Trump’s Remaking of US Foreign Policy

President-elect Trump is outlining a foreign policy that rejects the interventionist tenets of Washington’s neocon/liberal-hawk establishment and puts U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control at the top of his agenda, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Over the weekend, President-elect Trump received two journalists from mainstream European print media — The Times of London and the German magazine Bild — for a joint interview in New York City’s Trump Tower. The event was videotaped and we are seeing some remarkable sound bites, particularly those of interest to the British and German publics.

For the government of British Prime Minister Theresa May, nothing could have sounded sweeter than Donald Trump’s statement that she would be invited for talks in the White House shortly after he is sworn in on Jan. 20 and that he seeks very quickly to reach agreement on a bilateral free trade pact. The effect of the pledge itself, even ahead of its successful implementation, assures the British that the sting of severing ties with the European Union will be greatly offset by new commercial possibilities in the world’s biggest economy; in this way, it strengthens May’s hand enormously as she enters into talks with the E.U. leadership over the detailed terms of what will apparently be a “Hard Brexit.”

Further adding to her leverage with the E.U. were Trump’s remarks suggesting that the E.U. will face stern trade pressure, beginning with Germany and its automobile industry, to do more to manufacture in the U.S. That precisely raises the relative importance of the U.K. market, which the E.U. will otherwise lose if it imposes severe penalties on Britain in negotiations over Brexit.

For the general public’s consumption, Donald Trump used the interview to explain his special affection for Britain, speaking about his Scottish mother’s delight in the Queen and her watching every royal event on television for its unequaled pageantry. But we may expect that Prime Minister May will find there is a bill to pay for the “special relationship” with the U.S. under President Trump.

Rather than the British media’s early speculation that Prime Minister May would be the one to set the misguided Trump straight about the nefarious Vladimir Putin, she may now have to become a leading European advocate for détente with Russia at Trump’s behest. In this connection, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to Congress during his visit to Washington last week that Official Washington “stop demonizing Putin” may well have been a straw in the wind.

For the Germans, Trump also offered a bit of flattery, saying how much he respected their Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, as he went on, he virtually flattened the Iron Lady’s reputation by calling her open-door policy of admitting migrants into Germany and the E.U. a catastrophe. He noted that Merkel’s controversial position had swayed the election results in Britain on Brexit and may lead to the departure of other countries from the E.U. Given his staff’s consultation with Marine Le Pen, a visiting French candidate for the presidency from the right-wing Front National, Trump’s list surely includes France.

Finally, among the sound bites that will be featured in media coverage of the interview, we hear Donald Trump describe NATO as an outdated organization that needs overhaul. However, apart from his reiterated insistence that Member States must pay their fair share, which he claims only Britain and four others from the 28 Member States are currently doing, the interview offers no specifics on what kind structural change, if any, he seeks for NATO. We only hear that NATO has not been prepared to deal with the threat of international terrorism.

Views on Russia

But it was in another area, Trump’s remarks on Russia and the terms he named for possibly lifting sanctions, that we find convincing proof that the President-elect’s approach to foreign affairs is not just the sum of isolated tactical considerations but a complete reinvention of the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy. What we are witnessing is a shift to a new strategic, geopolitical paradigm.

In the past couple of decades, going back to the second term of President Bill Clinton, the ideology of neoconservatism with its stress on “democracy promotion” as being the whole of national interest, dictated policy decisions that amounted to the tail wagging the dog. The Baltic States were admitted into NATO in its 2004 enlargement because they wanted it. The decision to station U.S., German and other NATO brigades in Poland and other states along the Russian border taken last July in Warsaw and implemented, in the case of Poland, by U.S. forces in the past several days, was justified by the anxiety of these countries over the possibility of Russian aggression, even though NATO’s action has been highly provocative vis-à-vis Russia and brought the major nuclear powers ever closer to direct confrontation.

In the interview, Trump changed entirely the metrics by which sanctions on Russia would be lifted. Instead of fulfillment of the Minsk Accords over Ukraine’s ethnic Russian Donbas region – which nationalist hardliners in Kiev had the power to block – Trump conditioned the relaxation of sanctions on progress in curbing the nuclear arms race and moving toward significant nuclear disarmament, issues that are fully within the power of the Kremlin to implement.

To be sure, these issues today are more complex than they were in the heyday of disarmament talks. The recent obstacles include the U.S. anti-ballistic missile installations in Poland and Romania, the forward stationing of NATO human and materiel resources in the former Warsaw Pact countries, and the standing invitations to Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO. So any negotiations between Washington and Moscow will be very complex.

But Trump’s statement shows that he is focused on the big picture, on the triangular relationship between Washington, Moscow and Beijing that he believes to be of vital importance in keeping the peace globally, rather than on some amorphous reliance on expanding democracy globally on the unproven assumption that democracies among themselves are peace-loving.

These elements in Donald Trump’s thinking, quite unexpected in a businessman, bring him very close to the Realism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, while his setting nuclear disarmament as a key goal, aligns him with Ronald Reagan and — strange to say — with Barack Obama at the very start of his presidency.

If Donald Trump can stave off the jackals from the Western mainstream media and the U.S. foreign policy establishment – a combination that has formed a snarling circle around him even before the takes office – he may have a chance to make historic changes in international relations toward a more peaceful world.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.




Democrats Lost in a Corporate Wilderness

Over the past quarter century, the national Democratic Party merged with the Clinton pay-for-play money machine and lost touch with American populism. So, what must be done and what are the party’s prospects, asks Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

You would think that learning from experience is a common thing to do. But, for the Democratic Party’s leadership, this seems not to be the case. After the landslide victory of Trump’s version of the Republican Party in the 2016 national election, it is fair to say that the Democratic Party is in big trouble.

As Sen. Bernie Sanders has observed, the party needs to reform. Among other things it needs to ensure that whoever is the head of the Democratic National Committee [DNC] is dedicated to growing the party in a pro-civil rights as well as populist way. The party also needs to break free of special-interest money and do away with biased “super delegates” that subvert the nominating process. Sanders suggests a reform commission to look into implementing the necessary changes.

There are millions of local Democratic voters who agree with Sanders. I am sure that their local party officials have heard from a lot from them. However, to date, none of this has transferred over to the party’s national scene. Indeed Democratic power brokers like Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House, who should be discredited in the eyes of everyone who identifies themselves with the Democratic Party, are still in place calling the shots.

And, it is almost certain that whoever becomes head of the DNC will be vetted by these obsolete leaders and will follow their lead. It is a formula for repeated political failure, but it has the sense of something inevitable nonetheless.

Contributing Factors

Why have things worked out this way? Here are some of the contributing factors:

—Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have evolved into bureaucratized organizations at once dependent upon the financial resources of special interests and mainly responsive to those interests’ needs. This has led both parties to pay more attention to the siren calls of powerful lobbies than the needs of local constituencies.

This fits with the fact that the United States is not a democracy of individuals so much as a democracy of competing interest groups. These interest groups range from conservative to liberal, and many play both sides of the ideological field by giving donations to both parties and their major political leaders.

—The concentration on special interests has been facilitated by the fact that, historically, many American citizens care little about politics. They know little or nothing about how the political system works, much less the issues and pressures to which it responds. Many do not vote. Those who do vote are only marginally more knowledgeable than those who do not. This means the party system relies on relatively small populations of avid supporters

The entrenched nature of the party bureaucracies and the traditional indifference of a large part of the citizenry make the system very hard, but not impossible, to reform.

—It is the Republican Party’s structure, and not that of the Democrats, that has experienced the strongest populist assault over the past couple of years. This is so despite the fact the Republicans have paid more attention to capturing state governorships, legislatures and even town councils than have the Democrats.

The assault has come from the so-called Tea Party, which has its own local and regional organizations imbued with a strong sense of mission. That mission is to minimize altogether government involvement in society. The Tea Party had grown disappointed and estranged from the traditional Republican leadership and structure.

—The basis for Donald Trump’s success was partially laid by the Tea Party’s willingness to abandon their traditional support for the Republicans and place their faith in Trump. Ultimately, what now survives of the formal Republican Party are those elements willing to ally with Trump.

—In contrast, the Democratic Party survives intact, having marginalized Bernie Sanders’s liberal effort to restructure it. Ironically, its structural survival is its greatest weakness. As a consequence it will just plod along, stuck in its rut. All things being equal this might condemn the Democrats to minority status for a long time.

—The only thing that might alter this fate is the catastrophic failure of Trump and his Republican allies – failure to such an extent that the Democratic Party, at least temporarily, again appears as an acceptable alternative to a population scared for its future.

Republican Failure?

Actually, catastrophic failure on Trump’s part may occur. This is because Trump, his Republican allies in the House and Senate, and the Tea Party are all determined to destroy a good part of the federal government’s social and environmental programs, as well as radically deregulate the economy.

To this end the very first bill the Republicans rammed through Congress (it happened on Jan. 4) was “one designed to roll back a range of environmental and consumer regulations.” The bill was appropriately named the “Midnight Rules Relief Act of 2017.” This bit of misguided legislation is only the beginning.

Regulations have a foundational reason for being, foundational because they serve as a check on the greed and larceny that, all too often, seem to lie at the heart of political and economic leaders. That does not mean that regulations should not be fair and efficient – carrying with them a minimum of red tape. However, to do away with them all altogether is, historically, stupid.

The economic and social history of Nineteenth and Twentieth century America makes it abundantly clear that regulation is the sine qua non of modern societal stability. Don’t want discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and the like? Don’t want another economic depression? Don’t want adulterated food and drugs? Want safe transportation both on the ground and in the air? Want safe medical treatment? Want drinkable water and breathable air? Then you want, indeed you absolutely need, economic, environmental and social regulations.

Somehow President-elect Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and their many right-wing associates are unaware of the historically established need for such action. In that part of their brains where the relevant historical facts should reside, these individuals have substituted neoliberal ideology – the same sort of outlook that brought you the 1929 Great Depression and other assorted woes. If our present crop of right-wing leaders get their way, then, sooner or later, we will be able to relive all that misery.

Then, without reforming itself at all, the Democratic Party might once more win a national election — the hard way.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




Did Trump Kill ‘Liberal Democracy’?

Donald Trump’s victory has spurred commentary about the “death of liberal democracy,” but the seeds of that demise were planted in the 1980s amid elite orthodoxy in favor of neoliberal economics, argues Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

The election of Donald Trump has triggered as much wonderment abroad as it has in the United States. David Runciman, a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, has written in the London Review of Books a provocative reflection on the nature of democracy in the age of Trump: “Is this how democracy ends?

There is much to praise in his essay, including his heavy qualification that we really don’t know for sure if what we are seeing is the end phase of mature Western democracies since we do not have the appropriate historical precedents to be certain.

Runciman is correct; as an admirer of Karl Popper, I believe that there is no such thing as historical determinism, either in the form of the Marxist dialectical process, or in the guise of its mirror image, the invisible hand of laissez-faire. Accordingly there is no surefire way to tell in advance whether Trump, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders would spell the end of democracy as we have known it. History, as Popper would tell us, is an open system, full of contingency. Waterloo, the Battle of Britain and Stalingrad were all close-run things.

That said, Runciman may, in fact, be too optimistic. He makes much of the evidence that post-election violence in America was scattered and relatively minor. There were no pitched battles in the streets on the scale of Berlin in 1932, no tanks on the Washington Mall and no generals appearing on television to announce a curfew or to say that order has been restored.

Trump Consequences

But that establishes an awfully easy test for Trump to prove he is harmless, especially as he had not even assumed office at the time of the author’s writing. We do not know what the next four years have to offer, particularly when Trump begins to dismantle government programs on which people rely for subsistence, or when he ignites a trade war with China and downscale consumers, the archetypal Walmart customers, suddenly discover either that the shelves are empty or that their cost of living has increased by 45 percent.

If we look at Russia in the age of Vladimir Putin, we also see no tanks in the streets, bloody battles between opposing factions or generalissimos restoring order. Elections there proceed in an orderly manner, as they did last September. This is what managed democracy looks like. Runciman may argue Russia was never a mature Western democracy, and he would be right.

