Who can punish a country? Who would try?

Relations among countries are different from relations among individuals in several ways. A country is a great deal more complex, more dynamic, more resilient, and less predictable than any individual. That has implications for those who see foreign policy as an appropriate venue for moralistic cruelty.  Methods that might reliably break the will of an individual and reduce that individual to an object lesson to deter others from following their example might not be at all predictable in their effect when applied in the international sphere.

This may seem obvious, but has apparently escaped the notice of the political leaders of the continent of Europe. Two recent pieces, from Matthew Lynn in The Spectator and from Clive Crook on Bloomberg, make this point quite effectively.

Mr Lynn argues that, as time goes by without any progress towards a deal between Britain and the remainder of the European Union to reduce the economic costs of Britain’s exit from the Union, an ever-increasing number of economic actors assume that there will be no such deal and prepare for the worst-case. If in 2019 that worst-case comes to pass, virtually all of the costs will have been baked into the markets. While the costs will be considerable and may trigger a steep recession, most of them will be one-time costs. Therefore, that steep recession may well be followed by a steep recovery.

It is a near-certainty that at least some of the remaining members of the EU will be in recession while Britain is undergoing its post-Brexit recovery. If there is a strong anti-EU movement in any such country, Britain will indeed be a potent example to encourage that movement. That encouragement will be potent even if Britain’s post-Brexit recovery peters out before returning the country to its pre-Brexit levels of prosperity. The more flagrantly unco-operative the rest of the EU has been with Britain during this period, the deadlier any sign of life in the British economy after 2019 will be to advocates of ever-closer Union.

Mr Crook, an opponent of Leave in last year’s referendum, says that the very difficulty of the exit process is causing him to rethink his position. Mr Crook writes:

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.’s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe’s system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union’s “democratic deficit” seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it’s portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. “Ever closer union” remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It’s happening — haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design — which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe’s chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve “sufficient progress” on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention — not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It’s taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking — but it doesn’t advance the EU’s larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don’t build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

In closing, Mr Crook asks if the rest of the EU truly thinks that it would be better off with a “beaten and resentful enemy” than with a “prosperous friend, trading partner, and military ally just off its coast.”

Considering the EU’s behavior in, to take only two examples, Italy in November 2011 and in Greece in the summer of 2015, I’d say it is rather clear that the EU is led by people for whom popular legitimacy is not a first-order practical concern. So a country in which the majority of the general public sees itself as a “beaten and resentful enemy” of the EU might not be a problem for the people who set EU policy, so long as that majority is incapable of translating its resentment into action that might impose costs on the interests the EU serves.

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A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.

 

 

Lawrence Dennis and James Burnham

lawrence_dennis_number_one

“America’s Number One intellectual fascist”

Every time I read something about George Orwell, such as this post by Nick Slater that went up the other day, I think of Orwell’s fascination with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941.)  Orwell was harshly critical of Burnham’s overall position, though he did pick up Burnham’s prediction that the Second World War would end with the division of the earth into three totalitarian superstates as the background of 1984.

What I find intriguing about that prediction, as indeed about the major points on which Orwell focuses his critique, is that all had appeared in print before Burnham published his book. In fact, they had all appeared in the works of one author, Lawrence Dennis. As I described the situation in a comment on a post at The American Conservative three years ago:

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

Burnham’s debt to Dennis was not entirely unobserved at the time. Joseph Hansen, a leading Trotskyist writer and onetime bodyguard to Trotsky, reviewed Burnham’s first two books in the October 1943 issue of The Fourth International writing as follows:

Huse of the University of North Carolina, analyzing Burnham’s latest book in The Southern Economic Journal, July 1943, writes the following as his final paragraph:

“One reproach that might be made against Mr. Burnham is his omission of Lawrence Dennis, a Machiavellian if there ever was one, to whose Dynamics of War and Revolution Mr. Burnham himself seems peculiarly indebted.”

A Deadly Parallel

Who is Lawrence Dennis? – a newcomer to politics might ask. Dennis is an avowed fascist, who advocates fascism for America and who is widely considered as the leading theoretician of self-acknowledged fascism in the United States.

The charge of Mr. Huse is, therefore, a very serious one. Is Huse perhaps committing a Machiavellian slander? Perhaps we can clear up Burnham’s “neutrality” if we go to the trouble of comparing his views with those of Dennis.

Dennis has written three books, Is Capitalism DoomedThe Coming American Fascism, and The Dynamics of War and Revolution. All of them appeared before Burnham’s writings. All of them were written from the viewpoint of a man anxious to set up a fascist dictatorship in the United States.

In his first book (1932) Dennis reached the conclusion that capitalism is doomed. He maintained, however, like Burnham that he was not seeking to make “converts to a new economic faith or plan.” Dennis was interested only in measures to make the “old age” of capitalism “long and pleasant.” His “only dogma” like Burnham’s “is that people must think realistically … about the problems of the world depression.”

In his second book (1936) Dennis gave up hope of measures to preserve democratic capitalism and predicted the inevitable triumph of either communism or fascism, of which he chose the latter. Burnham during this same period chose communism only later to reject it.

