.  The Conservatives are solicitous of financial interests, whereas Corbyn is promising a program of economic redistribution.  The Conservative’s signature environmental policy is the reintroduction of fox hunting to please a rural squirearchy, whereas Labour is more concerned with redressing the consequences of nearly a decade of economic and social austerity.
The major Conservative talking points are less about anything they have to offer, and more about turning the public against Corbyn.  He is, the country’s right-wing press, argues, a dangerously outlandish figure, a blast from a particular past--the troubled 1970s.  Michael Fallon, like a seal far too long out of water, and Boris Johnson, giggling like a frat boy who doesn’t realize he’s naked on a television set, have led the attack, while May dodged a debate among party leaders.
Corbyn’s foremost sin, for Conservatives, is his willingness to take a long hard look at the consequences of the Anglo-American wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, and to evaluate their relationship to terrorism in Europe today.  The idea that armed invasion, weapons sales to dictators, and unthinking bombardment in the name of humanitarianism might have something to do with terrorism is the kind of radical proposition that makes neo-conservatives blanche and cross themselves.
But it is really far less radical than the combination of hubris and fundamentalism that drove the war in Iraq which destroyed the country’s institutions and identity while killing hundreds of thousands and populated spaces evacuated by the state with international terrorists who continue to stand at the ready to take up arms to present themselves as defenders of Islam against the Anglo-American war machine.
The national security consensus governing Britain, the U.S., France, and much of the rest of the west, is the best recruiting tool that ISIS and its ilk could wish for, and Corbyn has ruffled many feathers by saying as much.  In doing so, however, he is only echoing the widely praised Chilcott report, which described how Blair and Bush were warned by analysts that their violent project in Iraq would have precisely the consequences it did.
One could equally argue that Corbyn’s economic radicalism is little more than the mildly social democratic consensus embraced by Prime Ministers Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, and Wilson between the 1940s and 1970s.  More radical by far, was Margaret Thatcher’s embrace of what George H W Bush memorably called “voodoo economics” in a slightly different circumstances (even Thatcher mounted a silent retreat from monetarism after the early years of her premiership).
Corbyn’s economics are little more than an admittedly easily caricatured version of social democratic realpolitik, whereas Thatcher and May make the economic equivalent of a claim that water runs uphill.  Wealth unlike water, as has been vividly proven in the U.S., has a tendency to gravitate to the top in the absence of democratic checks and regulations.  So the primary fairytales of this election are in May’s premises that what’s good for the banker is good for the bricklayer, that terrorism can be defeated without addressing its underlying causes, and that strapping herself to an unstable fascist at the helm of the sinking American ship of state is good for Britain.
Like Blair a decade and a half before her, May is convinced that Britain is nothing without its American alliance.  In pandering to Trump’s ethnic nationalism--which clearly she finds personally repugnant--she invited the president on a state visit to Britain.  
Any such visit will invariably center around London, a city violated by a recent terrorist attack on its citizens, just on the heels of an attack in Manchester.  Donald Trump has used the violence against Londoners as a pretext to attack the city’s mayor for enjoining his fellow citizens to stay calm and not let terrorists alter their way of life.  The mayor’s call was accompanied by a promise to increase the police presence on the city’s streets.  
That was all too subtle for Trump, and Sadiq Khan is a little too brown and Muslim for the Beast’s taste.  So the American president has repeatedly mocked the mayor and his efforts to defend his city’s multiculturalism, pluralism, and ethic.  
Just as recent European elections in the Netherlands and France have been partially defined by the realization that fascists in power is an actual prospect, so too Trump looms over the British election.
Like a grotesque, semi-literate troll with hands just small enough to grasp a phone, and thumbs just nimble enough to tap out a machine-gun fire of monosyllabic salvoes of hate, Trump has crawled from beneath London Bridge to gorge himself on Britain’s casualties of the violence committed on that bridge. Trump is seeking to promote panic and hatred, partly because it’s what he does best, and partly because he desperately needs to distract from his incompetence, destructiveness, and criminality.

Above all, British voters should enter the polls thinking about the futures that Labour and the Tories offer their families, friends, community, and country.  But they should also consider whether in 2017 they want to once again take a stand against a fascist threat, subtler from what the world experienced in the past, but dangerous nonetheless.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What does it mean that we turn to the Securocrats for our salvation?

