19 July 2018

A vacancy at the top

It seems that the presidency of the USA, as traditionally constructed, is vacant. There's a guy over there sitting at the desk, but his connections with executive management, policy formation, and moral leadership all seem tenuous. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post goes so far as to ask, "Is Donald Trump even in charge of this government?" Noting several instances of the wide gap between Trump's words and staffers' actual work, Waldman says,
So what we see is a constant tug-of-war between Trump and many of the people who work for him, in which they try to get him to read a briefing book or moderate his fawning over Putin, which he resists, but they often find ways to do the same things on policy that they would have done even if the president himself were more reasonable.
This leadership vacuum is not total. Waldman notes Trump's radical and cruel impact in areas he has prioritized in accordance with his "white nationalist philosophy." When Trump does care, look out -- even children suffer!

Sometimes noxious things also go on in Trump's areas of inattentiveness. As an example, Waldman cites the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, there are reservoirs of continuity and competence and professionalism in the federal system to help us tread water -- to the alarm and amusement, variously, of other parts of the world.

But somehow I'm not really comforted that we might be able to survive his ignorance and incompetence through sheer endurance alone. Here are two of the biggest risks of allowing Trump to continue playing president:

External risk: cyber war. Russia is a country of incredible natural wealth and extraordinary cultural achievement, perennially led by corrupt, rapacious elites whose constant preoccupation is to increase and preserve their ill-gotten gains. The future is bleak for those at the top: either the rising middle class will demand due process (or leave the country) or an elemental uprising will bring revolution, with all the uncertainties of that path. The loss of the current godfather at the head of Russia's power vertical may mean an intermediate crisis: warfare among the robber barons and their various armed allies in the government.

Comparing politicians' country homes: Norway's Stoltenberg, Russia's 
Yakunin. Norway's avg monthly salary $6570; Russia $800. Source.
In any case, the immediate goals of Russia's leadership is to break down and destabilize any international structures that might provide alternative visions and models for its own population. At home, this means a steady diet of Russian superpatriotism, reinforced by misapplied Orthodox piety and exaggerated portraits of western decadence, and periodic waves of thuggish treatment for dissidents. The people at the top must do everything in their power to distract the ordinary Russian citizen, who is entitled to ask, "Why are we the world's richest country in natural resources, and yet have so little left to spend on medical care, schools, and basic infrastructure?" (Variations of this theme are a constant thread in Russian political humor.)

Internationally, the destabilization goal requires Russia's leaders to make alliances with populist politicians who use more or less these same domestic tactics in their own cities and countries. Trump's racialized patriotism, opportunistic religiosity, and shit-hole attitudes toward much of the rest of the world make him an ideal ally.

Given the Russian leadership's weak economic base and lack of any internationally persuasive vision of the future, practically its only method of global power projection is to mobilize and support those dubious allies. In European cases, money has sometimes been the main channel of support for populists, racists, and neo-fascists, but we know that in the American case, Russian leaders chose cyber warfare. Mueller's February 16 indictments went after the propaganda efforts, whose aims were to sow anger and division. This month his indictment identified the alleged Russian military intelligence officers who attacked on the other front: espionage and campaign sabotage.

Jack Goldsmith reminds us Americans not to get sanctimonious on the subject of campaign interference and sabotage: the USA has long experience as actors in this field. As I've said before, the Russians are not unique in using this common political toolkit, even though their goals may seem (to us) to be less meritorious. But it is the U.S. president's job to meet the challenge in any case, and regardless of previous history! The president ought to personify the moral response to the ugly content of cyber attacks and to prioritize the technical defenses against espionage and sabotage. The technology may be neutral, but there is nothing neutral about defending democracy from corruption and kleptocracy. Trump: get on it or get out of the way.

Domestic risk: civil war. Russia's leaders and their cyber campaigns may have contributed to the possibility of a future civil war in the USA, but they're only adding their bit to a reality that has existed for generations. It's the poisonous, demonic compound of racism and nativism that fuels some irreducible part of Donald Trump's base. The existence of this demon, often hidden behind an ostentatious faux-Christian mask, helps me understand why intelligent people seem to lose their critical faculties and make absurd excuses for Trump's shambling incompetence. It's as if they've joined a cult.