On Marxism, Dennis declares:

“I am inclined to find in his (Marx’s) explanation of the existing system and its inevitable course to collapse many flaws in logic and science. (Isn’t this Burnham’s position? – J.H.) I find the idea of a classless, governmentless society of workers enjoying social order and material abundance fantastic and unattainable. (Burnham reached this view later than fascist Dennis – J.H.) It appears unattainable for the reason that social order requires government and administration by a ruling class or power-exercising class which must always be an aristocracy of management, however selected, operating through some set of mechanism of social control, economic as well as political.” (The Coming American Fascism, by Lawrence Dennis, p.7)

Some years after Dennis’s succinct conclusion, Burnham wrote a whole book to explain this same point of fascist theory.

“Incidentally, it is to be remarked and even stressed that Communist Russia, no less than the fascist countries, the billion-dollar capitalist corporation, or the efficient army in the field, meets with extreme thoroughness and rigor these universal imperatives of social order and administrative efficiency.” (Idem, p.7)

These “universal imperatives” have a familiar ring, especially in connection with the question of the class character of the Soviet Union.

Dennis, too, believes society is like a cabbage – only he uses the old-fashioned term “social factors” instead of the modern Machiavellian “forces.”

And here is our old friend human nature in his birthday clothes: According to Dennis, “Human nature has not changed materially under liberal capitalism. The masses have not the intelligence or the humanity, nor the winners the magnanimity, which liberal assumptions have postulated.” (Idem, p.100.) Where did Burnham go to school?

Fascist Dennis entitles one of his chapters, The Inevitability of the Leadership of the Elite. Here are some sample excerpts from this chapter: “Fascism says that the elite, or a small minority, call its members by any term you will, always rule under any system.” Seven years later, Burnham was to write this down as the claim of “Machiavellianism.”

The ground Dennis selects for his view is brutally frank – more frank than Burnham’s ground:

“The central point is that it is useful to think of government and management as being the function of a minority, and that it is not useful to any good social purpose to proceed on the theory that the people or the majority rule.” (Idem, pp.234-5.)

This view is “useful” of course for the establishment of fascism which Dennis advocates. Unlike Burnham, Dennis has a clear goal. For the means to this goal, it is clear he has made a close study of what was efficacious in Italy and Germany.

Dennis even presents Burnham’s arguments – in advance of the clever Burnham – as to why there will aways be a ruling class. First argument: “Civilizations come and go, but the elite go on forever” because of the “limitations and inequalities inherent in human personalities.” (Idem, p.236) Second argument: “The sheer mechanics of administration and management of large numbers of people and the complex instruments of modern civilization” require a ruling class. But in place of “Machiavellianism,” Dennis uses these arguments to advocate fascism.

If the reviewers of Burnham’s book would like a better insight into some of Burnham’s contentions about the Machiavellians as defenders of freedom let them check fascist Dennis. “The elite do rule” but this does not mean that the “elite are subject to no control by the people.” The majority may be organized by an “out-elite” and “replace one set of the elite in power by another.”

“The problem of order and welfare, in the light of the … inevitability of the leadership of the elite or a minority, appears to be largely one of getting the right elite or minority in power…” (Idem, pp. 242-3)

Almost word for word this appears seven years later in Burnham’s book. We don’t believe Burnham consciously plagiarized from Dennis although at times the similarity is so striking as to require an effort of will to keep from becoming a convert to Burnham’s theory about the depravity of human nature.

Dennis continues: “It is one of the merits of fascism, and a part of its appeal, that its leaders do not dissimulate their rule or try to place responsibility for their rule on a phantom of definition and assumption – such as, the majority or the proletariat.” Burnham claims this to be the distinctive merit of “Machiavellianism.”

Dennis ends his book on the problem of the fascist party, its organization and its method of action. He believes the time not yet ripe (1936) and calls only for “preparatory thinking and discussion.”

It is only in this final chapter that we find the main difference between Dennis and Burnham. All other differences are at bottom differences of terminology.

Fascist Forecasts

In 1940, Lawrence Dennis published his third book. All his volumes thus precede Burnham’s and if credit is to be given for development of theory it is customary in the world of science to recognize the first in time. Let us see, therefore, what is rightfully Burnham’s and what Dennis’s – all the while keeping an eye out for any fascist or Machiavellian trickery.

Dennis starts out on a pessimistic note:

“This book is addressed not to the masses but to the elite or to the ruling groups, actual and potential … it will never be read by the masses … it is too rational to appeal to the masses.”

We rub our eyes and proceed.

Now we are in for a shock. Dennis, like Burnham, predicts a new system to replace capitalism. “I am prepared to record definitely and stand on the prediction that capitalism is doomed and socialism will triumph.” But what does Mr. Dennis mean by “socialism”?

“The terms communism (referring to the revolution in Russia), Fascism (referring to the revolution in Italy), Nazism (referring to the revolution in Germany) and the New Deal (referring to the revolution in America) now appear clearly to be each just a local ism. Looking at the entire world situation, one may now say that there is just one revolution and just one significant ism: socialism.”