In the 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid state developed a Total Strategy to combat the array of global interests seeking to bring an end to its system of state segregation.  Increasingly, power clustered in the hands of intelligence bodies which pursued clandestine operations inside and outside of the country, in the military which waged war in Namibia and Angola while conducting raids in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in the police forces that were unleashed on townships across the country as the country’s increasingly dictatorial leadership dispensed with even the fiction of constitutionalism.
Onlookers evoked the rising power of a national security state by describing these newly empowered actors as the Securocrats.  The Securocrats were those individuals embedded in ‘national security’ institutions who increasingly dominated decision-making, discourse, and state power in South Africa.  They gradually eclipsed or blended into more representative party and parliamentary structures.
Today, in the United States, we are turning to a similar category of Securocrats for the salvation of our democracy.  
In less than four months in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly launched unconstitutional attacks on the rights of Americans and migrants (fortunately beaten back by the courts), expressed contempt for the judicial system, hostility toward the free press, and impatience with the role accorded to representative institutions.  The president’s advisors have colluded with foreign governments, lied about their collusion, and sought to cover up their collusion.
The president has fired those investigating the extent of and his knowledge of this collusion after attempting to derail their investigations, and lied about the rationale for their firing.  He has failed to prevent his compromised attorney general from interfering in investigations.  He has offered sensitive intelligence to governments which are avowedly hostile toward democratic institutions, international norms, and human rights.   The president’s private properties and businesses are in conflict with his public duties.  
The president has claimed to possess secret tapes, has demanded personal loyalty from public servants, and has engaged in the most transparent kind of nepotism, offering extraordinarily wide briefs and responsibilities to his grossly unqualified daughter and son-in-law.  
Thus far, the most shocking revelations and the most grievous blows against Trump’s credibility have been delivered by American securocrats.  James Comey, the FBI head dispatched to what Trump must have imagined would be oblivion, has used his networks to make public Trump’s threatening blandishments and efforts to halt investigations into his inner circle.  
James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, was more direct.  “I think as well,” Clapper said, having discussed Russian efforts to alter the election outcome, “our institutions are under assault internally.”  Clapper clarified that in his mind, the internal threat came from the president himself, drawing praise from a wide spectrum of commentators.  
Comey and Clapper will be central to any effort to impeach Trump.  And such an effort should come sooner rather than later.  Each week, the president inflicts new damage on our institutions, while his poisonous alliance with the Republican Party relentlessly rolls back financial, medical, legal, environmental, privacy, and welfare protections that benefit the majority of the public.
But what does it mean, that Securocrats like Comey and Clapper, and others who will emerge from the shadows, or lob their assaults from dark corners, will be the people who--if anyone does--bring Trump down?
In the first place, it suggests that there is some combination of power and will lacking in Congress, the body which should have been taking the lead in demanding or extracting these and other pieces of evidence from the recesses of our security state.  The nihilism and partisanship of the Republican Party have rendered its members incapable of participating in good-faith governance.  It implicates the media which failed to do much serious investigation during the primary and general elections.  But it also says something about the power wielded by the Securocrats.
Remember, these are not nice people, or people with any sense of or respect for strong, public, democratic institutions.  Comey’s “gee, shucks, did I really do that?” routine shouldn’t mask his calculated effort to damage one presidential candidate to the advantage of another (which is different from saying that all of Clinton’s woes can be ascribed to his meddling).  His agency has a rich history of violating civil rights and advocating for the curtailment of civil liberties in the name of security.
James Clapper lied under oath to senators in one of many efforts to evade oversight of the intrusive spying programs he oversaw.  These were not off-the-cuff lies, but calculated, premeditated, and repeated efforts to elude democratic accountability.  Clapper also advocated for the removal of congressional scrutiny from the illicit, murderous, and self-defeating program of extrajudicial murder by drones that has persisted across three administrations.
The national security apparatus Comey and Clapper had starring roles in managing let itself be turned into an arm of crusading neoconservatives to take the country to war in Iraq, an event which I think is at the heart of Hillary Clinton’s repeated failures to seek higher office.  The Securocrats have relentlessly infringed on civil liberties in the post-9/11 era, in part because the alternative would be a long, hard look at the broken and self-destructive foreign policy consensus they ensure is replicated down the years across administrations of both parties.  
The Securocrats have consistently behaved as though the public interest is an annoyance to be dispensed with, Congress is an adversary to be evaded, and the very idea of accountability represents a dire threat to national security--better interpreted as their hold on our imaginations and those of elected policymakers.  
Between the war in Iraq, the NSA spying scandals, the drone killings, and the other privacy invasions associated with the Patriot Act, the Securocrats have generated enormous distrust in government and in public institutions.  That mistrust has spilled over from the national security apparatus to other fields of government, and is used to attack the principle of taxpaying, the existence of regulations, the sanctity of citizenship, and the very idea of a public interest and public sphere.  The cynical paternalism of the Securocrats, therefore, bears very real (if not sole) responsibility for the rise of a fascist right and the ascendance of Donald Trump.  
On the one hand, I am rooting for these people to do everything they can to bring down a man and an administration who represent a deadly threat to our democracy, perhaps the worst our country has confronted for many, many decades.  But I am afraid that even if they are successful, it isn’t just the Trump administration that will leave deep scars on our country.  It will be the manner in which the Securocrats might have proven to be our salvation.
We will see scrutiny of their methods melt away if they generate a “win” for democracy against the fascist Trump.  We will see the securitization of our election process, and the Securocrats will make calls about how and when we vote.  We might see the Securocrats become arbiters of our democracy.  We will see Securocrats’ status enhanced at the expense of elected representatives, which will change the balance of power between the Securocrats and those charged with overseeing their activities.  We might very well see an increased willingness of Securocrats to wield their access to state secrets and sometimes ill-gotten information to sway elections.

