Sunday Breakfast

Let’s start this week with something relatively uncontroversial – the imminent defeat of IS, and the thoughts thereon of Patrick Cockburn:

The debate about Trump in the Middle East does differ from that in the rest of the world in one important respect: the need for an answer here is more urgent because of the greater likelihood of a crisis, which Trump might provoke or exacerbate.

When he was first elected, the urgency seemed very great but there has been no major new crisis that put him to the test. For all his denunciations of President Obama for his supposedly feeble defence of American interests, US strategy in Iraq and Syria has remained very much the same. The priority has continued to be the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.

The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But victory over Isis brings with it the prospect of a new US set of priorities in the Middle East with a more confrontational approach to Iran topping the list.

Some sort of collision between the US and Iran looks possible or even likely, a battle which will probably be carried out by proxies and will not be fought to a finish. This is because Trump’s approach to the outside world is a blend of American nationalism and isolationism. The former produces belligerent threats and the latter a wish to avoid getting entangled in any new Middle East war.

The best policy for the US in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is to do nothing very new. But this may be difficult for Trump. It is not just him who has wrong-headed ideas about the Middle East. There has recently been a stronger than usual surge of apocalyptic commentary about how Iran is winning victory after victory over the US in the region.

Washington think-tankers, retired generals and journalists warn of Iran opening up “a land corridor” to the Mediterranean, as if the Iranians travel only by chariot and could spread their influence by no other means.

Trump may speak of confronting Iran, but there is no sign that he has a coherent plan to do so. Much of what is happening in the region is beyond his control and US influence is going down, but for reasons that have nothing to do with him. The US has never quite recovered from its failure to achieve its ends in Iraq after the invasion. The return of Russia to the region as a great power has also limited US influence. The US public does not want another war in the Middle East.

Obama accepted these limitations and Trump will probably have to do the same. But his sheer unpredictability already makes the region feel a more dangerous place, even when he is doing nothing.

But that is not an immediately pressing concern.

This next piece is one about which I’m slightly nervous; there isn’t much that’s more annoying than screeds from foreigners saying what’s wrong with one’s country, but this article by Nick Bryant is rather more contemplative than most. And it’s enormous, so excerpting from it is difficult. But here goes:

Flying into Los Angeles, a descent that takes you from the desert, over the mountains, to the outer suburbs dotted with swimming pools shaped like kidneys, always brings on a near narcotic surge of nostalgia.

This was the flight path I followed more than 30 years ago, as I fulfilled a boyhood dream to make my first trip to the United States. America had always fired my imagination, both as a place and as an idea. So as I entered the immigration hall, under the winsome smile of America’s movie star president, it was hardly a case of love at first sight.

It was 1984. Los Angeles was hosting the Olympics. The Soviet boycott meant US athletes dominated the medals table more so than usual. McDonald’s had a scratch-card promotion, planned presumably before Eastern bloc countries decided to keep their distance, offering Big Macs, Cokes and fries if Americans won gold, silver or bronze in selected events. So for weeks I feasted on free fast food, a calorific accompaniment to chants of “USA! USA!”

It is tempting to see Trump’s victory this time last year as an aberration. A historical mishap. The election all came down, after all, to just 77,744 votes in three key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But when you consider the boom-to-bust cycle of the period between 1984 and 2016, the Trump phenomenon doesn’t look so accidental.

In many ways Trump’s unexpected victory marked the culmination of a large number of trends in US politics, society and culture, many of which are rooted in that end-of-century period of American dominion.

Consider how the fall of the Berlin Wall changed Washington, and how it ushered in an era of destructive and negative politics. In the post-war years, bipartisanship was routine, partly because of a shared determination to defeat communism. America’s two-party system, adversarial though it was, benefited from the existence of a shared enemy. To pass laws, President Eisenhower regularly worked with Democratic chieftains such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.

Reforms such as the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which improved science teaching in response to the launch of Sputnik, were framed precisely with defeating communism in mind.

Much of the impetus to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s came from the propaganda gift Jim Crow laws handed to the Soviet Union, especially as Moscow sought to expand its sphere of influence among newly decolonised African nations.

Patriotic bipartisanship frayed and ripped after the end of the Cold War. It was in the 1990s the then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole started to use the filibuster more aggressively as a blocking device. Government shutdowns became politically weaponised.

Coastal separateness can sometimes be exaggerated, but it would be a very different experience than Los Angeles. In the Rust Belt, stretches of riverway are crowded again with coal barges, and local business leaders believe in the Trump Bump because they see it in their order books and balance sheets.