Dennis’s “socialism” turns out to be identical with Burnham’s “managerial society.” Did Burnham expound this very same thesis with greater brilliance when he called it the “managerial revolution”?

Dennis even has in a nutshell Burnham’s description of the differences in the course followed by the “managerial revolution”:

“Fascism and Nazism, differ from communism mainly in the manner of coming into operation. A vital element of the Fascist and Nazi way of coming to power was the taking of the big business men and middle classes into the socialist camp without resistance and, even with enthusiasm …”

Dennis speaking in the light of the German and Italian experiences explains a lot of things.

“The main purpose of a realistic approach to current problems must be to prepare the minds of the elite minority capable of leadership when the time comes for such leadership. The time is not yet ripe …”

Thank God for that favor. But “The real leaders of the new American revolution will at some stage of the collapse have to sell themselves to a considerable number of people.”

What Next?

Dennis even anticipated books of Burnham’s type. “As the world swaps revolutions and imperialisms” Americans will “take new bearings.” He recommends that they reject Karl Marx and turn to Machiavelli. Again,

“The present ins in the democracies are neither organized nor class conscious. The changed mechanics, after we go to war, will at once work for a clarification of thinking about power by the outs or marginal ins among the elite.”

Burnham began by rejecting the materialist dialectics. In the end he rejected Marxism completely and took a number of the more nervous rabbits along with him in his flight, penning them up in the Workers Party. But Burnham was in such a hurry to get some place that this Workers Party became irksome baggage. He discarded it the way a soldier of fortune discards a trophy of war when it stands in the way of richer loot. He has written feverishly – in his spare time producing two books within two years, one of them creating quite a ripple among the “elite” of the petty bourgeoisie. The theories developed in these two books, while not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis, at least provide a remarkable demonstration of how great minds run in similar channels.

Hansen’s assertion that Burnham’s works were “not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis” might be sarcastic. Others have suspected that Burnham plagiarized Dennis’ works wholesale. See page 191, note 8, of Political Reason in the Age of Ideology: Essays in Honor of Raymond Aron edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Daniel J. Mahoney (Transaction Press, 2007.) where it is stated that not only Burnham, but also E. H. Carr used Dennis’ work without attribution.

It is something of a misfortune that one of the most trenchant statements about the relationship between Burnham’s work and Dennis’ was written  by a figure even more thoroughly stigmatized than Dennis himself. The late Keith Stimely was a far-Right figure, for a time a neo-Nazi, who by the time of his death had become a Satanist. Evidently his goal in life was to shock as many people as possible. At any rate, his essay “Lawrence Dennis and a ‘Frontier Thesis’ for American Capitalism” is quite well-done. The version of it linked here includes a note by the late Sam Francis citing his own argument that Burnham arrived at his conclusions independently of Dennis.

If it was worth George Orwell’s time, and for that matter Joseph Hansen’s, to argue against Burnham’s presentation of Dennis’ ideas, surely it would be worth someone’s time to engage with Dennis’ own works. I would say that Dennis was in many ways a stronger thinker than Burnham. For example, while Burnham did predict that the Axis would be victorious in the Second World War, Dennis argued that fascism would come to the USA as the price of America’s victory in that war. Dennis predicted that this postwar fascism would be called by some name other than “fascism,” and indeed that its exponents would claim to be the archenemies of fascism, but that it would embody the substance of Mussolini’s system. Writing in the 1960s, Dennis saw no reason to renounce this prediction.

 

Yesterday’s gone

Last night, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel denounced Donald Trump, whom I call Don John of Astoria, for his failure to distance himself from pro-Nazi groups which were at the center of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One particular section of Mr Kimmel’s statement struck me as typical of a particular kind of less-than-ideal response to the consistently horrid and ever-more surreal events that have characterized Trumptime. As reported on Slate:

But you’ve been trying to ignore it, because you don’t want to admit to these smug, annoying liberals that they were right. That’s the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, deep down inside, you know you made a mistake. You know you picked the wrong guy. And it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. So you can do one of two things. You can dig in like Chris Christie at a Hometown Buffet, or you can treat the situation like you’d put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen. “All right, I got caught up, I was excited, I made a mistake. And now it needs to go.”  Well, now he does need to go. So it’s time for you, especially you who voted for him, to tell him to go.

Now it may well be the case that most of the people who voted for Don John in 2016 believe that he was a bad choice and that he is a bad president now. Indeed, the majority of his voters may, deep down inside, have disapproved of him even before they cast their ballots. The one segment of the electorate with which he did best in November of 2016 was voters who thought that neither he nor Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

That behavior is sufficient to show that believing that Don John is a bad president is a very different matter from believing that it was a mistake to vote for him in 2016, as opposed to voting for one of the other candidates who were on the ballot in that year. Third-party supporters like me may want to put our fists through our straw hats when we think of lesser-evil voting, but that is the norm in US general elections, and most voters seem to think that they are wise to engage in it.

