Donald Trump

Specter of Infinite War

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From “Stories of Gods and Heroes” (1920) by Thomas Bulfinch with color illustrations drawn by Sybil Tawse. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I am among the apparent majority of American voters opposed to Donald Trump’s election and re-election. The majority wasn’t big enough in 2016 and may be too small in 2020 to overcome the negative effects of indirect election, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference. As a citizen of a decidedly red state, I register my vote in full knowledge that it will not count in the final tally, since the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in Indiana, even if just a plurality, receives all eleven of the state’s electoral votes. Winner-takes-all rather than proportional allocation is the case in 48 of the 50 states, red or blue, big or small. It allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the office. If the electoral college was supposed to prevent the selection of a manifestly unqualified candidate, recent experience suggests that choosing the winner directly by popular vote might serve the country as well or even better. (more…)

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Toxic Language Alert for Campaign 2020: Confounding Populism with Demagoguery

Note:  This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at a rally at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 7 March 2019. (Credit: Matt A. Johnson)

In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,”  noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.”  One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.

As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery. (more…)

US Imperial Decline in Geopolitical Perspective

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Eurasia (orthographic projection). Credit: Keepscases / Wikimedia Commons

Historian Alfred McCoy has quickened my interest in the discourse of geopolitics applied to the waning state of US empire.  His book, In the Shadows of the American Century:  The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2017), makes a clear case that the end of global dominance is near.  The question is what kinds of disruption and what degree of violence the imperial fall will occasion.  What might a post-imperial era mean for Americans and others caught up in the transition?  From the perspective of geopolitics, McCoy sees a number of mostly disturbing possibilities.  His observations are valuable for indicating the challenges ahead.  (more…)

Trump the Strawman

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President Donald J. Trump is greeted by Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, for their second summit meeting. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Donald Trump’s fizzled summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is yet another occasion for commentary on this president’s unfitness for office, particularly in matters of foreign affairs.  The failure in Hanoi was Trump’s greatest blunder so far, according to Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian.  It was another “Trump vanity project.”  His “self-reverential style of personalized, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants diplomacy” is irresponsible in nuclear talks, per se, and ineffectual more generally.

Tisdall’s summary of Trump’s failed leadership is stunning: (more…)

Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane

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“Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth” by Henry Fuseli, oil on canvas. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The First Apparition (“an armed Head”) warned him to beware Macduff, Thane of Fife; the Second (“a bloody Child”) prophesied that none of woman born could harm him. The Third Apparition (“a Child crowned, with a tree in his hand”) counseled him to assume the mettle of a lion:

                                                 Take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill

Shall come against him (4.1.90-94).

From then on, his purpose became firm and clear. He set to “crown my thoughts with acts” by seizing Macduff’s castle and the dominion of Fife. To ensure the end of Macduff’s issue, he resolved to kill “his wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.148-153).[1]

“I think nothing equals Macbeth,wrote Abraham Lincoln. “It is wonderful.”

Lincoln’s praise has stood the test of time. Hamlet may be a better play and King Lear a greater tragedy, but a special power inhabits Macbeth, which has led superstitious theater people to talk about the great play in hushed tones and to refer to its title by euphemisms such as “the Scottish play.”

Is there any other play the name of which we fear to speak? (more…)

Trembling for my Country

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Jefferson Memorial at dusk, 4 October 2011. (Credit: Joe Ravi)

“It’s come to that. I tremble for my country.” These chilling, Jeffersonian words could be the refrain of an unwritten elegy on the fate of the republic.[i] They are the lament of a judicious person I know in Washington, D.C., a person who has served in previous administrations of both political parties and now works as a policy adviser. They are words to express the inchoate angst lurking inside us. Could anyone—even someone stunned by the last presidential election—have foreseen our present predicament of government unhinged and politics gone vile? Yes, it’s come to that, and I, too, tremble for my country. (more…)

Pessimism and Hope for Democracy

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Progressive Democratic Candidate Liz Watson. (Credit: Liz for Indiana on Facebook)

Just before the midterm elections and immediately thereafter, I found myself feeling pessimistic and saying so to anyone within earshot. That was an unwelcome downer for friends and fellow progressives wishing to celebrate an election that gave the Democratic Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The “blue wave” may not have been as big as many expected (or at least hoped for), but one-party rule in the nation’s capital had been defeated at the polls.