But it also shows that an absence of chronic civil unrest or domestic military intervention is not a benchmark for deciding whether a country remains in the camp of liberal democracies. Even countries visibly undemocratic by Western standards can maintain a façade of civil order and normality. Hungary, an E.U. member since 2004 after 84 percent of the electorate approved accession, is undeniably regressing toward a one-party, authoritarian state under Brussels’ very nose.

Just as Putin’s United Russia Party has moved to disqualify troublesome opposition parties from the ballot and centralize power around the president, and as Viktor Orbán’s Fedesz Party has weakened those Hungarian institutions that challenged his power, Trump’s Republican Party has been laying the institutional groundwork for illiberal democracy for several years. States whose legislatures and governorships are controlled by Republicans not only gerrymander federal congressional districts with scientific precision, they have restricted voter qualifications, polling hours and locations as a way of hobbling their opponents.

When North Carolina voters elected a Democrat as governor this November, the Republican legislature passed measures to strip the governorship of many of its powers. Since the governor-elect had not assumed office yet, he was in no position to veto it.

Even more questionable are some of Trump’s own actions as president-elect. When do American politicians hold rallies? Typically, when they are running for office. The freshly elected Trump, rather than studying up for the job or attending intelligence briefings, went on an extended “thank you tour,” staging political rallies across the country. As the American media have noted, these are not meant to heal divisions and unite the country; they have more to do with score-settling with his opponents while stoking his political base. There was no magnanimity or graciousness as he continued to attack his bested opponent, Hillary Clinton.

He also said he intends to maintain his private security squad even after assuming office. Quite apart from its redundancy, given the presence of the taxpayer-provided Secret Service, the specter of a national leader retaining a private security contingent, particularly one that distinguished itself by roughing up protesters at campaign rallies, is troubling indeed. Bringing up party rallies and private security forces may be condemned as an inadmissible argumentum ad Hitlerum, but it is also hardly grounds for complacency given the violent imagery of Trump’s rhetoric.

Problems Beyond Easy Solutions

Runciman is absolutely correct in pointing out the hidden problems that Trump is incapable of solving, particularly the rise in the death rate in parts of Appalachia, the Midwest and the American South. This phenomenon arises from a social crisis characterized by underemployment, inadequate health care and community decay that culminates in epidemic use of opioids and alcohol. What he neglects to emphasize is that these are precisely the areas where Trump’s support is the strongest.

During the primaries, pollsters began noticing his electoral support correlated significantly with counties having the highest number of opioid addiction cases. In the general election, Trump outperformed expectations in key Rust Belt states that he had to win in order to gain an Electoral College majority; he ran particularly strongly where the opioid epidemic was acute. Correlation is not causation, of course, but opioid use may be a symptom of a cluster of social dysfunctions that lead to voters being attracted by Trump’s message.

It is at this point where Runciman’s thesis goes seriously wrong. He says that voters chose Trump to shake things up precisely because they knew he couldn’t do it; in other words, they counted on the political system they rail against as worthless to be worthy enough to protect them from the consequences of their foolish mistake.

The author shows either a remarkable ability to infer the thought processes of an unemployed Kentucky laborer without health insurance, or he is guilty of constructing an attractive-sounding paradox that is a little too clever. If he is right, then Trump was elected in some colossal mistake right out of an O. Henry short story. But among Trump’s most ardent supporters in the blighted areas of the Rust Belt, it is possible they felt the entire system had failed them and they had nothing left to lose.

Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of some Trump supporters is a kind of embittered nihilism and a perverse glee at bringing down the system. These, of course, are by no means all of his voters, although they may have been enough to make the difference.

As for the rest, American party politics has become so polarized and tribal identification with party sufficiently intense, that a Republican national candidate is virtually guaranteed a reliable 40 percent floor at the polls, and the rest of what he gets is what he earns. That 40 percent will vote for the Republican on the ballot regardless of whether the candidate has two horns and a tail; considerations as to whether the system will save them from their choice does not enter their heads.

Hubris Despite Popular Vote Loss 

And even if Trump were elected out of voters’ mistaken premises, what of it? Does that imply Trump will not perform the many potentially destructive acts he has promised to his supporters and threatened to his opponents? Despite his unprecedentedly large popular vote loss as a winning candidate, he and his operatives call his Electoral College victory a landslide and act as if they possess the most overwhelming mandate in history.

If the past is any precedent, the signs are not good. George W. Bush won under similar electoral circumstances and proceeded to bulldoze through a policy of stunning fiscal irresponsibility while provoking a war that may have been America’s single greatest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam — or possibly ever.

As to Trump’s carrying out his agenda, only time will tell, and here Runciman may be a little too optimistic about the resiliency of American institutions. As a former career congressional staff member, I had extended experience seeing them close up and interacting with them.

One of those institutions is the campaign-industrial complex that comprises both major American parties. Trump, operating from his private playbook, handily dispatched the Republican wing of that complex in the primaries and went on to defeat Hillary Clinton’s extremely well-funded machine in the general election.

As for the military-industrial-intelligence complex that Runciman suspects will save the day, I doubt senior personnel in that establishment are immune from the blandishments of career advancement or the object lesson of being sacked. Bush and his vice president succeeded in concocting a fictitious pretext for unprovoked war by jawboning intelligence agencies to give them what they wanted. “Go along to get along” is the Washington Beltway’s prime directive, and why will it be different this time?

Fear-mongering Terrorism 

One of the glaring omissions in the essay was the absence of any discussion of terrorism as a potential solvent of liberal democracy. It is precisely here that the example of Bush’s pretext for the invasion of Iraq is instructive. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, unhinged a sizable slice of the American people; the invasion of Iraq and its unsatisfactory resolution amplified the syndrome; the rise of ISIS may have brought the public to a tipping point where a caudillo like Trump became possible.

Nor are other polities immune: the Madrid train bombing of 2004 and the London underground attack of 2005 did not engender panicked fear-mongering in Europe, but the civil war in Syria and the terrorist attacks that followed, all of them on a smaller scale than Madrid, have roiled the continent in a way that is seriously upsetting political stability there.

It is well and good for optimists to say Americans should stop being so paranoid, and to point out that the opioid epidemic is a much greater problem because it kills vastly more Americans than terrorism. But perception is political reality.

Fear of terrorism has upset the post-World War II consensus about the balance between freedom and security in the Atlantic democracies. Personal privacy and freedom of movement are essential aspects of the autonomy and dignity of the individual human being. They constitute a bedrock principle of a liberal social order; terrorism erodes these, and the all-but-interminable duration of the war on terrorism suggests time may be on the side of illiberalism.

The parliamentary liberalism unevenly developed over the past two centuries maintains another central tenet: that the litmus test of truth is not blind faith or coerced assent, but corroborable facts and evidence agreed to by all rational observers. This standard has come under attack in America as digital media have fractionated to serve hermetic partisan groups who believe only that which confirms and amplifies their existing biases.

The new approach was best summed up by Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump campaign surrogate who told a stupefied moderator and panelists on a radio talk show that “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.”

She went on: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet[s] amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up. So…”

One of the paradoxical twists of history is that when leftist deconstructionists posited the notion of situational truth in the 1970s, the American right responded with fury against their “moral relativism,” a denunciation that became the leitmotif of staunch conservatives like Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, William Bennett. Now, among the Trump supporters, who have usurped the mantle of true conservative standard-bearers, the very idea of truth is relative to the beliefs of the observer.

Republican Creation 

Many observers, Runciman included, see Trump as a maverick not in tune with the American security apparatus. To some extent, this is true, but the full relationship is more differentiated than that. It is by now universal wisdom that the subversive rhetoric and insurrectionist tactics of the GOP, the Tea Party and their associated propaganda outlets helped create Trump, however much the party establishment claimed to have detested him.

But even though the GOP in the era of the Tea Party sired Trump, it shares parentage with the transpartisan national security complex of the United States. Politicians, generals, CIA directors, think tank warriors and terrorism “experts” have been driving a message of fear about terrorism into our heads for a decade and a half — a fear that has activated the latent authoritarianism and paranoia that lurk in all too many ordinary people.

This dynamic helps explain why Trump’s candidacy took off like a moon rocket in November and December of 2015, the period of the terrorist attack in Paris and the murders in San Bernardino. Government officials and the corporate media whipped up a mood in the country that approached hysteria; Trump deftly exploited that mood to his advantage. By being the only politician brazen enough to openly advocate torture — not merely to gain information, but to inflict pain for its own sake — he tapped into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been fed a steady diet of fear since 9/11.

Voters in the Republican primary in South Carolina who handed Trump a walkover victory declared terrorism to be their foremost concern, one that eclipsed a low-wage economy — deteriorating living standards that have led to an actual increase in the death rate of the GOP’s core demographic of late-middle-aged, non-college educated whites; and the most expensive and least available health care in the so-called developed world.

So while Trump — a Vietnam-era draft avoider who appeared not even to know what the nuclear triad was — could hardly be considered a product of the national security sector, his demagogic skills and authoritarian demeanor placed him in a far better position than his rivals to exploit the national neurosis created by the war on terror.

Who’s Your Daddy?

On the question of Trump’s authoritarian appeal Runciman states, “It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime.”

Of course, Trump would appear as a child to a cultured and educated product of Cambridge and an exponent of liberal democracy. His babyish tantrums and 4-in-the-morning tweets are hardly indicative of an adult in control of his emotions. But the problem with the author’s reasoning is that Trump’s demeanor might well appear reminiscent of an authoritarian father in a West Virginia mining town or a South Carolina trailer park.

The American media have collected dozens of quotes from Trump supporters who used father metaphors to describe him; The Washington Post chronicled the story of one rabid supporter, a late-middle-aged woman in Pennsylvania, who habitually referred to Trump as “Big Daddy.” It hardly requires the services of Dr. Freud to infer that there’s something going on there, and it assuredly doesn’t validate the rational choice theory beloved of sociologists.

Donald Trump is one aspect of a much larger story: the fraying of post-World War II institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and NATO. The oldest of these are now seven decades old. If you count its embryonic precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community, the E.U. is almost that old. It may be that these institutions have a natural lifespan.

More likely, perhaps, there was a wrong turning about midway through the postwar period, when Britain and the United States went all in for laissez-faire fundamentalism, with almost all of the Atlantic democracies following in their wake. These policies exacerbated what was already bound to be a difficult adjustment for Western industrial workers when China and other East Asian countries became manufacturing powerhouses.

Voters’ Dismay

In some ways, Trump and his European soul mates are populist reactions, albeit authoritarian ones, to voters’ dismay over the mature democracies’ own slide into illiberalism. To wall off their pet economic nostrums from popular challenge, elites wrote binding clauses into trade treaties to prevent national or regional legislatures from challenging corporate prerogatives on safety or environmental grounds.

Brussels and the European Central Bank forbade member governments, regardless of their popular mandate, from undertaking measures to help their citizens after the 2008 economic crash. The geopolitical situations may be different, but rigid austerity was as much a mistake in the Greece or Italy of today as it was in Chancellor Brüning’s Germany of 1932, or Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s Britain of the same year.

So perhaps democracies die of old age and we cannot quite see which event will cause their final cardiac arrest. But more likely, their leaders make avoidable mistakes, and then persist in them because their ideological disposition causes them to resist the warning signs of danger ahead. If authoritarian populism is the wave of the future, its midwife is neoliberal economics turned punitive and illiberal.

Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.. [This article previously appeared at  http://billmoyers.com/story/maybe-democracy-ends/

]




Wall Street’s Win-Win with Trump

Exclusive: Most Wall Street bigwigs sided with Hillary Clinton in 2016 but now have adroitly shifted affections to Donald Trump whose populist rhetoric is giving way to another super-rich bonfire of the vanities, explains Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

During the 2016 campaign, pundits claimed that Donald Trump’s proposed economic policies would bring the end of the world as we know it. Moody’s Analytics predicted his plans, particularly those involving trade and the budget deficit, could trigger a severe recession. Others asserted that Trump’s election would cause a severe stock market selloff.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that none of the Fortune 100 CEOs endorsed him for president. For a Republican candidate, this was both unprecedented and seemed an unmistakable signal of a lack of confidence by the business community.