Framing the question as “Who was the better candidate in 2016?” also impedes any attempt to focus on Don John’s particular shortcomings, however egregious those shortcomings may be. So, if we say that when a white supremacist rally dissolves in violence and homicide, a US president’s first public statement about it ought to include an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacist activism, we are likely to meet with widespread agreement across the political spectrum. If we say that Don John’s failure to respond to Charlottesville in that way is a sign that he is a worse president than Hillary Clinton would have been, we invite Trump supporters (even a Trump supporter so ambivalent as to refer to an adversary as a “Trump-like blowhard self-promoter using a current event to promote her for-profit business“) to argue that making appropriate statements in the immediate aftermath of atrocious public events is a political skill which Ms Clinton conspicuously lacks.  Sticking to the question, “Is Don John an acceptable president?,” discussion of the weaknesses of Ms Clinton or any other political figure who is not currently serving as US president can be dismissed as irrelevant.

To make the same general point in a less-inflammatory historical context, by August of 1974 President Richard Nixon had lost the support of so many Republican voters that Congress could no longer avoid impeaching him and removing him from office. If the Constitution had worked out as it was intended when it was first written, the vice president would have been the person who came second in the 1972 general election. Mr Nixon’s removal, under those circumstances, would have put Senator George McGovern in his place. In that case, the question before the people would indeed have been whether they were right to vote for Mr Nixon in 1972, or whether they ought to have voted for Mr McGovern in that year. Presented with that choice, I suspect that very few Republicans would have decided that Mr Nixon’s misdeeds warranted his removal from office.

I would emphasize that point with reference to the remark below:

If that primary season were a rerun of the primary season Republicans actually faced in 2016, with Mr Trump facing Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, etc, then of course he would still win, probably by a much wider margin. Had the Republican primaries of 1972 been replayed in the summer of 1974, I suspect that Richard Nixon would still have beaten John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey. Mr McCloskey’s denunciation of US bombing in Vietnam as morally unacceptable made him impossible for most Republicans to support in that year, while the entire premise of Mr Ashbrook’s campaign was that the president ought to be renominated, but only after the right wing of the party had had its say. So long as those were his only opponents, it was only notionally possible for President Nixon to lose the primary contest.

Of course, those two backbench Congressmen would not have been the only challengers to the president had the Republicans actually staged a primary contest in 1974. Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and several other candidates would likely have stepped forward. And the fact that the original scheme of presidential succession had been replaced, first by the formation of national parties that chose separate candidates for president and vice president, then by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that formalized this process, and finally by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that allowed Congress and the President to appoint a replacement when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid corruption charges in 1973, meant that the choice in 1974 was not between Richard Nixon or George McGovern, nor between Richard Nixon and some other candidate in a Republican primary, but between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Likewise, the choice now is not between Don John of Astoria or Hillary Clinton, nor between Don John and the Republican primary field of 2016. If the question is about impeachment, the choice is between him and Vice President Michael Pence. If the question is about something short of that, the question is about the balance of power between the president and the Congress. There’s a reason why the powers of the Congress are described in Article One of the Constitution, and the amendments making up the Bill of Rights tell us that “Congress” shall not do particular things- the Congress is supposed to be, and for most of the nineteenth century clearly was, the dominant partner in the federal triad. Even now, old Washington hands are fond of the adage “The president proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Congress does in fact have the power to rein a bad president in. Wishes that last year’s election, or some other event of the past, had turned out differently do not have much power at all.

The debate about “the Google Memo”

The Google Memo and the responses to it I’ve seen, from Left and Right, all seem to tacitly acknowledge the same four points:

  1. There are a lot of macho jerks in tech.
  2. Women, in general, would rather not be surrounded by macho jerks.
  3. Macho jerks, in general, like to pose as the enforcers of the prevailing orthodoxy, regardless of the content of that orthodoxy.
  4. Therefore, the fact that the prevailing orthodoxy within Google is nominally feminist does not in fact reduce the amount of Asshole that the women working there have to put up with.

The controversy all takes the form of commentary on these four points. The author of the memo argues that point #1 is a result of biological necessity. Whole regions of the Internet exist only to dwell on apparent exceptions to point #2, and some of the author’s defenders show the influence of this. In response to point #3, libertarians and other pro-capitalist types defend enforcement of orthodoxy by saying that a business isn’t a debating society, and an employee who takes it upon himself to publish a piece arguing that his company’s shares are overvalued can only expect to be fired. And as to point #4, there is controversy about whether a different kind of feminism or a different way of inculcating it would address the problem.

Something else that’s struck me about the whole affair is that it’s a failure of the center-right media. For years, rightists of all stripes have regarded Google as an adversary. Surely some right-wing publication could have sent a reporter to look into Google’s corporate ethos, and have found James Damore.  Mr (or is it Dr?) Damore could then have unburdened himself to that reporter without fear of being fired.

There are those who suspect that Mr Damore’s memo was an attempt to provoke precisely the reaction he has in fact received, complete with his public firing by Google’s CEO, so that he can make a new career as a right-wing political spokesman.  That seems unlikely to me; the longer he spent at Google, the more opportunities Mr Damore would likely have had to launch new ventures of whatever kind he might like, including right-wing political projects. After all, Steve Bannon didn’t attain his current position by getting himself fired after his first year at Goldman Sachs. And Year One of the Trump Era would hardly seem like a propitious moment to begin a career as a right-wing pundit. But who knows, maybe Mr Damore wasn’t working out at Google and saw a fiery exit at this time as his best option.