While Donald Trump needs to be wrenched from office, I fear that the source of his greatest frustration and potential downfall bodes ill for our country and democracy in the future.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Earth Day in Zion National Park

We had visitors from Sweden in town last week, and ended their visit with a trip to Zion National Park in Utah.  The weather was gorgeous, and the pink, orange, grey, and rusty hues of the canyons were rimmed by verdant mesas and framed by bright blue skies.  On Earth Day, we walked to the top of Angel’s Landing, the last stretch of which requires hanging onto a series of chains and trying not to think about the kind of splat you’d make if you put one foot wrong.
The panoramic view from Angel’s Landing looks down the valley onto a series of lower mesas across southern Utah, up to higher ground, capped by a handful of the hoodoos that become grander in Bryce Canyon, and down to where the Virgin River winds through a lush canyon.  The most famous hikes in Zion don’t deliver solitude, but there’s something joyous about seeing people from all over the country and the world, sharing hopes for a beautiful day and a successful hike, and giving voice to the wonder that Zion inspires.
Nothing, I felt sure (other than falling 1,500 feet), could spoil such views.  And then I saw a hat.  “Make America Great Again,” it read.  I had missed it at first, because it wasn’t the bright red variety, but the camouflage model.  
At this point, we had just reached Angel’s Landing itself, and the end of the trail was filled with people, breathless from the ascent and the view.  The man in the Trump hat was loudly exclaiming about the amazing view, the magnificent trail, how easy it had been to take the shuttle to the trailhead, and what an amazing park this was.
I could clearly tell nothing about what drew this man to Donald Trump.  He might have been motivated by Trump’s ethnic nationalism, militarism, anti-immigration rhetoric, or sexism.  Or he might just have wanted to take a gamble and throw a bomb (because “they” are “all the same”) to see what happened.
Perhaps it was the altitude getting to him, but it was clear that there was little critical thought going on in this man’s head as he stood atop Angel’s Landing, Trump hat on, and marvelled at the natural beauty of his physical surroundings, and the physical infrastructure that had allowed him to view them from this vantage point.  
It clearly did not occur to our Trump supporter that if his man had been president when the conservation movement was gaining steam, there would have been no national parks, and few if any public lands.  Donald Trump would have dammed the Virgin River, dynamited the Sentinel, ravaged the Narrows for mineral wealth, and built a sprawling hotel in the floor of Zion Canyon, blasting aside Angel’s Landing to make room for a parking structure and putting the Trump logo on top of whatever remained of the Watchman.  
Donald Trump and his cabinet think that collecting public revenue to invest in national parks and the infrastructure required to take people there.  Roads to small communities, a shuttle system, interpretive centers, and the trails constructed by the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps are not things Trump and his fellow plutocrats believe in.  
They do not believe that clear mountain waters and smog-free skies are the markers of a strong society, or that forests, canyons, and campsites have any value unless you can place a price tag on them.
I don’t know where our Trump supporter placed national parks in his hierarchy of needs.  But he seemed pretty thrilled atop Angel’s Landing.  I wish that he and others would think a little bit longer and harder about the implications of putting into power someone with no appreciation for or understanding of the public good, and about how public spaces like parks and campsites and museums enrich their lives.  
Just that little bit of critical thought could open the floodgates for this man and other voters to contemplate just how badly they’re being played for suckers by a man who promised them the stars, and is instead pursuing confrontation with North Korea to help his ratings, rolling back the protections for our air and water and food, offering tax cuts to the rich, and doing his best to resuscitate racial nationalism as the basis for political thought in the United States.  

