In the past month, I’ve written a trifecta of articles on a diverse set of issues in the news – the cultural divide within the country, international relations, Puerto Rico’s needs. But they all have one thing in common: the destructive nature of Donald Trump. Here are the highlights – but first a reminder:
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Let’s start with Puerto Rico, which I wrote about this week in US News & World Report. I’ve spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico in the last several years, working on the Commonwealth’s fiscal situation and economy. Puerto Rico offers – as did New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – an unusual opportunity for creative solutions, some of which I discuss in this article.
These will require resources. Yet Trump uttered “jaw-dropping comments in Puerto Rico itself” like, “It’s a great trip. Your weather is second to none,” while complaining that “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” The headline on the piece, Trump’s Past, Puerto Rico’s Future, doesn’t quite lay on the irony as thickly as I’d intended, but here’s the main argument:
How did Trump recover from the unmitigated disaster of his own financial choices? By declaring bankruptcy, refusing to pay his bills and restructuring in ways that left him an income and everyone else with the debts. Instead of railing against the Puerto Ricans for their failure to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, in this instance Trump for once actually could profitably offer his preferred example for everything: himself.
… Puerto Rico needs a fresh chance to restructure operations, escape its debt, obtain massive new infusions of cash, and rebrand itself as a leader. And it needs all the rest of us to be complicit in that. Just as Donald Trump did.
This begins to get at the point that Trump’s personal brand of dysfunctionality both epitomizes and drives virtually all the spiraling challenges facing the country today. The State of Nation-States is a somewhat academic piece tackling “a point Trump made in passing” in his speech to the United Nations: “that, as he put it, ‘the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.’” This proposition is debatable because the original impetus for the nation-state “was to reduce violence at the international level … while giving nation-states explicit and unlimited control over violence within their borders – not simply policing against violence but wielding it against their own citizens however they see fit.” Until a year or so ago, most Americans and Europeans would have agreed with “circumscrib[ing] the rights of nations to do whatever they want to the peoples within their borders” – i.e., “human rights” – but global changes are making many more sympathetic to authoritarian regimes.
The new virtual economy leapfrogs borders and generates changes that are leaving many behind economically and undermining aspects of their lives that they until now have taken for granted. For those less globally connected, the threats – physical, cultural, religious and economic (as well as cosmopolites who don’t seem to mind all those) – all seem associated with territoriality. The traditional nation-state therefore appears to be their bulwark, forging an odd, new coalition between traditionalists in cutting-edge economies and repressive states with extractive economies – personified in the rise of Donald Trump.
That takes me to the piece I grappled with for weeks and rewrote multiple times in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s kulturkampf reaction to it – The Rise of Zero-Sum Politics – which concluded:
For all the Hitler comparisons, Trump is really more reminiscent of Mao: Besides seething resentment and authoritarianism, Mao’s most notable personality trait was a constant need to throw everything around him into chaos. Having fractured the Republican Party into its constituent parts and driven a wedge between them, Trump, with his unerring sense for disruption, now has embraced the opposition.
I ended with a perhaps implausible prediction: Eventually, “Trump will endorse some form of single-payer health care plan” – not because he supports the idea (he obviously has no clue on health policy), but rather because “it would wipe Obamacare off the books” and “rupture the Democrats as badly as he has already his own party.” We’ll see if I’m right.
As usual, I welcome your comments below!
In the last few weeks, I’ve written several articles on ostensibly different subjects – climate change, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the collapse of the Republicans’ domestic agenda – that actually share a much deeper underlying unity.
Part of that interconnectedness comes from the confluence of so many subjects these days: I learned of Trump’s decision on the Paris accords, for instance, during a meeting on the “Future of Government” – the subject I teach at UChicago – with strategists at European Union headquarters in Brussels, where I was moderating a panel on the US presidential election at a conference on rising populism with many of the international political actors who informed my pieces on French and Russian politics (while also indulging my interest in the Napoleonic Wars that essentially birthed the modern state).
But mainly it’s because, rather than focus on the latest Trump tweet, Russian machination, or implosion of supposed Obamacare “repeal and replace,” I prefer to look for deeper factors and longer-term implications. At least – in a world of millions of journalists, bloggers and Twitter accounts – that’s where I hope I can make a contribution.
For instance, this week I tackled The Civil War Over Climate Change. To me, the key development here is not the “climate change” – Trump’s decision has no practical effect unless he’s re-elected in 2020 – it’s the “civil war”:
It’s hardly news that Americans are, metaphorically, living in two separate countries. But the reaction to President Donald Trump’s intention to take the United States out of the Paris climate accord moves us a step closer to making those two separate countries a reality….
Well over 100 of the nation’s mayors, as well as the governors of nine [now twelve] states, have announced that they intend not only to comply with the goals of the Paris agreement – which any jurisdiction (or, for that matter, individual) can do – but also to band together with scores of universities and even private corporations to form a new coalition of “non-national actors,” in the words of Michael Bloomberg, asking the United Nations to be treated on a par with, well, real countries on future climate progress.