We’re looking for a few intolerably bad men

Two recent tweets of mine:

All I would add is that the heads of these agencies should be not only unpopular outside the president’s inner circle, but also wily enough that they are not merely figureheads, with senior career officials actually wielding power behind the scenes. So it wouldn’t do for a president to appoint his idiot son-in-law to be head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since the top person among the Special Agents is surely the sort of person who would easily take effective control of the Bureau from him and would lull Congress and the public out of the vigilance necessary to keep a police force or a spy agency within decent boundaries.

That someone who is unpopular and incompetent can be supplanted by nominal subordinates who are competent is one reason why Don John of Astoria’s presence in the Oval Office is not a sign that the Imperial Presidency is about to be rolled back and the powers of Congress restored. As writers like Noah Millman have pointed out, it would be all too easy for permanent bureaucracies such as the military and the spy agencies to shut the president out of decision-making, as the last dozen presidents have shut Congress out of decision-making in regard to war powers, and to establish a praetorian state in the USA.

However bad Don John may be, that event would be catastrophically worse. With elections reduced to irrelevance, any opportunity those who are neither officials of the security services nor among the 400 richest people in the USA now have to influence the making of national policy would be gone forever; whatever hope there might be that a new political movement might counteract the rise of oligarchy would die with it. With generals, top spies, and defense contractors relieved of any need to treat elected officials as their superiors, there would even less institutional brake than there is now on the USA’s endless and ever-more-obviously pointless military rampages around the globe. And when that government loses its ability to hold onto its position, there will be no mechanism in place for a peaceful transfer of power.  A coup against Don John today would condemn a future generation to a civil war.

So I hope it doesn’t come to that. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that Don John will appoint Ann Coulter as head of the FBI; she has the brains and the strength of character to keep whoever plays the role of Sir Humphrey among the G-Men off guard, and she is widely hated. Former Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman has been mentioned for the job, and he certainly is disliked by a sufficiently large swath of the public and of Congress that his presence would prevent any more legislation expanding the FBI’s powers passing Congress. Mr Lieberman’s star seems to have faded quite a bit since it came to light that he has been one of Don John’s personal lawyers, however. If Ms Coulter is unavailable, maybe Don John will turn to Pat Buchanan, he’s a Trump loyalist and is highly skilled at alienating people. Then there’s always Milo Yiannopoulos, who really knows how to turn people off. Any of those four people would suffice to make it clear to the electorate that the agency s/he heads must not be trusted with any more power than absolutely necessary.

The best case would be for one of them to head the FBI, one the Central Intelligence Agency, one the National Security Agency, while the fourth would be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Our philosopher-king regurgitates what he learned in high school

jackson schlesingerWhen Don John of Astoria, a.k.a. Donald John Trump, was in high school in the early 1960s, one of the dominant schools of thought among American historians was that embodied by Arthur M. Schlesinger, junior, author of The Age of Jackson (1945.) Schlesinger de-emphasized Andrew Jackson’s career-long focus on promoting the expansion of slavery to turn his focus on Jackson as a nationalist.

Central to this project was the story of President Jackson’s confrontation with South Carolina when that state attempted to block federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods brought to the Port of Charleston.  The elevation of this incident to a central place in the history of the Jackson presidency, and of the political movement that created that presidency, implied that it had a greater importance not only than did such an event as the genocidal evacuation of the Cherokee nation from their ancestral lands, which historians in Schlesinger’s day tended to overlook, but also the disestablishment of the Bank of the United States, which they most definitely did not overlook.

That implication can be defended only if Jackson’s forceful response had prevented an outbreak of civil war. Indeed, it was commonplace well into the 1980s for high school history teachers in the USA to claim, not only that Jackson prevented war in 1832, but also that the approach he took to the Nullification Crisis might have prevented the war that actually did break out three decades later had his successors been faithful to it. This consensus is reflected, not only in the presence of Jackson’s face on the $20 bill, but in such improbable places as Martin Luther King’s nod to the Nullification Crisis in the “I Have a Dream” speech, when he refers to Alabama governor George Wallace “having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”

Since Don John does not seem to have read very much on American history or any other topic since leaving school decades ago, it should not have surprised anyone when he claimed that Andrew Jackson had a formula that could have prevented the Civil War:

ZITO: Oh, that’s right, you were in Tennessee.

TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.

ZITO: Yeah, he’s a fascinating —

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

ZITO: Yeah —

TRUMP: People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

What does still surprise me is that Schlesinger was able to carry his argument as far as he did even in the 1940s. Jackson’s approach to the sectional conflicts stemming from slavery was in fact tried again by at least one of his successors in the antebellum period. President Zachary Taylor, who, though he was elected president as the candidate of the Whig Party that grew up as the opposition to the Jackson administration, said that Jackson was his political lodestar, and responded to the crisis of 1850 in a style entirely modeled on Jackson’s approach to the Nullification Crisis.