That was then and this is now. The stock market has risen after the election, flirting with 20,000. And while the many presentiments of doom have not been disproven by events – after all, Trump has not yet even been inaugurated – the commanding heights of capital are no longer sitting on their hands.

As a glance at the membership of the President-elect’s Strategic and Policy Forum shows, they are flocking to his side, with representatives of financial buccaneering like Steven Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, old smokestack firms like GM’s Mary Barra, and towering retail giant Walmart’s Doug McMillon. There is even an ex-governor of the Federal Reserve Board, Bush appointee Kevin Warsh. It appears that Corporate America has abruptly swung to Trump’s side.

Why the change? First, beyond whatever innate skill at making money that they may possess, the typical American corporate executive smells power in the way a pig locks on to a Périgord truffle. It was only a couple of months ago that virtually none of the corporate moguls supported Trump, while they fell all over themselves to back Hillary Clinton. Now, I doubt many of them would take her phone call. Sucking up is so ingrained in American corporate culture that we should hardly be surprised at the about-face.

Second, regardless of their pious rhetoric about fiscal responsibility, business leaders dearly love the deficits created by rate cuts on income, capital gains, and dividends. The tax cuts put money directly into their coffers, and the resulting deficit provides the fiscal stimulus driving consumer spending and corporate profits. Occasionally, a few of them, like Pete Peterson (ironically a co-founder of Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group), will launch a rhetorical jihad against the federal deficit, but this effort is mainly a rationale to cut the federal pensions and benefits that they assume the Ninety-Nine Percent are lazily wallowing in rather than working.

That is not the end of Trump’s fiscal stimulus. In addition to his $6.2 trillion in planned tax cuts, he is promising a large infrastructure program as well as hefty increases in Pentagon spending (the one Keynesian measure Republicans have traditionally adored).

Good Times for the Rich

Let the good times roll? Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce points out a couple of downsides. First, Trump, the real estate mogul (which means he is instinctively for the lowest interest rates possible) is setting himself up for an extended battle with the Federal Reserve Board just as its chair, Janet Yellen, is beginning to tap the brake on the Fed’s previously very loose monetary policy. Second, according to Luce, a potential combination of Trump’s stimulative fiscal policy and Yellen’s mild tightening will likely be an appreciation of the dollar.

That, in turn, will cause the trade deficit to rise while depressing domestic manufacturing – the diametric opposite of what Trump’s populist economic platform promised, a platform which won him the electoral vote in the Rust Belt, and thus the presidency. Such an outcome would ratchet up the pressure on Trump (who has already said he wanted to do it) for an all-out trade war with China, Mexico and other large exporters. Luce concludes that the markets will react badly.

That analysis is likely correct, but it does not address the more fundamental problem with Trump’s economic plans. His trade policy may be unique in distinguishing him from standard Republican Party dogmatists, but huge tax cuts and heavy military expenditures were precisely George W. Bush’s fiscal policy, and, as we all remember, that did not end well.

A third policy feature the Bush and Trump administrations have in common is a loathing of financial regulation. Under Chris Cox, George W. Bush’s Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, the agency exerted virtually no effort to preempt the marketing of the worthless financial instruments that caused the 2008 asset meltdown. Likewise, Goldman Sachs alumnus Hank Paulson, Bush’s Treasury secretary, was asleep at the wheel right up to the crash.

The fact that America’s premier corporate raider, Carl Icahn, will advise Trump on financial regulation (and may be appointed SEC chairman), and that his pick for Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was a Goldman executive for 16 years, does not inspire confidence that their management of the economy will be any different from that of their predecessors before the 2008 crash.

Mnuchin is only one of several Goldman alumni destined for top positions in the Trump administration. Goldman president Gary Cohn has been tapped to head the National Economic Council. Hedge fund manager and former Goldman executive Anthony Scaramucci is a vocal Trump media surrogate and is widely expected to receive a government position. (Responding to a question by CNN about the alleged demonization of bankers, Scaramucci responded, “I think the cabal against the bankers is over,” neatly inverting the fact that the derogatory term “cabal” has normally been associated with bankers, rather than their critics).

The pseudo-populist Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief of strategy, is also a Goldman spawn. It is hardly surprising that Goldman Sachs’s stock has risen 30 percent since November. Does anyone seriously think “this time will be different” compared to the Bush debacle?

A Deluge of Tax Cuts

It may only be different in terms of how big a disaster Trump’s policies will unleash. His tax cuts are potentially three times the magnitude the 10-year cost of Bush’s cuts. Because they are heavily targeted at those who are already rich – 47 percent of the dollar amount will go to the top one percent – it will exacerbate income inequality, which is already at its highest level since the 1920s.

The crumbs for low-income earners will be nullified or worse by regressive labor policies like an assault on the minimum wage and undermining of pensions. (The DeVos family, long-time Republican mega-donors, have declared that public employees in Michigan should have their public pensions revoked; Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, will be pressuring public school systems to “reform” their pension plans).

Subsistence income for the poor and near-poor could be further eroded by a reduction in Medicaid benefits (reportedly already in the works courtesy of Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress). These actions will exacerbate the ongoing trend toward jobs without benefits.

Despite their windfall from Trump’s tax policies, the rich will only be able to consume so many filet mignons, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and Patek-Philippe watches before reaching satiation. The rest of their tax cut will go into kiting the equities market to stratospheric levels or building palatial monuments to their own greatness in Glen Cove, Palm Beach and Palo Alto.

Given that the tax cuts and spending increases will be of a much greater magnitude than Bush’s own prodigious fiscal mismanagement, the resulting asset and real estate bubble will be a thing to behold.

Aggravating the odds of a financial meltdown will be the unrelenting hostility of Trump’s economic team, as well as that of the Republican Congress, towards financial regulation in general and the Dodd-Frank law in particular. While Dodd-Frank is only a halting half step in the right direction, some of its provisions, such as those that required banks to hold greater reserves, are useful in preventing the overleveraging of asset bubbles and, when the assets fall, a bank liquidity crisis. If Trump’s policies are enacted this country will have a gargantuan fiscal deficit-driven asset bubble in the making, and will have removed the regulatory tools to ameliorate it.

Some flavor of the happy anticipation with which the wealthy are greeting the incoming Trump dispensation may be gathered from this passage in a Bloomberg News piece: “The New York real estate mogul is building a cabinet heavy on wealth and corporate connections, and light on government experience, a mix that hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio said last week would unleash the ‘animal spirits’ of capitalism and drive markets even higher.”

Translated from the Bloombergese, it suggests the plutocrats are licking their chops in the expectation of a looting spree that will make the plutocracy of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos look like strict Swiss governmental administration.

Eyes Wide Shut

Why is this foreseeable economic crisis so seldom discussed in the mainstream media compared to the potential of a trade war? There are two parts to the answer: one involving popular sentiment and the other the elite interests of corporate America.

Trump was elected on a platform asserting that America’s economic problems were almost exclusively caused by foreign countries such as China or Mexico. As such, it was an analogue to Bush’s 2004 campaign whipping up hysteria about sinister foreign terrorists abroad. The media naturally gave the theme extensive coverage as a central tenet of Trump’s platform. But it also served to divert the easily distracted attention of his followers away from the 2008 crash, its role in their misery, and who might have been responsible.

It brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill: “The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance of the simplest economic facts, and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them.”

At the commanding heights of the economy on the other hand, the ideology and the wallets of corporate America (and the professional economists whose chairs they endow) are perfectly aligned against protectionism. That was why we heard their objections during the campaign.

But with regard to tax cut-fueled asset accumulation and anti-regulation dogma, their wallets are perfectly aligned in favor of Trump’s policies, while their traditionally tepid anti-deficit rhetoric masks their true feelings about fiscal irresponsibility – provided that this irresponsibility enriches them personally.

So, was the entire Trump candidacy a clever plan by the upper reaches of American capital to let the good times roll (for them) by concocting a populist vulgarian whose jeremiads against menacing foreign competitors would be a sure way of engaging the xenophobia and gullibility of the Republican base as a deflection from Wall Street’s agenda of asset-stripping, privatization, and pension-grabbing?

Probably not. The process of history, like that of evolutionary biology, is largely a self-organizing and self-reinforcing accretion of otherwise random phenomena along pathways of least resistance, rather than minute planning by a Grand Designer. But it really does not matter: Wall Street’s pragmatic opportunism on seeing the inevitability of a Trump nomination would cause them to act in much the same fashion regardless.

The big banks in effect had a hedged bet during the campaign: Hillary Clinton, a friend of Wall Street, was successfully denounced as such by an opponent who was an even bigger friend of the Street. It was a no-lose proposition.

The only question remaining is this: in the aftermath of a future blowout that could make the 2008 saturnalia look tame, will Trump’s voters correctly identify the source of their economic pain, or will they be effortlessly distracted by some supposedly existential terrorist menace, predatory trading partner, or newly confected domestic Culture Wars bugaboo? Trump’s close adviser, Steven Bannon, a veteran both of Wall Street and the right-wing paranoia factory, will doubtless be hard at work on that one.

Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.




The Democrats’ Russia-Did-It Dodge

To avoid facing up to why Hillary Clinton’s pro-corporatist candidacy really lost key Rust Belt states, national Democrats are finding it easier to blame Russia, a dangerous and self-defeating game, says Norman Solomon at The Hill.

By Norman Solomon

Two months after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the most cohesive message from congressional Democrats is: blame Russia. The party leaders have doubled down on an approach that got nowhere during the presidential campaign — trying to tie the Kremlin around Donald Trump’s neck.

Still more interested in playing to the press gallery than speaking directly to the economic distress of voters in the Rust Belt and elsewhere who handed the presidency to Trump, top Democrats would much rather scapegoat Vladimir Putin than scrutinize how they’ve lost touch with working-class voters.

Meanwhile, the emerging incendiary rhetoric against Russia is extremely dangerous. It could lead to a military confrontation between two countries that have thousands of nuclear weapons each.

At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Thursday on foreign cyber threats, ranking member Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, denounced “Russia’s rejection of the post-Cold War international order and aggressive actions against its neighbors,” and he condemned “a regime with values and interests so antithetical to our own.” It was the kind of oratory that would have made John Foster Dulles or Barry Goldwater proud.

Like so many other senators on the committee, Reed seemed eager for a new Cold War while accusing Russia of digital aggression. “In addition to stealing information from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign,” he said, “and cherry-picking what information it leaked to the media, the Russian government also created and spread fake news and conspiracies across the vast social media landscape.’’

The Russia-Did-It Conspiracy Theory

The Russian government may have hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign emails, and it may have given those emails to WikiLeaks. But that’s hardly a slam dunk.

Over the weekend, after Friday’s release of a much-ballyhooed report from the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the report underwent a cogent critique by former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry. Stripping the 25-page DNI report down to its essence, Parry pointed out that it “contained no direct evidence that Russia delivered hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta to WikiLeaks.”

Parry added: “The DNI report amounted to a compendium of reasons to suspect that Russia was the source of the information — built largely on the argument that Russia had a motive for doing so because of its disdain for Democratic nominee Clinton and the potential for friendlier relations with Republican nominee Trump. But the case, as presented, is one-sided and lacks any actual proof.”

While stenographic accounts of official claims have dominated coverage of the Jan. 6 report, major flaws are coming to light in mainstream media. For instance, a piece that appeared on Saturday in the New York Times, by Scott Shane, reported in its ninth paragraph: “What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack.”

The article reported: “Under the circumstances, many in Washington expected the agencies to make a strong public case to erase any uncertainty. Instead, the message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’ There is no discussion of the forensics used to recognize the handiwork of known hacking groups, no mention of intercepted communications between the Kremlin and the hackers, no hint of spies reporting from inside Moscow’s propaganda machinery.”

No Doubts

But Democratic lawmakers aren’t interested in doubts or caveats. They believe the Russian hacking issue is a political winner. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly a convenient way to evade the sobering lessons that should have been learned from the last election about the Democratic Party’s lack of authenticity in its claims to be fighting for the interests of working people.

