Regardless of Donald Trump’s intentions, his comments, despite being made in an informal setting are an apt reflection of the state of American democracy. When the leader of a powerful authoritarian regime moved his country further away from democracy while consolidating his power, the American president used that not as an opportunity contrast our political system with China’s but to indicate his preference for authoritarianism. This should make it clear just how imperiled our democracy is.
Trump’s descents to into the most blatant forms of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are now frequent enough that the responses are predictable. His apologists assert that he was misquoted or that he is simply saying what many Americans believe. The former approach is essentially dishonest, but the latter explanation is significant. There is a fair amount of truth to the belief that many Americans disparage countries whose populations are largely non-white, but that does not make Trump’s remarks less offensive. Instead it is evidence that racism is not some rare condition that Trump happens to have, but rather a widespread set of opinions that remains a cancer on American politics and society.
There were, however, an awful lot of other people who were either involved in this untoward relationship between a presidential campaign and a less than friendly foreign power or who, at the very least, were aware of it and chose to say, and do, nothing. This probably includes people who were deeply involved with the campaign like Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions who now hold positions at the highest level of government, as well as many others who are less well known. In addition, people were around the campaign and had access to this knowledge in summer of 2016, like most of the congressional leadership, numerous Republican campaign and policy people and many others. Not all of these people were silent about their knowledge of these activities, but the overwhelming majority were. Many Democrats sought to draw attention to it, but in the heat of the campaign, or its immediate aftermath, only Republicans could have raised a sufficient hue and cry about it. Almost to a person they chose not to. That is a damning indictment of a political party.
If the Republican Party, in a collective act of cowardice on an historic scale, comes to the support of the not yet embattled President, rather than to our already imperiled democracy, the nature of our politics will continue to change. By doing this the Republican Party will make themselves even more complicit in both the Russia scandal and the erosion of American democracy. The first step in this complicity will be even greater efforts to delegitimize or fire Robert Mueller, something for which that the Wall Street Journal, among others have already begun to advocate. The next steps for this Republican Party will be further efforts either to stop the investigation and to keep mobilizing those Americans who believe that this is all fake news cooked up by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and Vladimir Putin.
Honest discussions about our military, as distinct from our foreign policy, are difficult because they are so emotionally laden, but when those conversations do not occur, or are deliberately repressed by the government as Ms. Sanders has sought to do, our country is weakened. Democracy requires not just civilian control of the military, something already under stress during the Trump presidency, but a civilian culture that is never intimidated or silenced by military brass. Accordingly, frank discussions about who serves in our military and why, or what the purpose of all of these wars, conflicts and military bases make our country, and our democracy, stronger.
The Secretary’s statements about the condition of our country are why many opponents of Trump were heartened by the video, but if they paid close attention a minute or so earlier in the video, they would have heard Mattis say, “We’re gonna keep right on fighting until they are sick of us, (and) leave us alone.” That sentence is a good encapsulation of what is wrong with US policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly Iraq. Continuing to fight until they, presumably our enemies, are sick of us, is an absurd idea. It overlooks the central reality that the terrorists never get sick of us, and in fact rely upon the American military presence to recruit more people to their cause. Mattis’s formulation, in other words, is a recognition that there is no end in sight in Afghanistan and that our efforts there amount to permanent war for permanent peace.
There are many foundations underpinning the hawkish elements of mainstream American foreign policy, importantly an approach that Donald Trump appears to embracing with increased fervor with every passing day. One of these is the belief that the US has a unique role in the world. At its best, this view emboldens the US to provide assistance to people and need and even occasionally intervene in foreign conflicts to save lives. However, there is another side of this approach as well, one that we see in the rhetorical dance too many in the foreign policy establishment make. That is the view that is so deeply held that it is rarely noticed, let alone questioned-that the rules don’t apply to us. For example, it is much easier to feel righteous in our criticisms of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, if we make sure that our collective memory does not include our own use of those horrific and murderous weapons.
The Trump administration’s decision to launch a missile attack against Syria was, for the moment, a triumph of the President’s desire to appear tougher than his famously cautious predecessor over Trump’s wish to have the US less involved in the rest of the world and more sympathetic to Moscow. Since the early days of his campaign Trump’s foreign policy positions have reflected these two different, and seemingly contradictory ideas. The President’s belief that the US should focus on domestic concerns and no longer seek to be so deeply involved in politics, conflicts, crisis response and state building in virtually every corner of the world has long been in tension with his view that that the US should be stronger, less afraid to use force and should “win” more, whatever that means.
The WBC, unlike the World Cup or the Olympics is not run by an international governing body, but by Major League Baseball (MLB) a for profit American corporation that is immensely popular among American Jews. MLB uses what they call a “heritage rule” to allow players who are eligible for citizenship in any country to play for that team. The primary reason for this is to dilute American talent so that the tournament proves more competitive. Accordingly, some Italian Americans can play for Italy, some German Americans for Germany and the like. Israel is a big beneficiary, because all Jews anywhere are eligible to become citizens of Israel. MLB, for its part, has encouraged American Jews to play for Israel, because, unlike many international organizations, it recognizes the organic connection between all Jews and the state of Israel.