And Taylor’s policy was a disaster. As he refused to make any concessions to the Slave Power regarding the Western territories or anything else until the Southern states forswore secession, it became steadily clearer that the South was ready to secede, and the North was not ready to fight to prevent secession. Indeed, even in 1861, after a decade of constant compromise and concession, the North was barely able to muster sufficient forces to stop the South breaking away. Had the war begun in 1850, with no attempt at a compromise peace, it is hard to imagine how the federal government could have mounted even a token opposition, much less saved the Union and written slavery out of the law books.

Taylor’s intransigence, coupled with the fact that he was himself a slave-owner from the Deep South, may lead the suspicious-minded to wonder whether secession and the eternal enshrinement of slavery in a new confederacy was not his true objective all along. At the time he was generally regarded as a fool whose inexperience with politics led him to adopt an insane policy. Perhaps if he had lived to bring the crisis to a head we would have the information needed to make a determination as to his motives. As it happens, Taylor died less than halfway into his term, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, quickly signed the Compromise of 1850. While that bargain is reviled for its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was of course a horror, it not only gave the anti-slavery side its way on every other point, but also made it possible for the North eventually to defeat the South and put slavery on the path to extinction. That is one of the reasons why my avatar on many social media platforms is a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore.

Don John seems to identify very strongly with Jackson, and in his ineptitude bids fair to be another Taylor. The people I respect who tried to talk themselves into supporting Don John for president in last year’s election had hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of Fillmore, who, in response to the Crisis of 1850, replaced a policy of confrontation with one of compromise, who, as the author of tariff acts on the model of the one South Carolina tried to nullify in 1832, was a champion of a trade policy that would underpin the industrialization of the USA, and who, as the presidential candidate of the American Party in 1856, was a moderating influence within a movement devoted to a restrictionist policy on immigration.  They hoped that as president, Don John would de-escalate US militarism in favor of a conciliatory policy towards Russia and other powers, that he would revise our long-standing Finance First trade policy, and that he would tighten immigration policy without ravaging the rule of law. In fact, Don John has not shown any of Fillmore’s statesmanship, and those people have not expressed much satisfaction with any of his actions since he took office.

 

Which countries have the most influence on the US political system?

Recent controversy about alleged ties between US President Donald Trump and Russia, and the publicly attested reality of Mr Trump’s deep entanglement with and indebtedness to state enterprises in the People’s Republic of China, have me wondering which countries have the most influence on the US political system. What I would really like to see is a table ranking the countries of the world by a composite score calculated based on considerations like these:

  • How many serving and retired political figures, senior military officers, top Washington staffers, etc, have received payments in the form of lobbying fees, consulting fees, speaking fees, and so on from sources that are connected to the political leadership of that country?
  • How high do those receiving such payments rank in the US political hierarchy? Clearly payments to an ex-president should give a country more points than payments to an ex-assistant secretary.
  • How many US lobbying firms are registered as agents of that country?
  • How deeply are leading US business interests involved with the interests in that country? What major interests desire a more accommodating attitude towards its leaders? What interests desire a more hostile attitude towards them? How powerful are these interests relative to each other, and how urgent are their desires?
  • How extensive are that country’s espionage activities, both verified and likely, in the USA?
  • How many ways does that country have to get its message into American mass media?
  • How effective are that country’s efforts in hasbara and other nontraditional means of propaganda?
  • How sympathetic is the US public to that country’s cause? Are politicians afraid of a backlash in public opinion if they are perceived as unfriendly to that country?  Are they afraid of backlash of they are perceived as friendly to it?
  • How often does that country in fact get its way in the formulation and implementation of US national policy?

I would guess that if such a table were calculated intelligently, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states would cluster near the top, along with Germany, Britain, Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. Russia, even if the most alarmist versions of the stories about the Trump administration from the neo-John Birch wing of the Democratic Party are proven true, would surely be very far down this list, perhaps last of all the big countries.

It is impossible to form an intelligent opinion as to whether the allegations of Russia’s efforts to influence the election are true. No evidence has yet been produced in support of them; stories in the press have cited unnamed sources in the spy agencies, and General James Clapper has effectively asked us to take his word for it that there is something worth investigating. General Clapper’s word, however, is valueless. In 2013 General Clapper testified under oath to the US Congress that, contrary to media reports that had been circulating in various forms since the disclosure of the ECHELON program in 1988, the National Security Agency was not engaged in mass surveillance of US citizens. That was the lie that Edward Snowden sacrificed everything to expose. Indeed, the so-called “intelligence community” (a phrase that has been a punchline for over 40 years, already an object of mockery in the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor) is among the world’s least credible sources, as General Clapper’s continuance as Director of National Intelligence for three and a half years after his perjury was exposed demonstrates.

On the other hand, Russia had a very strong incentive to try to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The USA openly interfered in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, culminating in then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly deriding the elections as rigged and endorsing street protests against them. This has poisoned US-Russian relations ever since. HRC’s longstanding support for NATO expansion into areas traditionally coveted by Germany, including a number of former Soviet Republics, coupled with her advocacy of trade sanctions against Russia and her threats to shoot down Russian warplanes in Syria would suggest to any Russian leader that, were she elected president, the US would soon push Russia into a position where it would be forced either to submit to treatment of a sort no sovereign state could be expected to find tolerable, or to issue an ultimatum threatening nuclear war against the USA.

