The nuclear football. (Credit: Jamie Chung / Smithsonian Institute Magazine)
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said on the second day of this new year that the US is closer to a “full-on war” with North Korea than at any time before in his four-decade career. The chance of war, he thinks, is about 20%, which means there is still a 70-80% chance that diplomacy can work out the nuclear crisis.
The decline of western democracy shown in the domino theory. (Credit: Paraney / Wikimedia Commons)
“In imaginary Demopolis the citizens are capable of governing . . . . But the stunted civic education offered by real modern states may be unequal to the task of producing a capable demos. In the absence of adequate civic education, citizens lack the motivation and the skills necessary to govern themselves . . . . [That lack] fosters unstable perversions of democracy, as opportunistic politicians channel antityrannical sentiment into paranoia and warped nostalgia for a mythic age of national unity and civic virtue.”
Josiah Ober, Demopolis (2017, p. 161)
The illiberal populism of right-wing demagoguery by the likes of Donald Trump is just such a perversion of democracy. It is, as Ober observes (pp. 178-179), an outburst of political polarization that feeds on racial strife and exclusionary nationalism and projects a fierce hostility toward liberalism and liberal values such as tolerance. It is marked by a rhetoric of demonization. Populist despots, Ober insists, “can take power only when citizen self-government is reduced to a simple form of majoritarian tyranny” (p. 180), which can happen in the absence of adequate civic education.
Ober’s formulation of basic democracy is a thought experiment that helps us to envision the minimum conditions for a healthy polity of limited self-governance that provides sufficient security and prosperity without succumbing to tyranny. In addition to adequate security and sufficient welfare, basic democracy promotes political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity, which in turn reinforce and depend on the exercise of interrelated human capacities for sociability, rationality, and communication. (more…)
“Examination of a Witch” by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Once upon a time, true Christians walked upon the American continent, and their religion was for them a living principle and a source of joy. One thinks of the indefatigable work of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in defense of the American Indian; the nightly dance rituals of American Shakers and their sober house furniture pieces—crafted so that angels could be received by saints. One witnessed how Martin Luther King guided an entire generation of civil rights leaders through the desert wasteland of mid-century America. (more…)
“The Hell” by Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic, circa 1301. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Recently our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, described our current President as a “moron.” I had not heard the word for some time; I certainly had not pondered on its meaning lately. The incident brought back memories of other cabinet members who held their presidents in similar esteem. Henry Kissinger, for example, was believed to have had a low opinion of Richard Nixon:
Though mitigated by admiration for certain elements of the Nixon character, Kissinger’s basic attitude toward the President was one of loathing and contempt.
Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency as a right-wing populist, and with the mindset of a demolitionist,[i] raises a question about the viability of democracy. While it is a mistake to conflate Trump’s demagoguery with democracy, his election to office reveals ambiguities over the meaning of popular governance in US political culture.
Trump has said of the government, “I alone can fix it,” which exhibits a preference for rule by The One. He has appointed a cabinet and undertaken a series of executive orders that reflect the interests and reinforce the power of the economic elite, which demonstrates the rule of The Few. Both tendencies are authoritarian. (more…)
Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)
Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil. He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]
Who among us has never succumbed to moralism? It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic. It is today’s norm. Hyperbole is the trope of choice. Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse. (more…)
(DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)
Mr. Trump’s widely criticized UN address contains an easily overlooked version of “the people” that should give a democratic citizenry cause for concern. The speech was coarse, boorish, brassy, combative, and self-contradictory. That was readily apparent. It groped for power, which is Trump’s style. But it was also a three-card monte con that deceptively proclaimed presidential sovereignty in the name of the people. The rhetorical kitsch was a distraction that diminished and deposed the public it pretended to glorify.
The perverse subtlety of Trump’s brash rhetoric is hidden in plain sight, if we pause to look for it amid the clutter of cliché and misdirection of diatribe. Placed in perspective, the diversion implies (points away from) a deft filching of popular sovereignty. (more…)
Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking at a campaign rally with Governor Mike Pence at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 2 August 2016. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Joe Arpaio was detested in Arizona for the very same reasons for which he was idolized. This explains both his electoral victories (Arpaio was re-elected five times) and the vehemence with which opposing segments of the public—especially minorities—viewed his tenure as sheriff.
He delighted in punishing and humiliating inmates in his infamous “Tent City” jail, where temperatures could rise over 100 degrees in the summer: “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant.” Prisoners’ meals were cut down: “it costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates.” Successful lawsuits against the sheriff’s office for mistreatment of prisoners and wrongful deaths of inmates have been awarded dozens of millions of dollars. (more…)
Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a rally for Donald Trump at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, 18 June 2016. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
There is no more representative picture of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio than the portrait of border sheriff Hank Quinlan created by Orson Welles in his prophetic Touch of Evil (1958). At the end of Welles’ film noir masterpiece, in which “Justice, for once, is represented by a Mexican” (even though the protagonist, Miguel Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up), Quinlan is “defeated by technology, by the truth, by justice…. The powerful end up as victims of their abuse of power.”(more…)
Doug Ollivant, Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation
Mr. Trump’s hedge in his August 21, 2017 speech on Afghanistan was to sustain an interminable war, choosing neither to quit the war nor win it in the foreseeable future. He did say, “in the end, we will win,” but he offered no timetable. His definition of victory was rendered in the verb form of the gerund—“attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”—which expresses a continuous, uncompleted action. His generals advised him there were no feasible options other than holding the line by sending a few thousand more troops to sustain the stalemated war until the Taliban eventually decide they have more to gain from negotiation than armed struggle. Even that, Mr. Trump allowed, might not happen: “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when or if that will ever happen.” Mr. Trump’s new strategy is not “time based.” It is timeless.
In short, there is no foreseeable military solution; the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense of the word; the immediate choice is between losing and not losing. So, Mr. Trump opts to sustain the stalemate, or as one anonymous US military official puts it, “to chart a way forward well into the 2020s.” A way forward does not mean a path to victory. It means more of the same.