Whatever the reasons for the trance they're in, this loyal Trump base continues to bluff and sneer its way through scandal after scandal. Granted, some scandals peel off a few of their numbers, but even the utter debacle of Helsinki was "not a tipping point" for his base. His aggregate approval rating on fivethirtyeight.com remains at 41.8%.

That's a huge part of the population that has been taken in by Trump's self-centered version of anti-establishment populism. If the country's moral self-defense mechanisms assert themselves in November 2018 and November 2020 and Trump is removed, how will his loyal followers react? What ongoing form will their alienation take? It's reasonable to anticipate that the more decisive the action against Trump is (impeachment? indictment? resignation under pressure?), the angrier his loyalists will be. Instead of being fearful of this possibility, we should consider our options and responsibilities now, before the storm breaks.

Is "civil war" too strong a term for the coming crisis? Remember that the original American Civil War involved similar social divisions in which attitude to race (even among white people) was a huge factor. (James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom carefully traces attitudes toward race and immigration in the politics of both North and South.) Also, just as we see today, the lines of conflict cut right through families.

Maybe "war" seems too violent a word. As Tom Streithorst says, "War Doesn't Make Sense Anymore." Fair enough; supply your own word that implies massive social disruption and suffering. All I know is that I don't want a president who stokes the conditions for that suffering by playing on fears and divisions, preparing his followers to believe that only rigged systems, criminal immigrant gangs, and Enemies of the People could threaten his reign. Removing him, and passing through the subsequent detox period, might be risky, but letting our national divisions solidify further while external cyber attacks continue to weaken our democratic mechanisms, seems far riskier.

The community of Christian believers is one of the few institutions that crosses all lines of class, race, and political movements. Evangelism, prophecy, and social action are not tactics to one-up or embarrass Trumpists, they are expressions of the Body as it tries to reflect the beauty of the Head. Therefore, it remains imperative not to let our protests degenerate into mocking. Honest anger is fine -- necessary! -- but shaming and belittling and false witness are NOT. Keeping company with vulnerable and detained people, and raising hell with violators of human rights, are important actions; and those who cannot do these things directly should be prepared to support the activists, pray for them, and give them pastoral care, even as the same care is always made available to those in the Trump base.

I hope that in a couple of years I'll be able to re-read these lines and say, "Wow, that was some strange fever! Glad it broke. It all seems so dated and overwrought." May it be so.

I tried re-reading what I wrote above about Russia as if we were still living in Elektrostal, interacting daily with students and colleagues we respected and deeply cared about, whose hospitality, humor, and lively curiosity gave us a lot of joy. Many of them support Putin (with varying degrees of enthusiasm or pragmatism); many of them expected that we would naturally vote for Trump as being the U.S. presidential candidate who would be best for Russia.

As our friends came to realize, I never believed that Trump was presidential material, although the chaos and cruelty within the USA that he's perpetrated have gone beyond our worst fears. But I also believe that Trump is not good for Russia. It is not good for Russian-American relations to be in the hands of two essentially corrupt politicians, one of whom (the American) is not trusted by his own intelligence services and who cannot be relied upon to deliver stable outcomes.

When the USA returns to its senses and has an actual fully-functional president, I'll do all I can to advocate good Russian-American relations at leadership levels. In the meantime, I will never confuse the Russian elite with the country that they relentlessly exploit.

Why James McGrath abandoned young-earth creationism; along with resources for anyone grappling with questions of "faith vs science."

Studies in power: Claudia Dreifus interviews Robert Caro.

Sick of politics? Try this: New measurements from Hubble and Gaia add to the puzzle of mysterious deviations in the calculations for expansion rates of the universe.

Friday PS -- The Bell's assessment: Russia moves toward further economic isolation....

Today's dessert provided by Josephine....


Pat said...

You wrote: "Removing him, and passing through the subsequent detox period, might be risky, but letting our national divisions solidify further while external cyber attacks continue to weaken our democratic mechanisms, seems far riskier."

Thanks for this essay, particularly this statement.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Pat.