Our national parks are one of the things that draw visitors to our country from around the world. They are interpreted by many of these visitors as an example of the national vitality and caring that is lacking in our social relations and civic discourse. Creating these parks required forethought and an understanding of the public good, two of many things that Donald Trump utterly lacks.  

The next time you visit a park, engage critically with your surroundings. When you breathe the fresh air, ask why it is clean. When you board the shuttle, consider what kinds of views about the public sphere ensured it was there. When you tread on the trails, ponder who built them, and who provided the will and the vision. And when you take in the vistas, consider which world views allow for their maintenance, and which call for their extirpation and the erection in their place of monuments to the bloated egos of wealthy plutocrats and their offspring.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Donald Trump and International Policy

U.S. soldiers and global civilians are endangered by
Trump's foreign policy.
Foreign policy seldom featured in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  But when they did, international affairs were discussed in an odd and unfamiliar fashion.  Some Trump supporters, and many Hillary Clinton sceptics, made the curious argument that electing the Republican candidate would actually make for a more peaceful and stable world than his Democratic counterpart.  As with most spurious arguments, this one grew from a kernel of truth.
That truth was that Hillary Clinton represented a violent, arrogant, neoconservative strain of U.S. foreign policy.  From Iraq to Syria, Libya to Afghanistan, Egypt to Israel, Clinton had been on the wrong side of most fundamental issues in recent U.S. foreign policy.  “Wrong” in the sense that she almost invariably advocated violent intervention with little regard for the long-term consequences, the “collateral damage,” or global and regional peace and stability.  For a country with politics still scarred by the disastrous war on Iraq, the decision to nominate Clinton as the candidate of a progressive party was a baffling and self-destructive decision, in some way guaranteeing an advantage to a younger or novice crowd of Republican politicians.  
The argument that Trump supporters and Clinton sceptics (and here I mean people whose scepticism led them to vote for Trump or to leave their ballot blank in November) made was that in contrast to Clinton, Donald Trump represented a kind of benign isolationism.  He might not have an impressive grasp of world politics, cause and effect, or U.S. interests, but his railing against Clinton’s Iraq vote (his own support aside) led some people to believe that he usher in a kinder, gentler, if less informed U.S. foreign policy.
Those who articulated this view, wittingly or otherwise, ignored a host of troubling factors.  Firstly, Trump demonstrated a contempt for international law and U.S. norms in war that eclipsed even Clinton’s bad record.  Trump advocated torture and a whole range of other war crimes and crimes against humanity which made it clear that if we took him at his word--supposedly his selling point--he would prove far worse than the neoconservative Bush and hawkish Obama administrations.
Trump also decried the need for the U.S. to participate in international fora, ranging from the UN to NATO, and launched scathing attacks on institutions like the EU.  Imperfect though each of these institutions were, their existence stemmed from a desire to mitigate the harmful effects of nationalism, which took the world into two now-unimaginably catastrophic world wars.  
Trump’s contempt for human rights, international law and institutions, and embrace of ethnic nationalism should have made it clear to any informed observer that this was a president who would not just perpetuate or initiate dangerous wars, but could actually undo seventy years of peacebuilding and institution-making.  His admiration for strongmen like Putin, his fascination with simple solutions (“bombing the hell” out of ISIS), and his ready use to use terrorism as an excuse for the erosion of constitutionally protected rights, should have rung abundant warning bells for onlookers.
Since coming to office, Trump has continued his attacks on international and regional institutions and alliances.  He appointed Islamophobes, white nationalists, and corporate executives to key positions, while damaging the ability of the State Department to function.   
His otherwise-sidelined Secretary of State recently indicated that the U.S. would follow the oil industry’s own inclination to ignore human rights violations in pursuit of commercial interests, in this case selling arms to Bahrain and waiving the human rights conditions attached to the sale.  The administration has also continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, even as that country continues to massacre civilians in its war in Yemen.     
The U.S. has stepped up its own contributions to the wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, with the bombing campaign in the former country intensifying dramatically and taking a toll of civilian lives.  The president received harsh criticism after endorsing a botched raid with many casualties that the Obama administration had for months held off on endorsing, responded by abdicating responsibility for key military decisions.  Letting the “generals” or “commanders on the ground” decide might sound popular, but it ensures that there are no clear political goals confining and directing state violence, and also represents a blatant attempt to dodge responsibility for deadly serious decisions.
Trump has also backed away from U.S. commitments to address global climate change.  Polls show that substantial majorities of Americans believe climate change to be both real and man made, but remain divided on what the U.S. can and should do, and largely believe that they will remain unaffected by climate change.  Trump has taken advantage of this ambivalence to both retreat from our own nation’s responsibilities, while attacking the efforts of states like Californians to shift consumption habits and reduce emissions.   
Thus far, Donald Trump’s presidency has consisted of reckless efforts to undo key features of a democratic post-WWII order, feckless decision-making, a lack of clear planning, abject ignorance of the world writ large, serial irresponsibility, and an embrace of senseless violence without even the Obama administration’s tenuous efforts to protect the lives of civilians.