In the Coal Belt, there’s been delight at the rescinding of Obama’s Clean Power Plan. In the Bible Belt, evangelicals behold Trump as a fellow victim of sneering liberal elites. In the Sun Belt, close to the Mexican border, there’s wide support for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

There’s still truth in the adage that America is always going to hell, but it never quite gets there. But how that is being tested. Presently, it feels more like a continent than a country, with shared land occupied by warring tribes. Not a failing state but not a united states.

As I’ve travelled this country, I struggle to identify where Americans will find common political ground. Not in the guns debate. Not in the abortion debate. Not in the healthcare debate. Not even in the singing of the national anthem at American football games. Even a cataclysmic event on the scale of 9/11 failed to unify the country.

If anything it sowed the seeds of further division, especially over immigration. Some Americans agree with Donald Trump that arrivals from mainly Muslim countries need to be blocked. Others see that as an American anathema.

When I made my first journey to the US all those years ago I witnessed a coming together. Those Olympic celebrations were in some ways an orgy of nationalism, but there was also a commonality of spirit and purpose. From Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue performed on 84 grand pianos to a polyglot team of athletes bedecked with medals.

From the pilot who flew around the LA Coliseum in a jet pack to the customers who left McDonald’s with free Big Macs. There was reason for rejoicing. The present was golden. America felt like America again.

Bryant isn’t offering solutions or prescriptions. Indeed, he isn’t even sure of his diagnosis, but he is sure that something is wrong. In the Scotsman, Joyce McMillan is vaguely optimistic that it can be put right:

What is finally more important, though, is to understand what Trump represents, with this non-stop chatter and bluster of rebellion against the times we live in, gratefully received by millions of his supporters.

For it is, without a doubt, the dinosaur roar of a dying world, a place where respect for nature was unnecessary because its abundance could be taken for granted, and where the idea of real equality among human beings was at worst non-existent, and at best a series of “nice” words on paper, not to be taken seriously. Of course women are equal and black people are equal and all faiths are equal, say men like Trump; but let those groups stand up and start demanding equal treatment – not to be demeaned and humiliated by way of a “joke”, not to be shot in the street, not to be framed as a hated enemy simply for being Muslim – and then, somehow, we find that for Trump and his ilk “political correctness has gone too far”.

In saying that politicians like Trump represent a dying world, of course, it’s important not to dismiss their power. The world for which they speak is beloved by many of the most powerful on our planet; as a result, its values are pumped out day and night through every kind of popular media. And we should be in no doubt that in dying, this old pattern of thought and denial could take us all down with it, dooming the planet to a horrific future of environmental degradation and war.

Yet it seems clear, nonetheless, that the values embraced by Trump are dying, in a noisy spasm of rage and denial; and that the counter-ideals of freedom, equality and loving solidarity among citizens, enshrined in documents like the United States Declaration of Independence, form a much more powerful and productive basis for a viable future.

For now, in other words, Trump can crouch across our political agenda like some kind of presiding demon, mocking attempts at equality, denying the facts on climate change, whipping up hatred for political gain, and even – absurdly – apologising for white supremacists and their conduct. His views, though, are based on a series of desperate and embarrassing lies, told to himself, to the American people, and to the world; and just as nothing comes from nothing, so nothing lasting can be built on the politics of Donald Trump – except perhaps, through a powerful process of resistance and rebuttal, the rough outlines of the movement that will lead to his eventual defeat.

Paul Ovenden thinks that it’s nowhere near as easy as that:

Heady, heady times. How could they not be? Here in the UK, the EU’s refusal to move to the second stage of Brexit negotiations, the shifting of Labour’s position and the intransigence of some on the Tory backbenches has excited those who think Brexit can be avoided altogether.

In the US, the stunning indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, and the possibly more significant arrest of George Papadopoulos, has left the President looking increasingly vulnerable. Across the western world, those implacably opposed to Donald Trump’s presidency wait with glee for the news of the knock at his door. Breathless Twitter super-threads turbocharge the excitement. The chattering classes’ bogeymen are in retreat.

But the bigger question is: does any of this matter? Because glaringly absent from any of this discussion is The Other Side. The huddled masses. The 63 million people who voted for Trump, the 52 per cent of voters who demanded we leave the EU. Have they been consulted on any of this?