At the same time, enthusiasm for banging the drum against Putin is fast becoming a big part of the Democratic Party’s public identity in 2017. And — insidiously — that’s apt to give the party a long-term political stake in further demonizing the Russian government.

The reality is grim, and potentially catastrophic beyond comprehension. By pushing to further polarize with the Kremlin, congressional Democrats are increasing the chances of a military confrontation with Russia. By teaming up with the likes of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to exert bipartisan pressure for escalation, Democrats could help stampede the Trump administration in reckless directions.

This approach is already underway. It is worse than irresponsible. It is madness that could lead to a nuclear holocaust.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org, which has 750,000 members. He is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. [This article originally appeared as a column at The Hill, at http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/foreign-policy/313295-democrats-are-playing-with-fire-on-russia ]




Europe’s Mixed Feelings About Trump

Exclusive: European governments are nervous about a Trump presidency, but – for economic and other reasons – many on the Continent would welcome a friendlier approach toward Russia, reports Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus

Few in Europe expected Donald Trump to win the U.S. Presidential elections last November. The picture painted by the media and political class was convincing: despite the pent-up anger being expressed through protest candidates, Hillary Clinton was headed towards a decisive victory, as the majority of Americans couldn’t stomach someone as outrageous and unconventional as the reality TV star turned politician.

That’s not what happened, of course, as Trump earned an Electoral College victory by winning enough votes in key Midwestern states that have suffered from a loss of manufacturing jobs in recent decades. His victory has shaken the Western world to its core, making it clear that business as usual is no longer possible in terms of both economic and foreign policy.

In Europe the signs of the anti-establishment sentiment that dominated the U.S. election campaign have been present for some time. The most obvious example was the Brexit vote in June 2016, in which the population of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. But protest movements have actually been on the rise for several years now, driven by the same basic issues as in the United States: a sense of economic and social insecurity – accompanied by a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment – driven by an economic policy that has made life harder for the middle class while enriching those at the top.

The growing anger against the institutions of the European Union, considered the main culprit for the failed economic policies, has made the élites desperate for some sense of stability, to help them weather the storm. As a result, a potential Clinton victory was openly welcomed by most political leaders.

After Trump’s victory, there were numerous press reports of worries among European governments regarding the incoming Administration’s foreign policy. Trump is understandably seen as unpredictable, but the key point revolves around his attitude towards Russia, the same issue that is currently dominating the institutional fight in the United States right now.

Just after the election The New York Times ran a story entitled “For Europe, Trump’s Election is a Terrifying Disaster,” suggesting that under the new President, the United States may embrace authoritarianism and no longer defend democracy. It was a theme that other mainstream news outlets also pushed.

On Nov. 17, The Associated Press wrote: “NATO members and other European countries are worried that under Trump, the U.S. will stop trying to police Russia’s behavior the way it has under Obama. Most concerning to U.S. allies are Trump’s effusive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the first world leaders he spoke to after winning the election.”

Seeing Benefits

While it is true that former Soviet bloc countries such as Poland and Latvia would prefer to maintain the current hardline position towards Russia, the reality is that the largest E.U. members – France, Italy and Germany – actually stand to benefit from the diplomatic approach promised by President-elect Trump.

This doesn’t mean they supported his candidacy, though. First of all, they were told that he couldn’t win; and second, a Trump victory would seem to encourage the anti-establishment movements already on the rise in Europe, which threaten both the E.U.’s status quo and the jobs of key leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hillary Clinton was seen as representing continuity, and for the many politicians who seek to curry favor with the transatlantic elites, it was best to show their Clinton bona fides in view of the upcoming change in power. For example, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – now out of office due to a stinging anti-establishment vote in a referendum on proposed constitutional reforms – repeatedly broke diplomatic protocol and publicly criticized Trump during the election campaign.

However, over the course of 2016 it became clear that Clinton’s foreign policy was far more aggressive than Barack Obama’s, as the President had actually been seeking collaboration with Russia for several years on issues, such as constraining Iran’s nuclear program and negotiating an end to the Syrian conflict, despite heavy opposition from within his own administration.

Indeed Trump’s openness towards Vladimir Putin seems even more heretical now because most have chosen to forget that Obama himself had sought close cooperation with Putin on several key issues. For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy last year on Syria almost succeeded in implementing intelligence sharing and joint airstrikes by the two powers, before being effectively thwarted by the Pentagon and other U.S. institutional opposition in September 2016.

Now Obama seems to have forgotten his former position, and decided to fully toe the anti-Russian line, apparently convinced that he must do his part in the campaign to weaken Trump and prevent him from being an effective president, even in areas where their positions are not far apart.

It is possible that Trump will accelerate the timid attempts of his predecessor to abandon the “regime change” policies that have led to numerous disasters in the Middle East, and heightened tensions with Russia. The President-elect seems determined to pursue this path more openly than Obama, who worked slowly towards this goal while seeking to placate his critics with more bellicose language in his public statements.

Doubts About the U.S. Hardline

Although European nations have been heavily involved in recent regime change adventures (the U.K. in Iraq and France in Libya, for example), there is a widespread preference in Western Europe for avoiding further conflict with Russia. The U.S. position on the events in Ukraine, for example, is often seen as one-sided, and the notion of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders seems like an unnecessary and dangerous provocation that can only makes things worse.

Western sanctions against Russia, and Russia’s retaliatory sanctions on food imports, have cost European economies over $100 billion in trade, according to some estimates, hitting the agricultural sector especially hard. In addition, Russia has been concluding more economic agreements with countries such as China, leading to fears of permanent consequences for Europe.

For this reason, France, Italy and Germany have all repeatedly stated their desire to reduce or remove the sanctions altogether. The hope is that an agreement can be reached to defuse tensions in Ukraine, based on support for the Kiev government but broad autonomy for the ethnic Russian areas in eastern Ukraine.

Despite this desire to head off further conflict, European governments are usually careful not to openly break with U.S. policy; they are key members of NATO and have no desire to distance themselves from the leader of the alliance. However, if Donald Trump follows through on his stated goal of working “together with Russia,” the countries of Western Europe in particular may welcome the opportunity to advance their own economic interests and avoid finding themselves in the middle of a new Cold War.

Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.




Fear and Misunderstanding of Russia

Much of America’s recent demonization of Russia relates to deep cultural and even religious differences between the two countries, requiring a deeper understanding of the other’s strengths and weaknesses, writes Paul Grenier.

By Paul Grenier

Given the recent near-hysteria over Russia’s alleged hacking of U.S. political email traffic, it is difficult to imagine a U.S. -Russia relationship established upon a peaceful footing — or, to put it another way, a relationship so stable and constructive that it no longer would depend on the vagaries of changing political personalities.

Let’s look at it first through the prism of realism. If we are realists, we throw America’s habitual moralism out the window and offer the Russians a deal. The “normalization” negotiations between a realist America and the regional power of Russia might unfold along lines something like this:

The United States would propose a provisional alliance with Russia to thwart a rising China, which continues to grow inexorably in wealth and power. China’s ascendance naturally makes U.S. policymakers nervous, and thus does the United States (in the realist view) have a vested interest in a U.S.-Russian alliance.

According to this realist playbook, Russia would be flattered by these attentions but would want to know precisely what kind of provisional alliance the United States had in mind. Given that realists always seek to be open and honest, this particular realist government would explain that its attention is focused on China’s apparent expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea. After all, according to the realist outlook, nation-states not only usually do pursue constant expansion of their power whenever and wherever possible, as China seems to be doing now, but \should pursue such hegemonic expansion whenever possible because, in an anarchic world, that is the way to survive.

Would Russia accept such an offer? It might. But if it did, it would be with a certain sense of bad faith to match that surrounding the U.S. proposition. It would not be a friendship but an alliance based on mutual interest. If circumstances were to change, as inevitably they would at some point, the underlying sentiments of national interest might well evaporate — as they should.

But such conditionality wouldn’t contradict the realist conception of international relations. Under the realist model, there simply is no basis for a good faith long-term settlement. It is excluded by the power-political assumptions of the realist model, as is frankly acknowledged in such foundational realist texts, for example, as John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

And realists are correct, no doubt, in arguing that Americans should stop moralizing about Russia taking actions to defend its vital interests in its own neighborhood in exactly the same manner as the United States does in defense of its vital interests in its own region.

And yet realism’s dismissive attitude toward the moral dimension — as historian Matthew Dal Santo recently pointed out — contains a flaw. It requires that the United States renounce certain moral concerns that are foundational to what America is. Would a coldly rational America still be America? And would Russia itself ultimately even welcome such a “partner”?

The prominent Russian political philosopher Boris Mezhuev, in a recent essay (in Russian) about the history of the America First movement, mused that an isolationist United States during World War II would not at all have been welcomed, first and foremost by Russia itself. It might have led to the annihilation of Russia at the hands of the Nazi war machine. Mezhuev’s point is that it is not the rejection of universal ideals that we should seek in international relations, but the finding of the right ideal.

Stop Being Russia
According to the outlook that might be described as the democracy-idealism/neoconservative-interventionist school, the only way to achieve a lasting settlement is for Russia to cease being what it is at the moment and to become instead much more like the United States. Russia should become a liberal democracy. Only then — because, as many Wilsonian idealists have argued, “liberal democracies don’t fight one another” — can the relationship be stabilized for the long term.

The theory is not entirely implausible. There are indeed forces within Russia that strongly identify with American liberal democratic values. American diplomats and journalists frequently run into people who hold such sentiments. They pop up among one’s well-traveled Russian-intelligentsia friends and are widely quoted in the articles written by prominent journalists who happen to be imbued themselves with the Wilsonian sensibility.

The problem with this line of thought — aside from the impossibility of imposing it from the outside — is that the Russian version of liberal democracy differs fundamentally from the American version.

The fact is that Russia today is already in many ways liberal. But its liberalism is of a peculiarly Russian sort. It does not deny rights and freedom, but it grounds them not negatively (in terms of what government shall not do), as does the Enlightenment liberalism of Locke and Hobbes, but rather in terms of Eastern Christianity’s image of what man is. As a result, there is no Russian liberalism, or Russian politics of any other sort — including its standard semi-authoritarianism — that separates the state from religion in the way that the United States does today.

An authentically Russian liberalism, in other words, is hardly less starkly different from our secular, liberationist order than is Russia’s present political arrangement under Vladimir Putin. The fact is that there simply is not available to Russia a political order that is aligned with the present-day American version of secular liberal democracy. Both its history and its mores exclude it. And if we try to impose it anyway, in defiance of Russian history and self-understanding, then we will find ourselves repulsed in the same way Napoleon was.

As Henry Kissinger wrote, “No power will submit to a settlement, however well-balanced and however ‘secure,’ which seems totally to deny its vision of itself.”

So where does that leave us? It leaves us precisely in the relationship in which the two countries currently languish. The realists, in such meager numbers as they exist, have little to offer beyond a temporary reprieve. As for the democracy idealists, they have witnessed Russia’s rejection of U.S.-style liberal democracy and secularism, and they have drawn the only possible conclusion: Russia is incorrigibly evil.

To prove their point, the idealists and neoconservatives point to Russian acts of violence, such as its bombardments in Syria or Chechnya or its support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The Russians, for their part, cast back at America and its Western allies the West’s own acts of aggression and accompanying untruths.

Rejecting Lectures
It’s instructive, in this regard, to recall British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s famous phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which the latter, after pointedly reminding the former about the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq, demanded of Miliband, “Who are you to f***ing lecture me?”

Critics of Russia likewise point to various lies that Russian politicians have told in defense of their foreign-policy aims. But telling lies is in the very nature of international relations and certainly the waging of wars, as is reflected in the familiar accusation that  “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

And yet, though nations often tell lies as part of their self-defense, it doesn’t follow that what they are defending is therefore essentially a lie. It may be in some cases — Nazi Germany, for example, or ISIS. But such cases are rare.

In short, both the United States and Russia have used lots of violence against their enemies. In both cases, this violence has no doubt exceeded ethical norms. Both have told lies. So which side is the more evil? How does one prove such a thing?