In addition to putting U.S. soldiers and many civilians in harm's way through his violence and irresponsibility, Trump’s presidency is likely to lead to the kind of global tensions that can explode into wider warfare in surprising places, the continued expansion of international terrorism, an increase in the nationalism that has contributed to many historic conflicts, the emboldening of authoritarian governments around the world, and the imperilling of our planet and the future of many of its inhabitants.  

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why we can and should talk about Trump and fascism

As Americans weigh up the damage the Trump administration proposes to inflict with its Republican allies on civil liberties, the environment, economic security, social welfare, and general health and well-being, we are struggling to develop a vocabulary suited for describing the administration and its actions.  A certain degree of controversy has developed around the use of “fascism” to describe the administration or its actions.
People who make this comparison point to Trump’s targeting of Muslims, attacks on migrants, slandering of Latinos, militaristic language, contempt for the press and the courts, ethnic nationalism, anti-internationalism, hostility to labor, and more.
Some object to the term in an effort to defend Trump.  But others object out of an effort to maintain what they regard as historical rigor or integrity.  After characterizing some of the objections, I’ll offer some thoughts as to why, in my mind, the vocabulary is both important and justified.  
  1. Comparing Trump to the Nazis trivializes the violence of the Holocaust.  Cheapening this extraordinarily horrific process by using it as a weapon to attack an American politician who has not created camps or gas chambers is offensive.  Most commentators have been quite careful to use ‘fascism’ rather than ‘Nazism.’  We must remember that the embrace and practice of fascism was not restricted to Germany during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Fascists governed in Italy, formed a key part of the Conservative alliance in Spain, and had a presence in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe.  In fact, nearly every European country--and some countries outside of Europe--hosted fascist parties and sympathizers.  This was a global ideology.  Nazism was one national variant of fascism.   But it is also worth remembering that Nazism didn’t begin with camps and gas chambers.  
  2. Fascism was a unique product of the European interwar period.  It is ahistorical to seek to identify fascism in the twenty-first century.  Fascism as it emerged in the interwar years was clearly the product of specific developments and circumstances.  But scholars have traced its origins and sources back into the nineteenth century, and have identified global as well as local influences on its emergence.  Crucially, fascism is an ideology.  Ideologies do not respect borders and they do not vanish when their state “hosts” cease to operate within their framework.  They are carried across space and time by networks, publications, and advocates.  We don’t make the same argument about liberalism, conservatism, communism, social democracy, etc.  We embrace the effort to trace strands of thought, variation over time, and the bearers of this ideology.  The same should be true of our treatment of fascism.  
  3. Okay, so maybe there are some broad similarities.  But Trump’s administration doesn’t look exactly like what we saw in Italy, Germany, etc.  Because things aren’t developing in exactly the same way, doesn’t the parallel fall down?  As mentioned above, fascism is an ideology.  Its rise, implementation, and the extent of its success (“success” defined as its ability to exercise real power) varied considerably in each national context.  Hitler’s bodyguards and enforcers aside, fascists in Italy were far more violent in their ascent to power.  Anti-Semitism occupied a different role in each of these fascist states.  Italy maintained closer and more deferential relations to “traditional” conservative institutions than did Germany, and in Spain the fascists were largely absorbed by conservatives.  We also have to treat fascism after 1945 critically, with the knowledge that its proponents are aware that it became widely discredited.  We can thus expect them to modify the way they propose applying the ideology, and to use obfuscatory language to avoid accusations of fascism.
  4. This is the United States.  Our own history is full of malevolent influences and features.  We should pay close attention to those.  This European import is a silly distraction.  The point is not to say that fascism is the only ideology or framework for understanding or talking about the rise of Trump, but rather that it is an important or useful one.  A few points.  Firstly, it is increasingly the case that historians recognize that nations and even continents are not hermetically sealed entities.  Globalization--at the basic level of people and organizations and states communicating and influencing each other across borders and oceans--is nothing new, and historians have documented links between American racial thought and bureaucratic practices and the rise of fascism.  This suggests that fascism and troubling features of our own nation’s past might have been mutually constitutive.  Secondly, there are those in the Trump administration--Stephen Bannon most prominent among them--who draw on and are influenced by others (“Eurasianist” thinkers in Russia, for example) who theorize admiringly about fascism.  If the individuals with whom we are drawing the comparison, and to whom we apply the label, are themselves making explicit comparisons with fascism, surely we refuse to contemplate the connections and associations at our peril.  Thirdly, we shouldn’t let academics’ own version of “American exceptionalism” blind them to the mobility of ideologies across time and space, or well-established links in the past and present between the U.S. and other parts of the world.