This is remarkable both because of its claim to the treatment of subnational governments and businesses as equivalent and on a par with traditional nation-states and for its acceptance of the political break-up of even the strongest nation-state into its squabbling constituent parts. Both represent the future….
Those, of course, have been central themes of mine for the past several years. Trump’s old-fashioned “nationalism” will, in my view, ironically exacerbate the nation’s fraying:
Like similar creeping authoritarians elsewhere, Trump has steadily broadened his definition of “enemies of the people” from, first, ethnic minorities, to elite institutions like the media and court system, to now – mendaciously using the climate issue as his bludgeon – a probable majority of the country who, in Trump’s formulation, by definition (“Pittsburgh, not Paris”) favor foreign interests over America’s.
And that relates to another larger theme I’ve been pursuing: the growing cross-border global realignment, discussed last week in People Are the New Oil (the title comes from a line a Russian politician said to me recently). Drawing on the best-seller, “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the piece focused on the “distinction between extractive and inclusive nations. Economies built on extractive industries – like mining or petroleum – tend not to produce either inclusive economies or inclusive political systems”:
The entire planet is now consumed in a growing economic, political and perhaps military struggle between extractive and inclusive spheres. As I have frequently written here, these spheres essentially overlap with the question whether the societies, economies, communities and individuals concerned are “connected” to the New Economy or not: Those that are connected are booming economically – and also are hotbeds of liberalism and democracy, in the broadest senses of these terms. Those that are not, are not. The distinctions cut across national borders, creating new inter- (and intra-) national fault lines.
The reaction of the reactionaries now running our own country is (at least to pretend) to return to an extractive economy and, like Putin, ignore investing in that more valuable commodity, human capital – to the country’s long-term danger…. [A] new perspective that embraces both the connected future and those left behind by it is sorely lacking and badly needed.
That “new perspective,” called for at the end of both aforementioned pieces, is discussed in Is the Party System Over?. In a recent book, “Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500,” Harvard historian Charles S. Maier notes that the distinction undermining our current parties is that between globalists and nationalists (or, Maier calls them, “territorialists”), of which there are both left- and right-wing versions. Uniting all three articles, then, and all three subjects, is this concern:
There’s one glaring gap perpetuating the current systemic instability: While it’s easy to identify globalists generally, and both territorialist Left and Right, there’s so far no “globalist Left” that pays more than mere lip-service to the equity and adaptation concerns of the territorialists. Until that emerges, we’re stuck with the current, crumbling party system.
Quick Links to my three articles:
As always, I welcome your comments.
This week saw President Barack Obama’s formal farewell – and further revelations about what Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Donald Trump portends for the future.
In A Legacy of Hope but Modest Change, published in the Aspen Institute’s Aspenia Online, I tried to provide a balanced assessment of Obama’s tenure, focusing on, in my view, the “two defining accomplishments of Obama’s presidency,” his response to the financial crisis of 2008, and Obamacare.
In the stimulus, as in everything to follow, Obama was intelligent yet uninspired. Most economists, and certainly those amongst Obama’s own advisors, argued for an even larger stimulus than the one he ultimately embraced; the “small-c conservative” argument – advocating caution because of political difficulties – prevailed with him then, as it did often thereafter.
But Obama also “left the details of the stimulus to Congress – which promptly loaded it up with pork-barrel spending,” which “debased the entire concept to the public, reduced its economic efficacy, and in fact resulted in a lot of waste. It also meant that, despite the administration’s own mantra of not wasting a crisis as a chance to accomplish major change, the stimulus package became merely a huge but uninteresting example of textbook Keynesian economics in action rather than a truly transformative event.”
Most crucially, the Great Recession was not simply the bursting of a speculative bubble: It represented a “phase transition” from the booming late-20th century economy to the new economy of the 21st century, which will eliminate large numbers of existing occupations and life-paths – like the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, except at about ten times the speed. … Obama’s stimulus plan reflected his understanding of the importance of this new economy, but his obliviousness to the fact that it was not an unalloyed good, in that half the country essentially would be obsolesced by it in their own lifetimes, caught between a recovery that would not reach them and a future that would not include them. The foundations for the coming, deepening division – and the politics of 2016 – had been laid.
A similar pattern followed with Obamacare:
[T]he main problem with Obama’s push was that it took his eye off the only ball that should have mattered at that point – the negligible economic recovery…. Ultimately, as with the stimulus, Obama did not care as much about the details as about making the history books. But the massive reform gave fodder to Middle Americans who believed they were being asked to pay for Obama’s (and liberals’) greater interest in the poor. Again, the battle lines of 2016 were already forming.