Robert Kaplan, who generally belongs to America’s democracy-idealist camp, suggested in a recent essay that we can answer this question by means of a close reading of Russian literature.

Kaplan’s “The Real War of Ideas,” published in The National Interest in September, stakes its claim about Russia by reference to Anton Chekhov’s fictional My Life: A Provincial’s Story. A careful reading of this work, Kaplan tells us, allows us to “realiz[e] the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia.”

This remarkable story, Kaplan believes, holds the key to understanding Russia as a whole. “[E]verything from the czar, to Lenin and Stalin, to Putin, is connected in some indirect way to the Russian social reality” described by Chekhov. Here, for Kaplan, is the story’s money quote:

“They [the peasant muzhiks] were mostly nervous, irritated, insulted people; they were people of suppressed imagination, ignorant, with a poor, dull outlook, with ever the same thoughts about the gray earth, gray days, black bread, people who were sly but, like birds, only hid their heads behind a tree — who didn’t know how to count. They wouldn’t go to your haymaking for twenty roubles, but they would go for a half-bucket of vodka, though for twenty roubles they could buy four buckets. … [As for their masters, their money] had been acquired by a whole series of brazen, shameless deceptions.”

Here’s an interesting question: why, out of all the tremendous variety of Russian literature, has Kaplan chosen precisely this short story focusing on ignorant peasants, instead of, say, War and Peace? Answer: to demonstrate that Chekhov’s Russia is the same as Putin’s Russia — in the double sense that Russia has never successfully become modern and liberal and, for Kaplan, never will.

The peasantry symbolizes what is pre-modern and illiberal. These particular peasants, furthermore, are incapable of acting as a rational liberal should — maximizing their own advantage and thereby increasing wealth for society as a whole. Chekhov’s peasants cannot even properly calculate how to maximize their consumption of vodka!

The Chekhov passage has, furthermore, far-going implications for Russia’s place within the international order. If Russia were smart enough to become part of the Western order, if it played according to American rules, Russia would earn more than it does now! And yet Russia stubbornly, stupidly, and in contradiction of its own interest refuses this reasonable tradeoff. Russia’s rulers and oligarchs of today, like its peasant masters of yesteryear, prefer to practice deceit, because such is their nature. That, for Kaplan, is what Chekhov’s story tells us.

Selective Reading
Kaplan’s reading of the Chekhov story, however, is incomplete. On the very same page of Chekhov’s text, between the word “buckets” and the closing words about the masters’ “brazen, shameless deceptions,” there are the following lines:

“In fact, there was filth, and drunkenness, and stupidity, and deceit, but with all that you could feel, nevertheless, that the muzhiks’ life was generally upheld by some strong, healthy core. However much the muzhik looks like a clumsy beast as he follows his plow, and however much he befuddles himself with vodka, still, on looking closer, you feel that there is in him something necessary and very important that is lacking, for instance, in Masha and the doctor — namely, he believes that the chief thing on earth is truth [pravda], and that his salvation and that of all people lies in truth alone, and therefore he loves justice more than anything else in the world.”

Had he quoted the Russian author in full, I would be in agreement with Mr. Kaplan about the importance of this story for understanding Russia. To be sure, modern Russia, with its impeccable metro systems and fashionable cafes, has little in common with the peasant world here described (though in the provinces, something of that peasant world — fortunately to my mind — still remains). Modern Russians, furthermore, know how to count very well.

What then remains constant? First, the centrality of truth and justice. We have already, above, briefly discussed the role of lies. They are, sadly, something of a constant in foreign relations. What needs stressing here is something else. The attempt to lure or to force Russia into a world that requires that it “deny its vision of itself” by forcing it to be liberal — and thereby to interpret everything exclusively in terms of advantage, rights, losses, and profits — will not work.

This is confirmed not only by Russian behavior but also by the explicit words of its foreign minister, who in a recent interview insisted that “Russia’s only role in the world is to stand up for the truth [pravda] together with other powers, but exclusively on equal terms.”

The second constant is Christianity. The text’s reference to “salvation” and the word pravda itself have clearly Christian overtones. Russian Christianity differs from American Christianity. American Protestant Christianity embraces individualism and is open to change; in many ways, it has hitched its cart to the modernization project.

Russian Orthodox Christianity uses virtually the same liturgy today as it has for hundreds of years. Its standard of perfection in iconography is the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Russian spirituality is oriented to what is timeless and to beauty. American spirituality is oriented to the future and to rights. Both Russia and America can be very tough. But that toughness defends two very different ideals.

Kaplan’s selective quotation of the Chekhov story quite likely was unintentional. He may genuinely have found unimportant the passage about truth and justice and salvation, because these things fall outside the realm of modern American liberalism. His inability to notice the good in Russia when that good falls outside of the specifically liberal framework is something very common in recent Western reporting on Russia.

No Junior Partner
An accommodation with Russia will never be reached by ignoring what Russia is, still less by attempting to transform it into a junior United States. Nor is there any need to do so. An accommodation between Russia and the United States can be reached by applying what is healthy in the realist and idealist traditions, and jettisoning what is false.

Realism is right to the extent that it teaches that one’s own nation’s ideals do not necessarily embrace the whole of the human good. It teaches a salutary humility. Realism is wrong, however, when it dismisses moral considerations altogether, among other reasons because such a dismissal eliminates the only possible foundation of long-term trust.

The idealist school clings to the United States’ longstanding vision of itself as a force for good in the world. There is no need for the United States to abandon this vision. All that is needed is for the United States to expand its notion of the good.

For my money, a good place to start would be with the writings of Semyon Frank, one of the most respected Russian philosophers in Russia today. “In all that is human as such,” Frank wrote, “… there is nothing sacred; ‘the will of the people’ can be just as stupid and criminal as the will of an individual man. Neither the rights of man nor the will of the people are sacred in themselves. Only the truth as such, only the absolute good which is independent of man, is primordially sacred.”

Russia, for its part, needs to guard against the temptation of identifying this good, this absolute, with Russia itself.

Paul Grenier is an essayist who writes frequently on cities, political philosophy, and foreign affairs. He co-directs a project, under the aegis of Solidarity Hall, on East-West dialogue. [This article originally appeared in The American Conservative at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/legitimate-differences/]




Resisting the Congressional Watchdog

Not that political corruption doesn’t happen with divided government, but with Republicans controlling all three branches, the prospects for more Abramoff-type scandals rise, warn Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Mark Twain noted that man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to. He also believed that “public office is private graft.” Those two observations from our greatest and most sagacious humorist intersected with a bang on Capitol Hill Monday night, when the bright lights of the Republican House Conference met in secret behind closed doors at the end of the New Year’s holiday.

They tried to vote themselves an especially tasty treat: eviscerating the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). That’s the office created in 2008 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the placement of three congressmen behind bars. The conference voted to absorb it into the House Ethics Committee. In other words, they wanted to weaken OCE and put it under the control of some of the very folks the office is charged with investigating for possible influence peddling and other assorted mischief.

If the conference had its way, OCE would wind up having all the clout of the token student representative on your local board of education, giving unscrupulous legislators freedom to rob the public blind without fear of exposure.

But a funny thing happened on the way to congressional visions of new secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The public can become like sheep when the shepherd is a demagogue, but when the public is outraged over outright unfairness and chicanery, it can roar like a lion. Once word of the vote leaked out, phone calls, emails and social media recriminations from all points of the political spectrum began flooding the sacred halls of the House of Representatives, which was once called The People’s House before it became the predator’s lair.

Talk about embarrassment. Imagine this new Congress, pledged to “drain the swamp,” taking as its first action a rule that in effect would have helped make the swamp part of the National Park Service.

The nonpartisan Project in Government Oversight (POGO), declared that OCE needed “to be strengthened and expanded — not taken out back and shot in the middle of the night.” So the GOP conference fled into another closed-door session and changed its mind. We were only kidding, they said. The Office of Congressional Ethics is alive and well — until the next time we try to kill it.

Just before the meeting, our august President-elect bestowed the Congress with two of his imperial tweets. “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it,” read the first, followed by, “… may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! ?#DTS.”

DTS stands for Drain the Swamp, of course, although we’re sure many of our progressive brethren would prefer bawdier acronyms involving the President-elect himself. Nonetheless, many are claiming it was these very dispatches from fearless leader that turned the vote around. But read his words carefully: He’s more concerned about bad timing; he has no great love for the OCE.

In fact, shortly before the tweets, his amanuensis Kellyanne Conway was telling George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that “gutting it doesn’t mean there won’t be a mechanism” – just that there had been “overzealousness in some of the processes over the years.”

Most members of the House agree it was the public outcry that swiveled those usually obdurate minds on Capitol Hill; Trump merely once again displayed his ability to jump on the prevailing public sentiment or someone else’s success and ride it to vainglory, like the story of the French revolutionary John F. Kennedy liked to tell: There go my people, the revolutionary said. I must find out their destination so I can lead them.

Beware the Congress

In the end, what this New Year’s imbroglio tells us is three things. First, it’s a reminder once again of the mediocre caliber of too many of the men and women running for the House and Senate these days.

All too often, people of public spirit who would make ideal candidates are discouraged from running by the horrors of perpetual fundraising — the vise of money in politics — not to mention the spotlight shone on every small detail of their personal and professional lives. Many of the people who wind up taking the bit and running are soulless empty suits, in it for the power and the payoffs during and after tenure. Or they’re already rich in the first place.

Which leads us to the second thing: venality, so often hand-in-hand with mediocrity. All indications are that our incoming president regards the White House as a pirate galleon built to increase his family’s trove of plunder many fold, and the notion seems to be rubbing off on Congress. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni asked, “Is it any wonder that House Republicans felt OK about trying to slip free of some of their own ethical shackles, no matter how ugly the optics? …

“It’s the tone that Trump has set and the culture that he’s creating. He operates with an in-your-face defiance, so these House Republicans did, too. He puts his own desires and comfort first, so they reserved the right to do the same. With more than a few of his Cabinet picks, he demonstrated little sense of fidelity to what he promised voters and even less concern about appearances. House Republicans decided to treat themselves to a taste of that freedom.”

Third, we have to keep ever vigilant. Other anti-democratic measures inserted in the same rules package slipped past the public. The first imposes a fine on House members taking photos or video in the chamber — a petty, vindictive, retroactive slap to those lawmakers who last June sat-in to protest Congress’ refusal to take action on gun control. You’ll recall that after Republicans quickly adjourned and cut off the C-SPAN cameras, the protesting members, led by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights legend, used their cell phones to send out video and keep the story alive.

Even worse, the new rules allow not just members of Congress to subpoena and question officials and citizens; it extends that fearsome power to staff members, opening the door to witch hunts and persecutions that could make Benghazi and Clinton’s emails seem like a stroll in the park. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said, “Freely handing out the power to compel any American to appear, sit in a room, and answer staff’s invasive questions on the record — without members even being required to be present — is truly unprecedented, unwarranted and offensive.”

Every battle won’t be won. Nonetheless, the public DID manage to keep the House GOP from surreptitiously murdering the Office of Congressional Ethics, and that’s proof we can make a difference if we keep the pressure on and hammer home our resistance and opposition when democracy and liberty are threatened.

The problem, neatly summarized as usual by Mark Twain, is that, “To lodge all power in one party and keep it there is to insure bad government and the sure and gradual deterioration of the public morals.” This week, we got a vigorous, healthy and inspiring reminder that protest matters. Keep that in mind as the perfidies unfold this year under the one-party monopoly that will soon control our federal government.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. [This article originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/protest-stopped-predators-will-back/]




Donald Trump’s Debt to Willie Horton

Special Report: A precursor of Donald Trump’s race-messaging campaign can be found in George H.W. Bush’s exploitation of the Willie Horton case in 1988, an ugly reminder of America’s racist heritage, writes JP Sottile.

By JP Sottile

America’s first “celebritician” launched his successful campaign for the Presidency with a simple, effective message: Mexicans are pouring across the border and they are bringing crime, they are bringing drugs and they are raping America’s women. That fallacious opening salvo portended the relentlessly “politically incorrect” tone of Donald J. Trump’s 17-month-long drive to the White House.