In view of those facts, the Putin government would have been derelict in its duty, not only to Russia, but to world peace, if it failed to do everything it possibly could to promote the candidacy of Don John of Astoria. While Don John may be an ignorant fool with no relevant qualifications for the presidency, who is surrounded by hawkish advisers of the worst sort, and whose temperament is unlikely to lead him into anything but a series of calamitously bad decisions, at least there was a chance that he would, in his incompetence, stumble into some kind of detente.  Compared to a political figure whose decades of experience in high office have led her to calmly and consistently advocate policies that would likely lead to thermonuclear conflict, Don John must have seemed like the better bet.

As for the question of whether Don John or people close to him crossed the line into an improper relationship with Russian intelligence, this is again prima facie possible. He is very unwise and inexperienced, and is surrounded by people who are similarly unimpressive. So it would seem likely that he might be relatively easy prey for a savvy intelligence service. However, no evidence at all has been released indicating that this in fact happened. In theory an investigation of the question might be a good thing provided that it took place in the context of broader investigations into the efforts of other countries to influence the election and into the political activities of the spy agencies during this whole period. Otherwise we would run the risk of further empowering both the spy agencies and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Germany. Not only are these agencies and these countries far more influential in US politics than is Russia, but they stand to gain a great deal if the USA maintains a policy of confrontation towards Russia, while the USA overall stands only to lose by such a policy.

What if people actually are good judges of their own best interests?

Conservative intellectuals often argue that liberalism and social democracy depend on norms and institutions that liberal and social democratic policies could not create. They usually go on from that claim to assert that particular policies favored by liberals or by social democrats in fact undermine norms and institutions without which those policies could not function.

We hear this kind of argument when conservatives oppose reforms aimed at helping individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family. Programs that provide financial assistance and particular services to households headed by single women, laws that prohibit discrimination against women and members of sexual minority groups, educational facilities independent of traditionalist religious groups, and other such efforts are often attacked on the grounds that they can succeed only in a society in which patriarchal families are the norm and in which the common identity and habit of discipline that people supposedly gain as members of patriarchal families makes it possible for them to operate as intended. Without this common identity and habit of discipline, conservatives claim, no society could make a success of such ambitious programs. Inasmuch as reforms that help individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family weaken that structure on a societal level, such reforms are ultimately self-defeating.

This is also one of the reasons why conservative arguments that may have begun as a defense of monarchy, the established church, and the landowning aristocracy against the claims of the rising bourgeoisie need not change very much to be repurposed as a defense of the bourgeoisie against proposed reforms not altogether dissimilar from those the original conservatives may have supported. The market is another of the institutions that conservatives claim could not have been created by liberalism, even by the right-wing versions of liberalism that have come to dominate most right of center parties in the West. Reforms that left-wing liberals support on the grounds that they will put limits on the power of private interests, and that right-wing liberals oppose on the grounds that they will remove limits from the power of government, conservatives oppose on the grounds that they are dependent on the success of an institution which they undermine. Higher taxes, stronger regulation, a more generous welfare state, etc, all attract this criticism. Socialists often echo this criticism, arguing that it is a mistake to be content with raking off a percentage of the capitalists’ winnings when the proper business of politics is to replace the rule of the capitalists with a workers’ republic and capitalism with a different system altogether.

I bring all this up because of an article I read a few weeks ago. It was originally published last July; I can’t claim to be up to date on everything everyone writes! It is a blog post on which Professor George Lakoff of Berkeley offers a partial explanation for last year’s US presidential election. Professor Lakoff addresses the question that perennially vexes left-leaning observers of the US electoral scene: why do working class people vote against their own economic interests? Survey data shows that clear majorities of Americans do agree that such policies favored by the left as single payer health care, improved protections for the rights of labor, etc, are good things and that they personally would stand to benefit from their implementation, while politicians who oppose every one of these policies routinely win elections. Indeed, 70% of all elected offices in the USA, including the presidency, majorities of both houses of Congress, most state governorships, and majorities in most state legislative chambers, are now held by the Republican Party. If people actually do want the precise opposite of everything the Republicans stand for, why do the Republicans keep winning?

Professor Lakoff argues that it is because the relatively rational thought people exhibit when considering particular issues is overpowered by something they have adopted far less rationally, a metaphorical framework that leads us to understand the nation on the model of our families of origin. Professor Lakoff writes:

[W]e tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

For my part, I grew up in what Professor Lakoff would call a Nurturant Family; my parents divided responsibilities and shared authority equally, and explained their basic approach to parenting as one driven by curiosity as to how my siblings and I would turn out, rather than by any intention to fit us into any preconceived mold. I do incline to support left-liberal and social democratic policies, as Professor Lakoff’s theory would predict, and I would be gratified if it turned out that the conservatives were wrong in all of their criticisms of those policies.