Think of those you know who are most buoyed in their cheerleading for the overturn of the Brexit result or the removal of Trump from office and I bet they have no plan beyond these goals: they are an end in and of themselves. Cut out the poison, their logic goes, and the patient will heal. They are wrong. Dangerously so.

Brexit, Trump and the wider rise of populism in the west are the symptoms of the disease, not its causes. It is painful that this still needs saying but it clearly does. For her outstanding and under-read work, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild spent five years in Louisiana, tackling the paradox of a state which consistently votes for less environmental protection despite being slowly suffocated – literally – by big-business polluters. What she discovered should feel familiar to readers on this side of the Atlantic as well: proud communities and people, opposed to their government’s helping hand because they perceive it as a challenge to their honour, bewildered by the rapid pace of change in a country they once called theirs.

Recent polling shows that while a large chunk of those who voted Remain in the referendum have hardened their position, there is little evidence of buyer’s remorse amongst Leavers. Put simply, a second referendum held today would not result in a landslide win for the so-called Good Guys. It would merely lead to deeper resentment on both sides.

Likewise, the deposition of Trump would pour petrol over the fire of those who already distrust the American state. It will not, as some hope, lead to “Politics As Normal” and the scrapping of the wall. The furies that produced it will be back: bigger, nastier, angrier.

If we think that by simply manipulating our way out of Brexit, dumping Trump through legal means or narrowly stopping European populists through uneasy coalitions we have won and the enemy has been vanquished, we are deluding ourselves and we will ultimately reap the whirlwind of the political repercussions.

We will be defeated, again. How could we not be?

That is a worthwhile note of caution. But one route is a little less potentially troublesome, which is winning at the ballot box. How well this can work depends on the parties which will be contesting the elections, so here are a couple of pieces about the problems besetting both of them.

First, Winand von Petersdorff-Campen on the Republicans (this is the whole article):

This week Jeff Flake, a prominent Republican Party senator, said he will not stand for re-election. His reasoning makes the retreat so remarkable. Flake no longer believes that with his convictions he still finds the backing of the party base. The Senator is an eloquent advocate of free trade and a liberal immigration policy. A few days earlier, the no less prominent Republican Bob Corker had announced his withdrawal. The Tennessee Senator has strong foreign policy expertise and is a staunch fighter for declining budget deficits and efficient governance.

With the departures, the Republican Party loses two important votes on issues that formed its ideological core in the days before Donald Trump . This consisted of openness, which expressed itself in the generous admission of immigrants and in small import restrictions. The openness was based on the self-confidence, in any case the strongest and thus unimpeachable economic and political system in the world to represent. It saw itself as the last refuge of citizens enslaved by communism and other dictatorships and critical supporters of multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, which had been constructed largely to US standards. After all, the Republicans were seen as the guarantor of a shrinking role for the state and an environment in which businesses flourish.

What remains of this old political core of the Republican Party is astonishingly unclear. Of course, there are a fair number of republican banner makers of open, free markets in Congress. But the party base seems to slip away, not a few Republican members of Congress are threatened by intra-party candidates who, inspired by Trump’s sensational electoral success, propagate economic nationalism and impermeable borders. The base is good. The actually arch-conservative free trader Flake had recently in surveys in his home state of Arizona catastrophic approval ratings because he is regarded as too liberal and disloyal to Trump. That made the senator resign.

What drove the Republican Party’s infidels to turn away from ancient figures and ideas is complex. Republican supporters were never a monolithic bloc. Protectionists and immigration opponents always had some weight in the party. Not for nothing, for example, the former Nixon and Reagan advisor Pat Buchanan achieved in 1992 surprising pre-election success with a similar screenplay as now Trump. So it was no wonder that Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan were generous with punitive tariffs and import restrictions soon after taking office at the White House. They wanted to appease the protectionists. But that was considered a politically necessary evil that was taken to enforce market economy reforms.

Meanwhile, the United States and the Republican Party continue to have three shocks that have severely shaken the optimistic self-confidence that characterized the Reagan years in particular. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, China’s massive presence on world markets and in America as a threat to import competition for domestic industry and the financial crisis, with its devastating consequences for many Americans, have tarnished their faith in their old elites. The income developments confirm the discontent. Since the 1980s, the lower 60 percent of Americans have not experienced any significant increase in real wages, while the chances of social advancement are shrinking. Asked if their children will fare better than themselves, significantly more Republicans than Democrats say they do not expect that. The American dream dies in the Republican Party.