On the campaign trail Trump described a society on the brink of chaos. He regaled audiences attending his live shows with tall tales featuring roving gangs of menacing “illegals.” He promised to ban dangerous Muslim interlopers. He warned of a Syrian fifth column skulking into the homeland through the hollow humanitarianism of a refugee-filled “Trojan Horse.” He painted a foreboding picture of African-American neighborhoods as Third World “war zones.” He promised a national crackdown on crime with controversial policing measures like the potentially unconstitutional “stop and frisk” program.  He declared himself the “law and order” candidate. And he repeatedly promised to “make America safe again.”

Along the way, Trump solidified his support and confounded his critics with fictitious crime statistics that implied a national crisis due to rampant Black murderers and crime-prone immigrants. And he’s continued touting a bogus spike in the murder rate during frothy stops along his victory lap into the White House. Mostly, Trump’s calculated indifference to countervailing data allowed him to exploit a long-standing, politically profitable fear of crime despite little evidence that it is, in fact, an issue.

Not coincidentally, last year Gallup found that Americans “concern” about crime spiked to a 15-year high. The percentage of Americans expressing worry about crime skyrocketed from 39 percent in 2014 to 53 percent just two years later. That’s in spite of the fact that the aggregate crime rate remains at a 20-year low and in spite of the fact that the national homicide rate is at a 51-year low (even with the data-skewing murder rate of Chicago).

At the same time, Gallup also found that six in ten Americans also believe “racism against Blacks is widespread.” That’s up from 51 percent during Obama’s first year in office (2009). No doubt it’s a direct result from the recent barrage of shocking videos showing African-Americans in brutal and sometimes fatal encounters with police. These viral videos, along with mounting evidence that law enforcement disproportionately targets African-Americans, exposed an undeniable crisis in American policing.

Of course, the intersection between race and corrupt, unconstitutional policing is not new. Just imagine all those decades of unrecorded abuse before camera-phones finally offered corroborating evidence to widespread claims of physical assaults, harassing traffic stops, planted evidence and summary execution. But, then again, video evidence of police brutality isn’t new, either.

America got a stark look at excessive force when Rodney King’s vicious beating hit the evening news in 1991. It led to a high-profile trial. The failure to convict the offending officers then led to the “Rodney King Riot” in 1992. What did not follow was some long-overdue soul-searching about systemic racism in law enforcement. Instead, America got the 1994 Crime Bill, mass incarceration and a notable two decade-long gap in the tape between King’s beating and recent video evidence showing “high-profile” police-involved killings and a pattern of questionable treatment of Black Americans. That deafening silence is over.

Now the data shows non-Whites are far more likely to be subjected to traffic stops, to be arrested and to be incarcerated — particularly for simple drug possession. A new study by the Economic Policy Institute determined that “Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of [W]hite men” and that “By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.” The study’s authors also demonstrate a compelling causal relationship between disproportionate incarceration and the much-discussed “achievement gap” between Black and White students.

More perniciously, a recent USA Today investigation found that “[B]lack people across the nation – both innocent bystanders and those fleeing the police – have been killed in police chases at a rate nearly three times higher than everyone else.”  And most disturbingly, Black and Hispanic men are “2.8 and 1.7 times more likely to be killed by police use of force than white men,” according to a controversial new study.

Perhaps that’s why the timing and the success of Trump’s tendentious, “politically incorrect” campaign is so telling. His loud arrival on the political scene coincided with the first sustained public examination of law enforcement’s excesses after a nearly three decade-long crackdown under the guise of a drug war that, according to a new study by Human Rights Watch, still arrests Americans for drug possession at a mind-boggling rate of 1 person every 25 seconds.

Also not coincidentally, #BlackLivesMatter emerged as the first forceful African-American social and political movement in decades. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against police violence became a lightening rod of controversy. And for the first time since the George H.W. Bush campaign ran the infamous Willie Horton ads during the 1988 Presidential campaign, race reemerged from the political hinterlands to take a central role in an American presidential campaign.

Racebait And Switch

Donald J. Trump set the stage for his White House run back in 2011 as the self-appointed ringmaster of Birtherism. He built his political brand by attacking the legitimacy of America’s first Black President. By the time Trump began his assault on GOP field, 66 percent of his supporters believed President Obama was born elsewhere and 43 percent believed he was a “secret Muslim.” Many of his hardcore devotees believed these falsehoods through to the end of the campaign. And many still do today.

With that predicate established, Trump astutely pivoted to hyperbolic and fallacious messaging about a perceived Muslim “threat.” He said Obama was “the Founder of ISIS.” And he outlined a ban on Muslim immigration. Throughout the campaign he contributed to — or simply exploited — the widespread misconception that Muslims make up 17 percent of the U.S. population when, in fact, they are a scant 1 percent of Americans. Either way, the perception was political gold for Trump.

That’s because 2016 was a campaign of perception and emotion, not facts and figures. And like a bristling political antenna, Trump picked up the growing unease in rural and suburban America and masterfully transmitted broad emotional, identity-based appeals rooted in the nation’s shifting demography. He expanded traditional racial parameters of who is dangerous to include Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants in general. He connected voters’ anger with the sense that America had been “lost.” He promised to return America to a supposed state of greatness.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest bastions of Trump’s “red meat and potatoes” support were, according to the Wall Street Journal, those small Midwestern towns and counties that experienced the fastest-shifting ethnic, religious and racial demographics over the last 15 years. On Election Day, his unshakable base of White Working Class males swelled, according to a FOX News exit poll, to include educated Whites, Whites of greater economic means and White women. Yes, he brought the vaunted Reagan Democrats back to the Republican fold. But he also got an unexpected boost from higher income Whites and suburban White women.

Despite the data, some argue that this coalition of Whites is not a “White backlash” vote. Trump’s slightly better than Romney (by 2 points each) performance with Black and Latino voters did exceed quite low expectations (although he still only got 8 percent of African-Americans). It is also true that a combination of Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities, economic dissatisfaction and thirst for change all contributed to Trump’s win. But that doesn’t fully explain the stark Whiteness of his base — which produced an Electoral College victory centered specifically in so-called “Duck Dynasty” America and a notable overall popular vote loss in aggregate America.

How Did Trump Win?

So, how did Trump form a strange coalition of the so-called Alt-Right movement and its motley crew of White Nationalists, Klansmen and disgruntled Caucasians with a surge of more educated, more affluent Whites, suburban women and the reborn Reagan Democrats?

Trump resurrected a well-established and all-too successful political ploy that takes racism and perniciously hides it in real issues — like crime, poverty, taxes, job scarcity, social welfare policy. He effectively underlined issues like economic insecurity, fear of terrorism and resentment against trade with politically incorrect, ethnically-themed and racially-conscious messaging. Like his use of faulty crimes statistics, he used these appeals to draw out the grudges and grievances of people who felt transgressed by politicians and/or were fearful and uneasy about the direction of the country.

These grudges simmered underneath the palpable economic grievances of working-class Americans and, specifically, working-class White Americans. But this was about more than just economic dislocation. Making America great “again” also spoke to fears about the changing face of the nation.

Trump hearkened back to a time before all those “politically correct” demographic changes so colorfully embodied by Obama’s coalition. Those were the very voters Hillary Clinton pursued. Instead, Trump built his monolithic, monochromatic base with a well-worn process of coding that replaces overt racism with far more complicated political messaging that marbles issues with bigotry, xenophobia and racism.

For example, Trump’s economic messages about Mexican immigrants and wily Chinese negotiators can appeal to racists and xenophobes while also appealing to people who are not bigots, but endure real or perceived economic hardships that appear to be addressed by expelling immigrant labor or renegotiating “fairer” trade deals.

In other words, it is possible to rationalize a racially-motivated policy as “not racist” because you don’t have to irrationally “hate” Mexicans to agree with a policy of removing an “illicit” labor pool. Nor do you have to “hate” clever Chinese leaders for doing to America what you think American negotiators would’ve done to the Chinese if America’s leaders weren’t so darn “stupid.”

The issues of wage decline from immigration or deindustrialization from bad trade deals can therefore be “race neutral.” It can be easily rationalized as “not racist” to want enforceable borders and better negotiations. It can also seem wholly justifiable to shut down Muslim immigration from specific countries. It possible to believe it’s not based on their religion or ethnicity, but because terrorists (thanks to a conveniently squishy application of the term) always seem to come from “over there.” Therefore, it isn’t technically racist to just want to stop terrorism. Just like it wasn’t necessarily racist to want less crime back in 1988.

Back then, the infamous Willie Horton ad and the relentless “law and order” messaging of the Bush campaign linked crime with Black men to build an electoral victory. The upshot then was a two-plus decade-long merger of crime with racist tropes about Black men. The upshot now is the marbling of economic unease with racism against Mexicans, ethnonationalism against Chinese and fear of Muslim interlopers. And then like now, this powerful style of messaging made it possible to explicitly embrace or tacitly accept prejudicial proclamations that would’ve otherwise been unacceptable.

In fact, there’s a certain symmetry to Trump’s meteoric rise and the conclusion that American law enforcement still grapples with systemic racism. His posture as the “law and order candidate” tapped into the backlash against the backlash against the era of mass incarceration. His consciously abrasive style resurfaced a deeply encoded racism that — like hundreds of thousands of Black men — was locked away into the prison system during the War on Drugs.

Law And Order

Racism has been evermore deeply encoded into the criminal justice system since the civil rights movement scored key victories in the mid-1960s. The old system of Jim Crow was methodically replaced with a “New Jim Crow” that, as Michelle Alexander so painfully detailed, turned incarceration as tool of de facto re-segregation. Controlling African-Americans was expressed as a need to “get tough on crime.” And the phrase “’law and order” became a subtle way of playing on racial fears and trading in a less overt forms of racism.

When Richard Nixon ran on “law and order” during the tumult and race riots of 1968, there was little doubt what he meant. It was about getting a handle on angry Black Americans reeling from the violent loss of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was also a coded response to the new socio-political reality of post-Jim Crow America. At the same time, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts meant White America had lost (at least technically) its legally sanctioned place atop the racially stratified system. America was changing and not everyone was happy about it.

What arose out of that toxic cocktail of backlash and resentment was the racially conscious “Southern Strategy.” In 1972, Nixon’s political team leveraged the “old” Jim Crow South into a sweeping electoral victory. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” of disgruntled working, middle-class, suburban and Southern Whites transformed the Republican Party for decades to come. Notably, 1972 was also the year Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs.

According to Dan Baum, Nixon’s drug war might’ve actually been a surreptitious counter-attack against dissent on both the political Left and, perhaps most balefully, on an increasingly forceful Black activist movement. Writing in Harper’s, Baum cites infamous Nixon aide John Ehrlichman who said Nixon secretly turned the criminal justice system into a tool of political payback and racial control:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In other words, the quite real issues of drugs and crime were weaponized for political and racial purposes. Nixon’s War On Drugs and his call for “law and order” became nods and winks to law enforcement as they cracked-down on “crime”… and his opponents. Successive GOP campaigns focused on these quite real issues of drugs and crime. They also paid no political price for the disproportionate outcomes of the policies — particularly those faced particularly by Black Americans. It didn’t become an issue because the issue wasn’t officially “racism.” It was law and order.

By the time former California Governor and committed drug warrior Ronald Reagan made his own “law and order” appeals during the 1980 campaign, many White voters had fled to the suburbs while many White working-class voters grappled with the economic unease brought on by imported Japanese cars. They struggled with chronic economic stagflation and felt trapped in a sense of national malaise. Some were looking for scapegoats and blamed government programs that supposedly were helping Blacks and other minorities. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Rise of Lee Atwater

It was in this milieu that a whip-smart, guitar-playing Southern-born GOP strategist named Lee Atwater honed the racial massaging that would eventually lead to the most notorious campaign ad in American political history. However unintentionally, he helped to expand Nixon’s War on Drugs into a generational crackdown on Black America. And he created a bipartisan consensus on crime that ultimately haunted Donald Trump’s opponent

During a now-infamous 1981 interview, Lee Atwater explained the evolution of coded racism from its earliest iteration in the Southern Strategy to its penultimate expression during the 1980 campaign to elect Ronald Reagan. Said Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

Sadly, Atwater’s language was far less shocking in 1981. But Atwater’s blunt talk (which was uncovered by James Carter IV in 2012) exposed a fundamental truth about American politics and the evolution of racism in American politicking. As a political matter, racism had to be increasingly coded over time. The further America got from the Civil Rights Act, the less acceptable it was to be overtly racist. Instead, race-based appeals were surreptitiously transmitted through coded messages. This was something Lee Atwater knew from first-hand experience.