On the other hand, I am willing to consider that they may not be entirely wrong. Maybe the reason so many Americans support each particular proposal of the liberal and social democratic left, yet vote for the far right, is that they have observed that while any one of those proposals would likely be helpful to them if enacted, people like them tend to have better outcomes in places where the Strict-Father Family reigns supreme, even if stingy or nonexistent welfare states, ferocious law enforcement, and unfettered corporate power mean that the price of failure is extremely high. Maybe it isn’t true that areas where the Strict-Father Family is in all ways dominant are places where working people are likelier than average to do well. I hope it isn’t! But maybe it is, in which case we would be faced with the unpleasant prospect that people in general actually know what is good for them.

Popin’ ain’t easy

youngpope-2-6-17

(Not the actual pope)

I’ve always been interested in what happens when there’s a disconnect between an elite and the group it is supposed to lead. So the one thing I understood correctly about the 2016 US presidential campaign while it was going on was that the vast majority of Republican primary voters (93% in one survey) wanted to see immigration policy made more restrictive, while most of that party’s senior leaders were committed to initiatives that would make immigration policy less restrictive.  That kind of disconnect is simply not sustainable, not on such an important issue.  So while I did not expect that Donald J. Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, would win the Republican nomination, I expected him to lose to someone like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Texas senator Ted Cruz, who would adopt a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy and pass Don John on the right on that issue.

 

Recently I’ve read some articles about Pope Francis that make me wonder if he is not

pope-poster

(Not actually Jude Law) 

finding himself in a position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy analogous to that which Republican politicians like John Ellis Bush occupied in their party in 2015-2016. Here’s one explaining that many people in the Vatican, and probably most of the younger priests everywhere, are so frustrated with Francis’ way of raising the hopes of progressives that the next conclave might choose a pontiff as ferociously reactionary as the fictional hero of HBO’s absurdist miniseries The Young Pope.  Some say that the pope is excessively loyal to his friends and their friends, including those who are child molesters; some say that he has surrounded himself with a tiny group of intimates, and listens to no one else.

Now let me hasten to say that this question is none of my business, in that I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.  What brought it to mind was an exchange I had last night and this morning on Twitter with scholar and beagle lover John Zmirak.  Mr Zmirak, a very conservative Roman Catholic, is quite pessimistic about the likely consequences of Francis’ pontificate.  In response to a tweet of his about how some pro-choice advocates had expressed pleasure with the “direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church,” I responded:

He answered:

(I should mention that I habitually refer to the two most recent Roman popes by their original surnames, in part because I’d been aware of Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio for years before they ascended to the papacy, and in part because I am a dyed-in-the-wool republican who dislikes all monarchical pretension. As an Anglican, I rather wish the Roman Catholics would adopt our traditional styles so that I could introduce Francis as “the Most Rev’d Mr Bergoglio” and call him simply “Mr Bergoglio” thereafter, but I doubt they will.)

Mr Zmirak’s reply, and mine:

And his final word:

Mr Zmirak seems to be quite firmly convinced that anything could happen in the immediate aftermath of the next conclave. He knows more about it than I do, and has a personal investment in the topic. All I can offer is uninformed speculation.

Which is precisely what I will now offer.  If Francis is indeed as bad as the articles I’ve linked above suggest, and if the tendencies he represents are as much on the decline on the Roman Catholic Church as the authors of those pieces seem to believe, then I can imagine a scenario in which the conclave that picks his successor will end in a split. If those conditions obtain now, and if they continue to intensify for another 10 or 12 years, then a situation might arise in which a Bergoglian faction might be very strong in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and very weak everywhere else.

Isolated elites sometimes grow reckless, realizing that they have everything to lose if new leaders should rise within the institutions atop which they so uneasily sit.  Rather than than trying to find common ground with its critics, such an insecure elite might be quick to silence them, making examples of prominent individuals and well-established groups that have not associated themselves with the current leadership.  Rather than allow the circulation of talent that might create rivals whom they could not contain, an insecure elite might try to stifle the normal processes of institutional life.

If that were to happen in the Vatican, then this hypothetical Bergoglian faction might resort to some kind of desperate measures to elect one of their own at the next conclave. If such an effort were successful, and if the desperate measures were irregular enough, anti-Bergoglian conservatives might regard the result as illegitimate, perhaps openly declaring its winner an antipope. If it were to be unsuccessful, the defeated Bergoglians might conclude that they had nowhere to go within the existing structure of the Roman Church, and so they might walk out and declare one of their own to be the true pope.

As I said to Mr Zmirak, it is difficult for me to believe that the situation in Rome has in fact come to so desperate a pass. Surely the bulk of the leadership is going to be committed to trying to make the thing work, whoever the pope is. I don’t even know whether the descriptions of Francis’ troubles that I’ve read are a fair representation of the situation, since they’ve all been brought to my attention by Roman Catholics like Mr Zmirak who are convinced that Francis has gone round the bend and is doing a terrible job. Most of the moderate and liberal Roman Catholics of my acquaintance don’t seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about the papacy right now, except for those who are fans of The Young Pope, and their only opinion about Francis seems to be that he isn’t as handsome as Jude Law.