So, what comes next? “The recent news sounds basically like a technologically-updated version of a Cold War-era political pulp thriller,” I wrote in Putin’s War on Information in US News: “The evil Ruskies undertake espionage and disinformation efforts to create a chaotic American election, spend years cultivating a useful stooge easily manipulated by flattery, greed and sex to help spread divisive views about US foreign policy, and then along the way suddenly realize they actually might get him elected president. All of this, however, concerning as it is, is neither novel – unless it turns out that Trump was actually colluding with Russia all last year – nor, even then, the real threat.” So what is the real threat? Putin’s desire
to return to a world predating the New Economy with its increasingly-liberal political norms and social mores … (the unconfirmed private intelligence reports underlying the latest Trump revelations assert that Russia’s “TRUMP operation should be seen in terms of PUTIN’s desire to return to Nineteenth Century ‘Great Power’ politics anchored upon countries’ interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War Two”)….
Putin has marketed his regime as the defender of traditional social values (including religious fundamentalism and vehement opposition to homosexuality), traditional national prerogatives, and traditional (heavy) industrial economies – more-or-less a return to the Good Old Days of the 1950s. … Does this sound familiar? Of course it does.
What Putin has realized, more than anyone else, is that this hated New Economy rests entirely on the ubiquity of information, and that is its point of weakness. Putin’s war on information – and, unfortunately, it’s not his alone – is a wager, like many before, that there’s a thin line between liberalism and chaos. Those are the stakes at issue here.
You can read the full analysis by clicking on the article titles above. Meanwhile, buckle your seatbelts.
As usual, I welcome you comments below!
In the two weeks since Election Day, I’ve been trying to explain to various audiences what I think it all meant. Just before the polls closed that evening, I moderated a panel of experts from a half-dozen countries on what the election would mean for the rest of the world. As I discuss in a piece out today in US News & World Report, “The New Old Nationalism,” the Russian pollster on the panel
made an interesting comment to me in advance of our session: Russian citizens have more sympathy to Trump, he said, because he is an “American nationalist, not globalist.” Not that long ago, “an America nationalist” would have been a damning epithet coming from the Kremlin, basically a longer version of the word “imperialist.” Now, it’s … something that both foreigners and “conservative” Americans alike embrace[:] They see global economic and social integration as … a perversion of the rightful natural order, in which different peoples hold discreet territories, separated by walls.
… All of this – the tribalism, the illiberalism, the eternal struggle – its proponents would say, is simple realism. It is, in any event, the “alt” view of the future that the 2016 elections (and those coming in 2017) are elevating to global policy. I believe that, in the long-run, it’s a view that will lose. But in the long-run, we’re all dead.
One of my greatest regrets about 2016 is an article I didn’t write: When I returned from a European conference in May at which the dynamic duo of Kristina Wilfore and Stephanie Berger presented polling data on attitudes toward women, I began to write a piece predicting that misogyny would become the central fact of this campaign. My editors persuaded me to split the resulting diatribe into two parts, one of which became the first of several I’d write on how Hillary Clinton needed to overcome some of this by addressing the concerns of white working class men – but the argument on the coming wave of misogyny got sidelined, at least during the campaign. After the piece I wrote a few weeks ago complaining that discussions of “morality” have been largely hijacked by the subject of “sex,” the folks at Aspenia asked me to expand the argument for an issue on “Women & Power”; an abridged version was published online yesterday in Italian – until the English version is published, you’ll have to make do with this synopsis, building off Newt Gingrich’s outburst late in the campaign to Megyn Kelly: “You are fascinated with sex, and you don’t care about public policy”:
But the description – fascinated with sex, don’t care about public policy – might best fit the American public as a whole. One major subtext of the 2016 election has been sex and America’s ambivalent relationship with it…. Issues involving women and power – whether political leadership, their broader place in society, or their preponderance on the receiving end of all forms of violence from the physical to economic exploitation and poverty – aren’t really about whether they are strong or intelligent or emotionally stable enough to lead others or to protect themselves. They are, rather, about women’s position as gatekeepers of men’s access to the reproductive process – and sex – and men’s desire to wrest away that control for themselves.
In case all this leaves you unduly depressed headed into Thanksgiving – at least, any more so than most people I know already are – I argued in my main assessment of the election itself that you shouldn’t be, although not perhaps for the reasons most people might think:
Yes, there are some authoritarian, reactionary people amongst both Trump’s supporters and his advisers – but that’s not the majority, amongst either them or the rest of the American public. So put on your big-boy pants….
The future belongs to the decline of the nation-state. That sounds just as scary to liberals as it does to the reactionary, anti-globalist “nationalists” of Trumpworld. The real challenge for progressives is whether greater equity can be created within, not ignoring, this reality. Trump’s victory ironically provides the opportunity to explore the possibilities today rather than, as would otherwise be the case, sometime later this century in (as I described here just before Election Day) an even more troubled environment.
You can read the full piece, “Party Will Be Irrelevant,” here. As always, I welcome your comments. Meanwhile, a Happy Thanksgiving to all!