Atwater — along with his friend Karl Rove — was a rising star in the College Republicans at the same time Nixon’s Southern Strategy was reshaping the party. The South Carolina native then cut his sharp teeth on his home state’s rough-hewn politics. He even worked for former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. But his big leap to the big time came after he helped The Gipper win a racially-tinged knife fight in the suddenly crucial South Carolina primary. In 1981, Atwater was given a spot as White House advisor as a reward for helping plot Reagan’s own Southern Strategy march to the White House.

Frankly, the Gipper was no stranger to the political power of the wedge issue or the code word. He’s long been accused of delivering smoothly-edged, racially-coded messages before, during and after his successful 1980 campaign. Atwater’s interview adds to that record, particularly since Reagan pioneered the conflation of both taxes and social welfare policy with the resentments against Black Americans. In 1976, he launched specious attacks against a fallacious cadre of so-called “Welfare Queens.” He linked “welfare reform” and “State’s Rights” during a purposeful 1980 campaign stop in Mississippi. As President, he often derided supposed “dependency” on government.

These coded messages implied that Blacks wantonly fed off the public trough through “government handouts”. It was implied that cutting off the “free” flow of funds into that trough would force “personal responsibility” onto a recalcitrant group of “lazy” Blacks living off harder-working Whites. Unsurprisingly, “personal responsibility” became a popular GOP code-phrase for three decades.

These messages are louder and clearer given Atwater’s 1981 interview.

But as conservative blogger John Hinderaker rightly points out, Atwater was not just saying coded racism works. He was also saying that blatant racism does not. Atwater — who counted African-Americans among his closest friends, who struggled to prove himself through an ill-fated stint on the Board of Trustees of Howard University and who even cut a blues record with B.B. King — may have actually believed this was “progress.” And it some strange way it probably was.

Like a discordant film negative, the Southern Strategy and the Silent Majority revealed the changing reality of American society. Crass, blatant racism was being pushed out of the public square. That was a good thing. But coded messages remained a potent political tool.

And when Atwater decided to “Strip the Bark” off of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis during the 1988 campaign and, more importantly, to make convicted murderer Willie Horton his “running mate” … he created a whole new socially-acceptable category of racial profiling — the drug-dealing superpredator. He turned the 1988 election into a de facto referendum on the criminality of Black males. And his winning strategy set the tone for an era of mass incarceration.

Changing the Narrative

In 1988, night was falling on Morning in America. The “Black Monday” crash of 1987 on Wall Street shocked the economy out of its freewheeling frenzy. The nation’s capital was in a yearly competition with other major cities for the ignominious title “Murder Capital of America.” And the often-ridiculed “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign metastasized into a full-on hysteria about a new drug — the dreaded scourge of “crack cocaine.”

Less than two years earlier, the media mania after the drug-overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias galvanized a congressional response to the growing national freakout about cocaine and especially its cheaper derivative “crack,” which was associated more with the Black inner-cities. On Oct. 27, 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 became law and its almost comically disproportionate punishment for crack possession versus powder cocaine launched a process of African-American incarceration that can only be described as systematic.

Although tons of “upscale” powder cocaine had long fueled many of Wall Street’s financial high-rollers and some of Hollywood’s creative lows, the cheap, portable rocks became an obsession for politicians and law enforcement. Over the next two years, the “crack crisis” reached a fever pitch. The War On Drugs unfolded much like a domestic Vietnam War as fear of well-armed gangs, bleak tales of crack babies and relentless “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage by local television news brought the growing violence into America’s safe suburban living rooms every night at 5, 6 & 11.

Also unfolding every night was the high-stakes drama of the Iran-Contra scandal. The wounded Reagan Administration limped through the Congressional hearings of 1987. Reagan’s approval rating dropped to a four-year low. In his final year more Americans actually disapproved than approved of the Gipper. And the stench of constitutional crisis threatened the Presidential aspirations of Vice President George H.W. Bush.

During the 1988 campaign, Vice President Bush’s comical “out of the loop” defense undermined his competence and underlined his shiftiness. On one hand, Newsweek ran a cover story about Poppy’s battle with “The Wimp Factor.” On the other, The Nation ran a story indicating Bush may have been a long-time CIA operative. And, perhaps most ominously for team Bush, Sen. John Kerry’s “Kerry Committee” had been digging into allegations of drug trafficking by Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels and found damaging evidence of a cocaine connection that first came to light in a 1985 story by Brian Barger and Robert Parry for the Associated Press.

The campaign to succeed Reagan looked like a big mess.

The lingering scandal, along with signs of a coming recession, catapulted a mild-mannered straight-shooter from Massachusetts, its Governor named Michael Dukakis, to the top of the Democratic ticket. At the time, Dukakis’s desire to restore competence to a government looked like a winning pitch. In fact, the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal and its relentless buck-passing was a primary motivation for the accountability-obsessed Dukakis. As he’s since said, his run was motivated by a desire to clean-up Washington after the Iran-Contra mess.

As such, the stern and technocratic Dukakis offered a starkly reliable antidote to the malicious maelstrom of the late-stage Reagan White House. For him it was going to be a campaign of facts, figures and forthrightness. Initially, the American people bought his brand. By the time the Democrats triumphantly left their convention in Atlanta, Dukakis opened up a 17-point lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush and Bush’s political team — led by Atwater — struggled to shift the conversation away from the scandals and away from a referendum on competence. Lee Atwater turned to the reliable voter response from the issue of crime.

Really, it was a no-brainer for the GOP’s boyish wonder. He had to change the narrative. And he had to hit voters in the gut. At the time, violent crime reached record highs and the media was already obsessed with the issue. His plan to “make Willie Horton” Dukakis’s running-mate simply took the most effective tool in America’s historical woodshed (the issue of race) and married it to a quite real issue (the rise in crime).

Horton, a convicted murderer, had raped a White woman while out of a Massachusetts prison on “furlough,” a prison-reform strategy with the goal of allowing prisoners to gradually reintegrate back into the community. Atwater used the Horton case as a crude tool to strip the bark off of Dukakis, who was also tied to liberal softness that opposed the death penalty and was portrayed as tolerating marauding urban drug criminals. The strategy quickly peeled ten points off Dukakis’ lead.

By late August, an unremitting focus on crime, felon furloughs and the death penalty (which Dukakis opposed) — along with an ill-advised ride in a tank by the bobble-headed Dukakis — flipped the race. Bush was up by four points going into September. But Atwater wasn’t done. His transformation of the issue crime was just beginning.

The Bush Campaign first featured Willie Horton in stump speeches during the summer of 1988. But those speeches lacked the one thing that made the ad so infamously toxic — William Horton’s iconic face. So, under Atwater’s guidance, the appropriately-named Americans for Bush Political Action Committee (AMBUSH) produced ads that not only framed the contest as a “law and order” election, but it reframed one of America’s oldest racist tropes.

Horton, a convicted murderer, had been released on a weekend furlough when he stabbed a man and “repeatedly” raped his girlfriend, a storyline that the narration bluntly pointed out under the image of Horton’s mugshot. It then paired Horton’s glowering expression, sullen eyes and wildly unkempt afro with the memorable phrase “weekend passes for murderers.” It was ostensibly an ad about crime, but it scored a direct hit by rebooting a dangerous canard first highlighted on film by D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation—the Black man as sexual predator.

The first Willie Horton ad had a limited run beginning on Sept. 7, 1988. It was followed up by the notorious “Revolving Door” ad a couple weeks later. That ad featured a bevy of criminals heading into and out of prison — with, as writer Ismael Reed pointed out, the lone Black man in the line slyly looking up when the narrator said the word “rape.” Again the message was clear—if you are afraid of crime you should be afraid of Black men. Taken together, those ads turned a not-uncommon furlough program into political poison.

Although the ads did not by themselves alter the outcome of the election, they swirled into a national controversy. Even if the ad never ran on your local station, you were likely to have seen, heard or read about Willie Horton. The ads effectively linked the national hysteria about crime and crack with a racially-charged portrayal that inexorably intertwined the issue of crime and with the faces of Black men. It normalized a specific, spurious portrayal of Black male criminals.

The Kill Switch

The two ads also set-up CNN anchor Bernard Shaw’s famous opening question to Dukakis in the second Presidential debate. That question: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer.” Dukakis quickly responded, “No I don’t Bernard, and I think you know I’ve opposed the death penalty all my life.” Dukakis went on to say he wanted to fight a “real war, not a phony war against drugs.” He proposed interdiction overseas and drug education at home. But none of that mattered. His death penalty answer was his campaign’s death sentence.

It was also the beginning of a post-Horton era in American society and criminal justice. Approval for the death penalty spiked to an all-time high in the years immediately after the 1988 campaign. The Black incarceration rate accelerated to society-shifting levels. It was followed by controversial new policing tactics that escalated arrests for trivial offenses and that imposed draconian punishments for drug crimes, like Stop and Frisk (1990), Broken Windows Theory (early 1990s), asset forfeiture (jumped 58 percent in 1990), “Three Strikes” laws (1994-6) and the “zero tolerance” focus on drug users and “street level” crime over large-scale distributors (1988).

Like the outcome of the election of 1988, it’s impossible to quantify the exact effect of the Willie Horton ad on the decade-long crackdown that followed. Like Trump’s politically incorrect campaign, it relied on perceptions and feelings. Not fact and figures. Atwater’s law-and-order campaign was in code, so it’s hard to decipher the impact. But, just like the beating of Rodney King, the Willie Horton ad did not inspire soul-searching about racism. Instead, it signaled the beginning of an era of public and political tolerance for excesses in the name of law and order. King’s beating may have been an outgrowth of the excessive policing these politics engendered. But the outrage and riot that followed the acquittal further cemented the racial divide between Atwater’s new coalition and those left behind on the drug war’s front lines.

The Scene of the Crime

Lee Atwater’s successful “law and order” campaign quickly evolved into a bipartisan consensus on crime. In effect, Atwater built a new “law and order” majority that merged the Southern Strategy with Reagan Democrats and, most importantly, the moderate, White, Baby Boomer Middle Class voters now firmly planted in America’s suburbs.

By 1992, “moderate” Democrats — like Southerner Bill Clinton — acknowledged the power of the GOP’s “tough-on-crime” approach. Then-candidate Clinton’s promise to put “100,000 cops on the street” catered specifically to the War on Drugs-based constituency that Atwater created. In a sense, racism was sanitized because it had become so inexorably subsumed into the category of crime. The consensus against crime was easily rationalized as “not racist.” But, like so many things, Clinton took it a step further.

During his run against President George H.W. Bush, Clinton made certain to demonstrate his separation from left-wing sympathy toward Black anger by publicly upbraiding a rapper named Sista Souljah. In fact, “Sista Souljah moment” became political shorthand for triangulating against your own base by attacking a vulnerable proxy. She was one of many rappers making stark, musical statements against White racism and against police brutality in Black communities.

And in a moment of blatant grandstanding, Clinton excoriated her racialism. Of course, he didn’t dare confront N.W.A. or Ice-T or any of the higher profile artists reporting from the frontlines of the Drug War. Instead, he took advantage of an easy target of opportunity to triangulate against African-Americans and traditional Liberals in his own party. It instantly burnished his crime-fighting credentials, which included stern enforcement of the death penalty. And it worked like a charm.