  5. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to just refer to authoritarianism than fascism in describing Trump?  There’s probably a case to be made for this.  On the other hand, most scholars would argue that Soviet communism--to take one example--was authoritarian in similar ways to German and Italian fascism, but was built on very different lines.  It did not make the same use of ethnic nationalism, gendered workplaces, and narrative of decline, and it aspired to create a very different kind of state and society, arguably closer to what the likes of Trump discuss.  So authoritarian is probably an accurate term for describing the Trump administration’s broad tendencies, but it doesn’t capture its desire to redefine the nation in much more specific terms.
  6. Ever heard of Godwin’s Law?  It suggests that bringing up Hitler/Fascism is a sure sign a conversation has gone on for too long or is descending into unhinged, personalized attacks.  The expression, “if the shoe fits, wear it” springs to mind here.  
  7. Are there other ways of thinking about fascism in relation to our current moment?  I think that aside from thinking about comparisons, documenting influences, and identifying proponents, it is very important to think about the historical moment, and some parallels between the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in the interwar period, and our own conditions.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the ideological framework of liberalism proved unable to satisfactorily meet many social and economic challenges faced by Europeans and others.  Because liberalism--here defined as an ideology that believes in civil and political rights, and minimal state intervention in the economy--jealously guarded its status as the ideology of democracy, and slandered parties that sought to add economic and social rights to existing civil rights frameworks, liberals’ own failure was increasingly read as a failure of democracy.  People turned to authoritarian regimes which they believed could guarantee them security.  Some admired the speed with which authoritarian communists were able to modernize their economy without the “impediments” of constitutional democracy, while others turned to fascism, which was seen as a strong and robust ideology.  While not necessarily guaranteeing citizens prosperity, fascism offered the prospect of appropriating rights and property from those portrayed as internal enemies of true citizens.  Timothy Snyder has offered a different framework for thinking about authoritarianism, in his short but useful text, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by identifying how, under fascist and other authoritarian regimes, the behavior of individual citizens and their associations was critical for fascists’ rise to power.  Snyder identifies a series of common moments and practices in the ascent of authoritarian regimes as things we should be alert to and act against.

Books that critically examine fascism as an ideology (including in some cases, its continuation into the present)
Kevin Passmore.  Fascism: a very short introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robert O. Paxton.  The Anatomy of Fascism.  New York: Vintage Books, 2004.*
Stanley G. Payne.  A History of Fascism, 1914-1945.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Books that provide overviews and arguments about the rise of fascism in Europe
Gotz Aly. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.  New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
Richard Evans. The Coming of the Third Reich.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Robert G Moeller.  The Nazi State and German Society: a brief history with documents.  New York: Bedford St Martin’s, 2010.  
Books that provide some broader, contextual history for the rise of fascism
Konrad Jarausch.  Out of Ashes: a new history of Europe in the Twentieth Century.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Mark Mazower.  Dark Continent: Europe’s twentieth century.  New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Books that are explicitly about our present political moment
Timothy Snyder.  On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century.  New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.*
Books that document historical connections around racial theorizing and practice between the U.S. and Germany
James Q Whitman.  Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.  

Andrew Zimmerman.  Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.