When Netanyahu consistently aligns himself with the Republican congress, and gratuitously attacked President Obama — a man who despite right-wing talking points remains extremely popular with American Jews — and most egregiously embraces a new President whose campaign associated itself with anti-Semites, he sends a clear message that he cares little about the majority of American Jews.
Some of the most important issues in the Trump Russia mess are in danger of being lost in waters now muddied by unproven stories about prostitutes, less than plausible assertions that Trump is some kind of semi-sleeper agent and what amounts to little more than kvetching by the DNI about RT. The first of these is that Trump benefited from a Russian effort to swing the election, not by having their state run media support him, but through Russia breaking into the DNC emails and leaking damaging information about Hilary Clinton. The second is that there is reason to believe, not least because of Donald Trump’s steady refusal to dispel concern by releasing his tax records, that the Trump Organization has a financial relationship with Russia that will lead to conflicts of interest once he becomes president. Moreover, these potential conflicts of interest may drive US policy towards Russia. These are the two issues that raise deep concerns for the country and that any congress, regardless of party, that understood its role in our system of checks and balances as central to our democracy, would have begun investigating already.
Putin did not create Trump; nor did he create a situation in the US where a candidate like Trump could get so much traction. Rather, in an election that was won on the margins, Russia was deeply and undeniably active in those margins; and that was enough to influence the outcome. That much should be clear to anybody who has spent time around campaigns, appreciates how close this race was or simply can do long division, or frankly, addition and subtraction.
The incoherence of Trump’s ideas, and his struggles to present them in a reasonably clear and informed way, also preclude what should be a meaningful discussion between the candidates. It would be valuable for the American people to hear the central arguments of the foreign policy establishment, of which there is no better representative than the Democratic nominee, challenged. However, between Trump’s inability or refusal to do anything more than speak in seemingly random superlatives, insults and promises about foreign policy, and Matt Lauer’s obsession with a political scandal about which every American has already made up their mind, we missed this opportunity yet again.
The problem with Clinton’s approach is that it overlooks the reality that many voters, particularly those on the left wing of the Democratic Party, but also some Republicans and others as well, are not happy with the conduct of American foreign policy in recent years, or indeed decades. Bernie Sanders was unable to fully exploit this the primary because he was woefully unprepared to discuss most issues of foreign policy. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign should be aware that many Democrats support her in spite of, not because of, her record as Secretary of State.
litical instability is lurking on the sidelines of American political life as well. The frequency of extra-judicial killings of African Americans by police from Staten Island to Baron Rouge, the killing of five police officers in Dallas and, perhaps the willingness of Donald Trump to dance up to, and occasionally cross, the line of encouraging insatiably are all evidence of this. The widening wealth gap, a sense among many that socio-economic mobility is limited, and more general racial and ethnic tensions also raise questions about continuing political stability in the US.
Anybody watching American politics closely, or even not so closely, can see some parallels between the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s campaign. Both rely on populist sentiments to appeal to white voters, many of whom are in bad economic shape. Both are a reaction to an increasingly diverse country and interdependent world, and both implicitly yearn for a whiter, more Christian time. Similarities between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump, are also hard to miss, but easy to overstate. Significantly, Mr. Johnson, unlike the GOP nominee, has years of experience in government, has not demonstrated a principled ignorance on policy questions and is a public intellectual who has written numerous books and articles.
While people in Eastern Europe can’t vote in this election, Polish Americans, Latvian Americans, Ukrainian Americans and other Americans with roots in countries that feel threatened by an aggressive Russia do. Many of these voters are part of the very demographic groups upon whom Mr. Trump will rely on for his path to victory against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump needs a record proportion of white votes to win this election; and he particularly needs them in states of the upper Midwest, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have long had large numbers of voters with roots in Eastern Europe.
Whether or not the US should accept a significant number of Syrian refugees is a question of core American values. It is a choice between giving in to our basest fears and having faith in our national project. Refusing to accept any Syrian refugees is to allow American policy to be shaped by fear, and even midwifed by bigotry and intolerance. It places the illusion of safety over the belief that the American dream is truly universal. It is also, despite the macho bluster associated with it, a position based fundamentally on weakness and a lack of faith in the US, which ignores the reality that America has been at its best when we welcome those who face persecution and can no longer return to their war-torn countries.
When the current conflict between Israel and Hamas began, it looked much like a resumption of the conflict that has led to similarly tragic consequences in recent years. Israel was poised to set back Hamas's war-making ability by a few years, leading the Israeli government to gain support domestically. As in recent similar conflicts, it was expected that too many civilians would be killed in Gaza, thus strengthening the anti-Israel narrative within Gaza, and globally, bolstering Hamas's wavering popularity. After roughly a month of this war, it is clear that these things have occurred, but other the war has also led to changes in the broader conflict that may not be immediately apparent but that are significant for both sides, as well as for those who would like to see this conflict end.
The war in Gaza is characterized by two sides that, for reasons of domestic and external politics, define victory very differently. Israel employs a reasonably conventional military notion of victory, measuring their success in by their ability to keep their own people safe and destroy Hamas's ability to make war on them. Hamas, for its, part defines victory largely by driving up hatred for Israel both inside and outside of Gaza. These two visions are not only different, but exist on largely different planes, making it possible for both sides to simultaneously view themselves as winning this conflict based on their own criteria.