Clinton expunged the Democrats’ perceived “weakness” on crime. He distanced himself from the legacy of Dukakis and the much-derided moniker “liberal.” Then as President he lorded over an escalation of the War On Drugs. By 1994, Clinton signed the draconian, bipartisan 1994 Crime Bill. He shepherded through welfare reform — a.k.a. the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — in 1996. Yup, there’s that “personal responsibility” code word Reagan loved so much. Clinton turned it into policy. And during the State of the Union that same year he made another Reaganesque turn when he announced that “the era of big government is over.

Atwater’s triumph was complete — but he wouldn’t live to see it.

Lee Atwater was struck by an aggressive brain tumor in 1990. Some felt it was karma. Suffering mightily, he literally spent his dying days apologizing for the ad, apologizing to Dukakis and fighting in vain to clear his name from the charge that he was racist.

The Bitter Ironies

Atwater’s bare-knuckled campaign was a direct response to G.H.W. Bush’s weakness on Iran-Contra. If the campaign had been about Bush’s competence, his trustworthiness or his role in the Reagan White House, Houston would’ve had a problem. So, the focus on high crimes committed in the Reagan White House was replaced by street crimes committed in urban areas.

After all, Atwater didn’t need urban voters to build an electoral victory. Atwater simply changed what should’ve been a national referendum on a constitutional crisis and replaced it with a referendum on law and order, on crack cocaine and on the furloughed Black male predator roaming freely in the urban decay of a changing America.

Most importantly, the Iran-Contra all-stars desperately needed Poppy Bush to retain control of the Executive Branch, particularly with independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s investigation churning in the background. Certainly, they could forget getting pardoned under the notoriously staid Dukakis.

And although Gary Webb wouldn’t start his groundbreaking investigation into the Contra-cocaine connection to the crack epidemic until 1995, the Kerry Committee already had cracked open the lid on Contra narco-trafficking. No doubt, the scandal’s biggest players knew there were more damning revelations looming behind the firewall. Losing the White House in 1988 could’ve been much more than a political rebuke. It could’ve meant prison. And that’s the bitterest irony.

Atwater helped preserve the legal firewall between the perpetrators of Iran-Contra and the seediest, most destructive elements of that scandal … by repurposing the fallout from a drug war that was partially due to the CIA-tolerated crack cocaine pipeline into South Central L.A. In essence, the CIA’s protection of Nicaraguan Contras instrumental in that pipeline helped generate part of the “law and order” political justification that ultimately kept the covert perps in power. It was an all-too vicious circle for Black Americans that got them coming and going.

The final irony is that nearly three decades later, Hillary Clinton would bank on African-American turnout to win the White House. But they didn’t quite turn out in the numbers she had hoped. Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost the “Battle of the Bases” in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Her racially diverse urban base was trumped by Trump’s monochromatic cadre of supporters in those states’ rural counties. Was that flaccid Clinton turnout partially because she was haunted by her own support for the crime crackdown consensus that got her husband elected and reelected?

Perhaps even more damning were her not-so-coded comments in support of the 1994 crime bill when she warned of Black “superpredators.” She even said society needs to “bring them to heel.” Whether or not that specifically cost her the White House, it certainly didn’t help. She underperformed Obama’s 2012 total with African-Americans by 5 points (Clinton: 88 percent vs. Obama: 93 percent). It also didn’t help that 1.4 million Black Americans had also lost the right to vote thanks to the grinding incarceration she’d once supported. Like far too many others who actually lost years of their lives to needless incarceration, she too was haunted by ghost of elections past. She merely lost the White House. Too many African-Americans lost far more.

The Ghost Of Willie Horton

Although there are as many interpretations of Donald Trump’s win as there are blatherati on a CNN panel, the one undeniable thru-line of his campaign was his effective use of both dog whistling and blatant bullhorning. Like the role of Willie Horton in the 1988 campaign, the exact electoral impact of Trump’s encoded messaging is hard to quantify.

As Peter Grier pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor, Trump wasn’t elected “solely by [W]hite men in pickups who fly Confederate flags.” He did get “almost 63 million votes,” and, Grier continues, “you don’t get that many without winning some women, some college-educated voters, and even some minorities.” True enough.

But also like 1988, the question is far bigger and the impact potentially far deeper than one electoral snapshot in time. Whether Trump won because of or in spite of his resurrection of racially encoded messaging, the simple fact is that his win gave racists and bigots and, for that matter, misogynists a reason to feel both validated and vindicated. Trump normalized the use of so-called “politically incorrect” language that, whether intentionally or not, expanded the old boundaries of racial coding to encompass Mexican criminals, Muslim terrorists and Chinese economic thieves … and even made sexual assault seem acceptable.

Will it also translate into a so-called deportation force that will eject millions of Latinos? And what does it mean to eject Latinos “humanely”? If you have to say you’ll do something “humanely,” it probably means it could easily become inhumane.

Will Latinos — who are already disproportionately subject to criminal penalties — become targets of crackdown on “narcoterrorism”? Like Trump on crime, his pick for Homeland Security wildly overstates the problem … and ignores the true perpetrators of the opioid crisis in the pharmaceutical industry.

Will Trump’s gung-ho pick for Attorney General — the racism-tainted Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama — leverage crime fears into a recharged War on Drugs? Will it happen in spite of voter-led efforts to dismantle it? Does the sudden rise in prison stock prices portend bounce-back for prison privatization and an incarceration rate that’s finally relenting a bit? Will #BlackLivesMatter become a political target under a hostile Department of Justice?

Will Team Trump’s notable hostility to Islam and his supporters’ comfort with the Muslim ban translate into a loyalty test? Will hate crimes continue past a post-election surge? And will it whip up into a wider war if and when one of his hotels is targeted by a lone wolf?

And will Trump’s mantra-like recitation of China as the culprit behind the deindustrialization of America (instead of the true culprits at Walmart and on Wall Street) lead to a trade war … or worse?

While those among Trump’s supporters can claim that none of these possibilities is necessarily indicative of racism, the problem is that he’s marbled these issues with race. Like it or not, people voted for whole package, not just the issue. Frankly, it’s another reminder — perhaps an all-too bitter one — that how elections are won often matters just as much, if not more, than the victory itself. It’s a cliché, but the journey does matter. And Donald J. Trump’s journey to the White House followed a well-worn path through a half-century of racially coded messages littering the campaign trails of the post-Civil Rights Era.

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Newsvandal.com or you can follow him on Twitter, http://twitter/newsvandal.




Risks of Trump’s ‘Winning’ Obsession

Donald Trump’s more pragmatic approach to foreign policy may be an improvement over the recent ideological obsessions but his own obsession with “winning” could cause trouble, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A slogan from the sports world—”winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” — which usually is associated with Vince Lombardi, although he probably got it from another football coach, has always had a vacuous quality. It sounds like an attempt to make a contrast where there isn’t really a contrast. What meaningful difference is there between “everything” and “only thing”?

But if there is any semantic substance to the phrase, maybe it has to do with winning as a pure, abstract value in its own right, separate from anything about the specific endeavor that was the vehicle for one contestant winning and another one losing. Winning per se is seen as the only thing that matters because everything else about the game that was played and won doesn’t matter. And in the sports world, this begins to make sense; the activity is just a game, and it really doesn’t matter in the larger course of human events.

Apply this frame of mind to more consequential endeavors, however, and the implications are more disturbing. In this regard, consider the incoming U.S. president and what we know, and don’t know, about his outlook on foreign policy. Despite the earnest and usually sincere efforts by many commentators to discern pattern, direction, and purpose amid Donald Trump’s tweets and other utterances, the dominant picture is still one of inconsistencies, contradictions, slogans, and lack of a record. We are, late in the transition period, still mostly flying blind regarding the actual future foreign policy of this new presidency. We have little idea of what Trump really cares about in the substance of U.S. foreign policy, as distinct from rhetoric that has worked in a campaign and that helps in his effort to portray himself as a populist.

We do know, however, that Trump cares a lot about winning — or more precisely, about being seen as a winner. He constantly returns to the framework of “winners” and “losers” as his way of identifying what is good and bad and what matters to him. His repeated stress on associating himself with the biggest or best or most successful whatever is part of making sure that he is always seen as a winner. And on November 8th he registered the biggest win that any individual could. The slogan about winning being the only thing does appear to apply to Donald Trump and to what drives him.

The Drawback of ‘Winning’

There are many drawbacks in applying to foreign policy an outlook that is more appropriate to sports, but one set of drawbacks is suggested in a perceptive piece by Mark Katz about prospects for U.S.-Russian relations in the Trump administration. Katz observes that the principal demands that Vladimir Putin is likely to make as conditions for an improved relationship are ones that Trump would have good reason to agree to.

Accept the Russian annexation of Crimea? It’s a fait accompli that is not going to be reversed anyway. Lift Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia? The sanctions are bad for business. Promise that none of the former Soviet republics apart from the Baltic states will join NATO or the European Union? The Europeans don’t want them as members. Accept continuation of a Russian-allied Assad regime in Damascus? The jihadist alternatives are even worse.

Although Katz doesn’t say so, these are valid reasons and low-cost ways for not just Trump but any U.S. president to accept much of what Putin wants in the interest of a better relationship that would have benefits for the United States. The problem, as Katz points out, is that Trump cannot be perceived as caving in to Putin. He has to be seen instead as having wrung concessions from Putin, and preferably as having gotten the better of him. Katz emphasizes that Trump especially must be seen doing so in the eyes of a domestic audience that includes hawkish, anti-Russian Congressional Republicans. Trump has the added baggage of the alleged Russian hacking and interference in the U.S. election; any favorable move he makes toward Putin risks being interpreted as payback for election favors.

On top of this is Trump’s personal fixation about winning. He will feel a need to get Putin to back down on some of his demands not only to satisfy John McCain and Lindsey Graham but to satisfy himself that he can tout himself as having “won” a negotiation. The result may be that potential trades and understandings that could serve both U.S. and Russian interests will be forgone.

The general point that Trump is ill-disposed to understand and accept is that what best serves U.S. interests is not always easily recognized or defined as a “win”. The most effective diplomacy yields agreements that both sides can honestly describe as successes. The sort of foreign government behavior most likely to serve U.S. interests over the long term is what the foreign government perceives to serve its own long-term interests, rather than being a concession that was wrung out of it and that it will seek the first opportunity to reverse.

Complications for Trump

The issues of election interference and Trump’s professed admiration for Putin make relations with Russia an especially delicate case, but the impulse to win is likely to complicate other negotiations and relationships as well. This may be the case with China, as suggested by Trump already trying to put the one-China policy in play.

Most of this mistake probably can be attributed to naïveté, and specifically to a failure to understand how the Taiwan issue figures in Chinese thinking, regardless of how justified or unjustified that thinking is to us. But it may also be an early indication, along with Trump’s mercantilist approach to trade and outdated perceptions of such things as currency manipulation and job losses, of approaching the entire U.S.-Chinese relationship in win-loss terms.

Another case is Iran, where there already is a recent important deal in the form of the agreement that limit’s Iran’s nuclear program. Here Trump’s self-promoted image as the man who can reach better deals than anyone else fits with the existing Republican Party mantra that we should have gotten a “better deal” with Iran.

All of this ignores the long and laborious negotiating history of this agreement, what the Iranians have given up, and the nonproliferation objectives achieved. A quixotic attempt to reach some alternative that could better be described as a “win” — even though it would not move Iran any farther away from a nuclear weapon than it already is, nor advance any other U.S. interests — risks destroying the very important benefits of the existing agreement.

Notwithstanding Trump’s trumpeting of his skills as a deal-maker, and notwithstanding all that has been said and written about the “transactional” approach this businessman is likely to take toward foreign policy, a man with his mindset is not about to operate in his new job the way he did in his old one. As head of a privately-owned business, profits and losses could be kept private — and with his refusal to make his tax returns public, they are largely staying that way. The public side of the business could be limited to his promotion of himself and his brand, with bragging about having the most luxurious buildings or the best golf courses.

Now the game has changed for him. The public perception of gains and losses is different. If Trump really were to approach foreign relations in a pragmatic, businesslike way, that in general would be good for U.S. interests. But probably his need to be seen to “win” will get in the way. When winning is the only thing for the chief executive, that is not so good for the country.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)