The Democrats also made gains in governorships and other state offices. Even in deep-red Arizona, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat and took a 5-4 advantage in the state’s nine Congressional districts.

The Arizona victory underscored my pessimism. Why could that red state, where my Hunt the Devil friend Oscar lives, show blue when Indiana, the state in which I reside, deepened its already dark shade of red? Maybe we progressive Hoosiers will never overcome Republican gerrymandering. Maybe Republicans do not even need to gerrymander to dominate in Indiana. It just seems hopeless. (more…)

Soul of the Republic

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Exhibition at the Grand Palace. “Me, Augustus, Emperor of Rome” (19 March 2014-13 July 2014) Around 44 BC. Julius Caesar, white marble. (Credit: Gautier Poupeau)

Consider for a moment that the way we communicate is an expression of who we are or are becoming. Do we communicate as a democratic people, as citizens of a republic, and/or as subjects of an empire—perhaps increasingly less as democratic citizens and more as imperial subjects, marking the impending loss of the soul of the republic?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency chronicled the systematic growth of presidential power since the founding of the republic, a trend that has increased since the book’s publication in 1973. Jeffrey Tulis and his colleagues followed suit in 1981 and 1987 with a discussion of the rise of the rhetorical presidency and its deleterious effects on republican government.[1] Demagoguery and government by mood, in Tulis’s view, mark rhetoric as a degraded form of political communication that undermines the interests of the public and destabilizes the political system. Of course, not all rhetoric is demagogic, but rule by presidential mass persuasion that bypasses the deliberative function of the Congress, by this estimation, erodes the constitution of the republic. While I have criticized the elitism of the rhetorical presidency thesis in general terms,[2] the present degraded state of presidential rhetoric clearly is deleterious to the prospects of representative democracy and the future of the republic.

(more…)

No Pity for the Kitty (Part 2 of 3)

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“Honored to escort Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Capitol for meetings with members of the Senate. We hope and trust that the Senate will give a strong vote confirming Judge Kavanaugh as the newest justice to the Supreme Court.” — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence via Twitter, 10 July 2018. (Credit: Office of the Vice President)

Don’t. Ever. Pity. The Very Rich.

Save your pity, if you have any to spare, for the poor and helpless.

Upon listening to the accusations of Professor Blasey Ford against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, clown Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee exploded in howls of outrage and crocodile tears. How could anyone question Kavanaugh’s character and soil his good name? How unfair that his family suffered! The clown Democratic members of the Committee were bamboozled with the promise of an FBI investigation of Kavanaugh—a sham process that served only to provide political cover for senators (namely Flake and Collins) who masqueraded as undecided until the day of the final vote. The decision was never in question: Kavanaugh’s passage to the Supreme Court was only delayed, never imperiled by Blasey Ford’s allegations. (more…)

The Tautology of War

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Yuliy Graf in Krokodil, 1953 no. 4, p. 8.

War culture is an insidious presence in the ordinary life of the imperial citizenry. The subtle entrapment in its daily rituals is a treacherous seduction of political will that sacrifices democracy on the altar of militarism.  The profane is endemic to politics as usual, the self-indulgence of a public alienated from its founding ideals.  Mundanity is a spiritual death knell just below the threshold of critical awareness.

The war mentality is a self-sustaining redundancy that renders critical reflection tiresome and seemingly futile.  The apparent inevitability of war induces acceptance and rationalization.  The public refuses to see its imperial reflection in the mirror.  The face of war is too ugly to unmask.  Better to suppress it.  Repression and projection are the psychological alternatives to critical reflection.  (more…)