Trump is a symptom of development – and speeds it up

Trump has not hijacked the Republican Party with its narrative of a country that is slipping to ruin. Rather, it is the symptom and catalyst of a development that has been emerging for some time. However, in the bleak, narrow view of world affairs and disgust with old elites and institutions, he meets his constituents. You will follow him, his recipes are so crude.

America’s partners need to adapt to a country that is much more protectionist, seals its borders, and no longer supports multilateral concerns in the usual way. There is little evidence that the United States, thanks to Trump’s policies, will become a better, happier patch of earth. The hope that sensible women and men in the Republican Party will stop this development is melting as fast as ice in the Arctic.

Johannes Kuhn looks at the Democrats:

Donald Trump has united the Democrats in dislike, sure. But what they offer is difficult to recognize. While the progressives in Congress are dutifully following their opposition role, they are more uncompromising than previous US Republican presidents.

But they don’t have alternative concepts or an antagonist with charisma to offer. “The people do not know what you stand for,” the leftist historian Michael Kazin recently accused the party grandees.

A core problem of this debate is that both camps have long since assigned each other unchangeable roles. The Left believes that the establishment is too business-oriented and above all interested in power issues – and therefore lacked the strength and courage to tackle the necessary systemic reforms.

From the center, it means that the party is not loyal enough, disinterested in serious work and compromises within the institutions. Instead, they try to impose utopian ideas such as a free university study for all, which would be perceived in the general population as unworldly socialism (“free ponies,” said Hillary Clinton in her latest book).

A core problem of this debate is that both camps have long since assigned each other unchangeable roles. The Left believes that the establishment is too business-oriented and above all interested in power issues – and therefore lacked the strength and courage to tackle the necessary systemic reforms.

From the center, it means that the party is not loyal enough, disinterested in serious work and compromises within the institutions. Instead, they try to impose utopian ideas such as a free university study for all, which would be perceived in the general population as unworldly socialism (“free ponies,” said Hillary Clinton in her latest book).

Strategically, in these role assignments, there’s the tricky question of who the Democrats should in the future court beyond their base: the lost voters in the “white America” ​​of the so-called “rust belt” and the undecided of the center, which includes conservatives alienated from Trumpism? Or is the party focusing on those who have been less interested in politics or have turned away from it in disappointment because they no longer expect major changes?

Nevertheless, everything is not drifting apart: a recent Pew investigation shows that Democrats reject racism more and welcome immigration more than in the time before Trump. In local politics, but also for the 2018 upcoming House elections have significantly more candidates than otherwise reported.

Barack Obama is largely responsible for the predicament of the Democrats: As US President, he had focused on his own brand and largely ignored the party, as long as he was not dependent on their infrastructure in the election campaign. The nostalgia with which his former followers now think of him, blinds Obama’s lack of interest in his own party.

At the 2018 congressional election, the Democrats will still be able to hide their dispute, as voters traditionally seek to signal loyalty to or rejection of the president. That does not apply to the presidential election in 2020, however. Who leads the party into the race, will determine the line.

What’s profoundly depressing is how much of the argument is still being prosecuted by people who should have retired to being elder statespeople quite some time ago. At least in terms of having prominent movers and shakers who are only middle-aged rather than candidates for the rest home, the Republican Party seems much better off right now, even if most of them are complete nutjobs.

It’s not that the likes of Kamala Harris or Joe Kennedy III aren’t making any waves, but that they are not taken seriously enough by the punditocracy, who would still rather listen to the old people. Which means that the only way of stopping them obsessing over Clinton, Biden, Sanders, Warren and the rest is for said luminaries to butt out. Unfortunately, they seem to have little inclination to do so.

 

  2 comments for “Sunday Breakfast

  1. WYgalinCali
    November 5, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Good morning, Michael , and thank you for posting today’s diary, and allowing us to share it atvthe 🍊. So much information but what I liked the best is this statement.

    Yet it seems clear, nonetheless, that the values embraced by Trump are dying, in a noisy spasm of rage and denial; and that the counter-ideals of freedom, equality and loving solidarity among citizens, enshrined in documents like the United States Declaration of Independence, form a much more powerful and productive basis for a viable future.

    If we can continue to hold on, the Constitution of the United States will continue to protect us. We shall resist, enlist and persist.

  2. bfitzinAR
    November 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks Michael – that breakfast looks good. Too much for one meal, but good. I appreciate you doing the multiple Villages – wider reach and what you are sharing is good for Americans to know. Thanks again.

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